Winford James

Dr Winford James

Let me start this column with the observation that PM Rowley has every right to use his own deliberate timing in the termination of both Minister Marlene McDonald and nearly-Minister Garvin Simonette. He took some four years to finally fire Marlene from his Cabinet and hours to stop the swearing in of Simonette.

In Marlene’s case, he appointed her three times and fired her three times. The first firing came about a year after he made her the Minister of Housing in his Cabinet and was in connection with the accusation that she facilitated acquisition of an HDC house for her live-in partner.

The second was in relation to the questionable attendance at her second swearing-in by a man who, as they say, was known to the police and popularly known as Burkie, in circumstances where his name did not appear on the guest list. And the third has just occurred, some five days after she was detained / arrested by the police—take your pick —on advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions. It must certainly be her last… In Simonette’s case, Dr Rowley advised the President to appoint him Minister of Public Administration (in replacement of Marlene) but before Simonette could reach the President’s office, Dr Rowley cancelled the advice until further notice. New information had come in that in 2014 Simonette had been found guilty of driving under the influence in the United States. He swiftly resigned from his position as Senator.

I think that Dr Rowley should have fired Marlene as soon as he learnt that the DPP had advised the police to arrest her. But he would say he was awaiting the outcome of investigations by the police before taking action and Minister Hinds tells us he wasn’t aware of those investigations until the arrest. But, still not understanding his excessive caution, I think he erred in not giving sufficient credence to the DPP’s advice.

A significant part of the DPP’s function is to assess the quality of police evidence which, in this case, he found to be good. In arresting Marlene, the police were routinely going forward with processing the prisoner through interviews and the like. So that all Dr Rowley’s waiting brought him is a specification of (more carefully formulated) charges related to, among others, money laundering, conspiracy to defraud the state, and misbehaviour in public office.

Since he was most likely going to undertake his third (and final) firing of her, he must have grown tired and cynical and thought, ‘Why not wait a few more days? The police don’t seem to require much more time to finish up. So what difference will waiting a while longer make?’

But prime ministers do not have the luxury of tiredness and cynicism in the administration of the people’s business. Corruption is an extremely sensitive matter and a prime minister that is spearheading the fight against it must know that he is walking a tightrope. His leadership is always in the spotlight. Decisive action, of which speed is a critical component, is an asset. Hesitation and incomprehensible delay could be damaging, if not fatal.

I also think that Simonette should have informed him about the DUI misdemeanour even as I allow that Dr Rowley’s agents should have found out about it before the decision to install and informed him accordingly. Simonette’s sin was a misdemeanour that didn’t result in anything tragic, as far as we know, and occurred five years ago. Across the globe, presidents, prime ministers, judges commit DUI misdemeanours (and even worse) and stay in office, sometimes even getting re-elected and re-appointed. What was so special in Simonette’s case?

Perhaps Simonette did inform Dr Rowley but the latter thought the matter to not be significant enough to urge rejection of him, especially as Dr Lester Henry was still sitting as a Senator after a similar misdemeanour? Perhaps the McDonald debacle drove the PM into a panic, spurring him into retreat from that position? (Groan! Not another error of judgment!) Perhaps Simonette didn’t inform him and the post-discovery embarrassed him into swift recovery?

To his credit, Simonette resigned forthwith when the story broke. But to her discredit, McDonald didn’t, forcing Dr Rowley to fire her as both Minister and Deputy Political Leader.

As a society, we have to settle the ethical question of whether a member of the executive, if not the legislature, should be prevented by a misdemeanour from serving, and “misdemeanour’’ must itself be exampled.

In the meantime, the PNM has the unhappy task of regrouping and resetting.

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