Noble: The best gov’t money can buy—how “tenderpreneurs” hijack the national interest

Mark Twain is credited with the saying: “We have the best government that money can buy.” 

Locally, we have not been shy about accepting money from unaccountable sources. Our non-existent rules about political campaign rules enable greedy political investors to corrupt our nation and destroy trust. 

Photo: The scourge of corruption…

As Chinua Achebe observed about his homeland, the failure of leadership has made corruption—which can only be controlled with appropriate jail sentences and penalties to punish those who steal funds from the state—easy and profitable. 

In 2019, Ms Lorraine Rostant, then president of the Advertising Agencies Association of Trinidad and Tobago, estimated that we spent TT$157 million in media advertising for the 2015 elections. She projected that the total sum, including social media and other campaign costs, was twice that amount. 

While the USA spends about US$18 per person on its elections, we spend US$29.50. Wealthy donors and their cronies see elections as investment opportunities. The public purse is their feeding trough. 

Our history of accepting political contributions from tenderpreneurs stretches beyond the days of Johnny O’Halloran and Francis “Boysie” Prevatt. In the 1950 – 56 era, we were the “Sodom and Gomorrah of the Caribbean”—the veritable land of ‘bobol’. Yet, the tales of the DC 9 purchase and the Tesoro entry of the 80s are fabled. O’Halloran proposed removing horse racing from the Queen’s Park Savannah to Caroni; the ground was broken. 

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister the late Dr Eric Williams (left) hosts late Beatles pop star John Lennon.
(Copyright Noel P Norton)

In 1990, our country won a case against the estate of O’Halloran (TT$432 million) through the services of Robert Lindquist, the forensic auditor. (The saga details are accessible through the UWI library as “The O’Halloran papers”.)

Sadly, Lindquist returned in 2000, describing the Piarco Airport case as “…the result of an original conspiracy to corrupt the contract selection process for the unjust enrichment of the ‘players’ and of defrauding the various state agencies of considerable sums.” 

The Newsday editorialised: “The shocking nature of this revelation is not easy to digest. It establishes a new and incredible dimension to corruption in the government, a deliberate, planned, well-calculated and cold-blooded design to use this mega-project as a device for systematically syphoning off millions of dollars into personal pockets.”

We got cleverer at stealing!

Photo: Former UNC Minister of Health and Barataria MP Dr Fuad Khan (right) shares a tender moment with businessman Ish Galbaransingh who is wanted for corruption in the United States and faces charges in the local High Court.

Basdeo Panday, who was the inquisitor of Dr Eric Williams in 1981 over the DC 9 scandal, became the one turning the blind eye in his turn as prime minister. The jamming never stopped and will not stop! 

By 2016, Dr Terrence Farrell noted: “Citizens have seen millions of taxpayers’ dollars channelled through several state enterprises into projects of little or no merit or, where the project was inherently meritorious, a significant portion of the expenditure diverted in the form of cost overruns and otherwise wasted.” 

It costs money to recover stolen funds. The EMDB spent TT$61 million in legal and related fees in seven years. 

In a 26 April 2022 ruling, Justice Ricky Rahim found a “lurking suspicion of agreement” to rob the citizens of almost $873 million! The evidence showed an “unlawful means conspiracy” to inflate the contracts. 

Justice Rahim waded through 450,000 pages of evidence! We shrugged and moved on: endemic corruption had rendered us helpless.

Image: A satirical take on corruption.

How do we protect citizens if we fail to define these dangerous acts of the wealthy as criminal? 

Our newspapers are filled with the harsh penalties paid by the poor for crimes committed, while persons with access to high-quality legal representation string us along. We cannot speak about justice if someone’s trial depends on the money that person has. 

Is Mr Foster Cummings’ Venture Credit Union affair different from that of Messrs Franklin Khan and Eric Williams’? Should the FIU be equated to Dhansam Dhamsook?

Is Mr Cummings undergoing the same trials as these former ministers where some unidentified lawyer is orchestrating character assassination?

Mr Dhamsook confessed that he had made attempts to correct the “mess”, claiming that because of scare tactics and lies employed by a particular individual, he was manipulated and led down a path of no return—“one lie after another lie”. 

Photo: Minister of Youth Development and National Service Foster Cummings (centre).
(Copyright Ministry of Youth Development and National Service)

If so, why? Do we get Lindquist to uncover the “mess” by tracing the money? “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when at first we start to deceive.”

We have the irony of a former minister, himself accused of mismanaging public funds, attempting to school Mr Cummings. Do we not have any shame? 

Or is it that both parties have a pact? Or do we put up with this behaviour because ‘is we party’?

CLR James, in Black Jacobins, had this to say: “The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (left) and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar SC.
(Copyright Power102fm)

This issue is more significant than any party: it is the logic that some belong to a different class from the rest of us. It is not about an ethnic group but a predatory class of individuals. At stake is the control of the nation and its funds. 

Colonialism has not disappeared—it has put on different clothes. That secretive and influential group steals from us and imposes its agenda. The needs of the public are minimised. 

The desires of the rich take precedence on the national agenda. The constituency offices are bare waiting rooms uninhabited by any semblance of care. 

Some politicians do not run for office to legislate better laws and to care for us. They will corrupt our institutions until that rot sparks anger. The majority is left poor and abandoned, while the privileged group lives in style.

Why would anyone desiring to be rich enter politics? What does the Bible say about the ‘love of money ’? Mr Watson Duke spoke the quiet part aloud.

Photo: Former PSA head and THA deputy chief secretary Watson Duke has set his sights high.

Our financial scandals arise from arrogant behaviour by the people we put into office. We supply the votes, and the rich supply the cash. But we remain voiceless and often manipulated to believe that particular politicians best serve our interests.

Those politicians then line their pockets, facilitated by the nameless investors. In return, the tenderpreneurs get their grubby hands on the public purse and send our money to foreign lands. They steal because they could. It is that simple.

We are left without schools and hospitals, and neighbourhoods become more crime-ridden. Chaos rules. Life is exhausting.

To further their agenda, the politicians push us to greater polarisation, extremism and short-term gain. They destroy our political systems, leading to poor public service, which triggers more anger. 

Image: A satirical take on the one percent.

This pattern leads to the rise of a large group of actively and poisonously alienated people—who are explosively distrustful. It will take very little for them to mash up the place. 

As a nation, we engage in partisan battles, resulting in blindness about our current and future economic realities and, therefore, our eventual destruction. As former Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham once said: “Poor people got matches!” 

Will we break the ‘love of money ’ cycle, or do we ‘like it so ‘? Will we trade our children’s future for a $100 bill wrapped up in a jersey? 

When do we tell our leaders ‘enough is enough ’? Or do we have the best government? 

May God have mercy on us.

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