“I would like to be able to love my country, fully loving justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” — Albert Camus.
The most chilling allegation disclosed in the Vincent Nelson Revelations is: “[…] I recall that (Anand) Ramlogan made a sort of apology for asking for a kickback, by saying words to the effect that his salary as Attorney General was very small compared to what he was previously earning as a (sic) self-employed attorney and that he needed to supplement the salary to survive financially…”
Trinidad is arguably not more corrupt than it has been in the past, but the country’s Attorney-General’s alleged participation would be a new low, if valid. What are the potential implications of such alleged behaviour? Our fight against crime will not succeed if there is studied nonchalance in matching our rhetoric with our actions.
The amount of money spent on legal fees since 2010 has been a news item, with both parties accusing the other of misspending. In one estimate, TT$1bn was paid out in five years. To the newspaper reader, it is evident that there is more in the mortar than the proverbial pestle.
In the Colman Commission on the CL Financial disaster, the Chair gave the public his opinion about some of the selected lawyers’ competence. He said: “… of the three local attorneys, two proved to be so incompetent, inexperienced or lacking in any sense of professional responsibility that they became unavailable or only partially available.”
Those two lawyers received close to TT$10m for their work. One of these lawyers disputed the characterisation, citing his heavy workload, which included the Hindu Credit Union Commission.
However, Vincent Nelson named the other of them in his statements about the kickback conspiracy. Afra Raymond was also shocked at the sum allegedly paid for an eight-page legal advice in the Invaders Bay fight. He quoted that amount as TT$418,000.
In that case, Raymond noted that the Senior Counsel had to spend time correcting errors.
Mr Nelson, in his detailed account of his interactions, identified instances where dates and representations were incorrectly cited. Mr David West also pointed out this failing in an unrelated statement about witness tampering.
This kind of behaviour leaves our citizens in a confused but angry state. Every time this type of situation happens with no consequences, citizens believe that such conduct by the privileged is acceptable, and the bar for the expectations of public officers gets lowered.
This descent is how corruption gets normalised. The behaviour is no longer unethical but becomes expected. The rule of law is hindered, and the government becomes delegitimised.
When that legitimacy is lost, the integrity of the private sector and the country’s development are undermined. Inequality worsens, and we will witness the insidious growth of money laundering, gun rackets, the drug trade, and human trafficking.
There is a link between this behaviour among our elites and the rampant soulless killings that headline our dailies. This depravity induces our qualified young people to seek another place to live. We all become poorer.
This scenario is the price of the misbehaviour of public officials. The corrosion is quickened when our court officers and politicians are allegedly involved. The lust for money and power is a dangerous combination capable of smashing our way of life into unrecognisable bits.
The timing of the alleged actions has horrendously robbed our citizens of better lives. The bounty has benefitted a few, but the poor cannot get food, schools, or health care. Roads and public transportation are a mess.
But let us address the claim that our attorneys-general, or ministers, are underpaid. How should we reward public servants at the top of the ladder? They know what their peers are paid and can compare their well-being with those.
How do we factor in the prestige inherent in the job? What about the benefits afforded them?
We can bear in mind the infamous, much-argued about vehicle allowances. Most reasonable citizens would accept that the compensation should attract competent candidates and incentivise them against the influence of corruption.
We, therefore, need to identify whether this rationale, as reported by Vincent Nelson, is well-founded.
But the country must resist the temptation to believe that we only have a few bad guys. We do not. We have a systemic problem where cash is loaded into our political parties out of the sight of the man in the street.
We may remember the court battle between Jack Warner and Krishna Lalla over what was described as a ‘loan’ to finance an electoral campaign.
Every time such loans to fund political parties are accepted, a debt payable by the man in the street is created. The lenders are exceptionally adept at collecting their debt in ways that disadvantage the man in the street.
The prices of the jobs awarded are inflated, and the decision process is slanted to the entitled few. Friends gain access that not even the constituents can. Groups with special interests will always look for politicians with weak morals.
Our political parties are selling our nation to pay for their campaigns. The ‘undeclared’ money is the root of our evils.
Justice Frank Seepersad, in the Warner v Lalla case, remarked: “Money advanced to fund elections has for far too long played a central and dominant role in this Republic’s politics. In the absence of regulations, financiers can legitimately purchase goodwill and exercise undue influence over politicians and political parties.
“The absence of campaign finance regulations has led to a culture of kickbacks and corruption… the dire need for a proper regulatory framework has to be prioritised, and election campaign finance reform should be effected…”
When will we do so? We must stop selling our nation’s soul.