Perhaps the most talked about presentation from last week’s Budget debate was that of Southeast Castries MP Guy Joseph, also Minister for Economic Development, Housing, Urban Renewal, Transport and Civil Aviation. Not for the first time he blamed the country’s continuing financial woes on the previous government’s maladministration. At last Wednesday’s debate the MP came armed with documentation to back up his argument. Granted extra time, Joseph cited the minutes of the 148th board meeting of the National Lotteries Authority (NLA) on 16 November 2012 in support of an earlier allegation by the Dennery South MP, Edmund Estephane, that the former youth and sports minister had irregularly used NLA funds.
“All allocations of NLA funds . . . the next step would then be developing a formula that would assist in regularizing the amount in the minister’s account,” Joseph read. “Not my words.” He then added, “I don’t know if he was the signatory of the account but it was his account and that’s what the minutes of the meeting show.”
Again quoting from the minutes: “It is suggested that the disbursement into the minister’s accounts . . . did not reflect the amount requested. This may have been a communication error.”
The House Speaker considered what the MP had said as “ticklish” and requested copies be made immediately available to the House since the issue would have implications. “If it suggests that what I have asked the member for Dennery South to refute, and to be struck off the record, has to get back on the record, it will get back on the record.”
Having proffered 17 signed copies of the document, as well as 17 copies of a letter he said had been written by the former minister requesting that the account be established, Joseph again read, this time from the minutes of an NLA meeting on June 13, 2012. “Now, do I blame the minister? Did he know better? Where is the minister of finance . . .? It is easy to point fingers at people, and say this person is doing this and that person . . . sometimes we come into government ignorant of things pertaining to government. You expect those who are senior to guide you. Where was the minister of finance to direct the minister of sports, and to tell him he cannot have an account in the minister’s name?”
Parliamentary representative for Dennery North, Shawn Edward, and former minister of youth development and sports countered: “The member is imputing improper motives when he suggests there’s an account in the minister’s name. When I attempted to address that matter earlier on, I made it categorically clear that there is no account, and there is no record to substantiate in any bank in Saint Lucia that there is an account in the name of the National Lotteries Authority, or any of the agencies that were under my ministerial watch, called a minister’s account. It was only for ease of reference, that a particular account through which I directed expenditure to expedite projects, was referred to as a minister’s account. The minister is implying that there was an account in my name, as minister, and as I said earlier on, that never existed.”
Prime Minister Allen Chastanet in his turn attempted to clarify the matter: “The question is: did the minster have authority under this act to approve a bank account for himself to approve expenses for these projects in order to expedite the implementation of these projects? I want to say this: I’m not going to get into the semantics as to whether the account was in his name, or whether he had a bank account. That will be resolved. But the fact is that through his own admission, and through the documents that we’ve seen, is that he requested one third of the funds, which is $200,000 a month, be put aside, and he be given the discretionary decision as to how that money was going to be spent.”
Chastanet cited the National Lotteries Act: “The minister may, after consultation with the chairperson, give to the board directions of general character as to the policy to be followed in the performance of its functions in relations to the matters appearing to the minister to concern the public interest. The minster may direct that the principle of equitable, geographical distribution be observed by the authority in the application of its funds to youth and sports projects and programmes. In accordance to the minister’s directions the board shall develop such specific policy guidelines as it may deem necessary, and may circulate and disseminate such policies with the consent of the minister.”
In relation to the authority’s funds, the PM read the law: “The funds are resources of the authority and shall consist of funds arising from the sale of the lease or disposition of property, such sums as may be placed at its disposal by the House of Assembly, funds arising from any sources consequential upon the performance of its functions, funds arising from any source, sums borrowed by the board for the purpose of meeting any of its obligations, and all other sums or property vested in the authority. All funds referred to shall be paid and placed into the credit of one or more bank accounts approved by the minister.”
He offered the legal interpretation: “The minister had the authority under the act to give general policy direction to the board of the National Lotteries Authority. Even as far as approving accounts to be established. This, however, does not imply that the minister has the authority to get involved in the operations of the authority.”
The prime minister took the opportunity to remind members of the chartered director training afforded government ministers earlier this year. He said the fact that the minister had admitted he approved an account in the name of a minister by himself to expedite projects “raises many questions with respect to the separation of duties between the policy maker and the executive.
“Such situations,” he emphasized, “are ripe for abuse of authority, and masked transparency. Ministers are policy makers, not responsible for operations. So when people ask why did we do the chartered director training, it was to make sure that not only do we understand that, but the chairpersons or boards, and boards of directors, and permanent secretaries, and DPSs, all of us, understand what is that line between policy and administration.”
The prime minister said the former sports minister’s actions constituted “a gross departure from what is provided by the National Lotteries Act.”
This week the STAR spoke with Shawn Edward on the matter. He said the UWP was “as usual up to mischief”.
“I am not perturbed,” he added. “I acted within the confines of the National Lotteries Act. A lot of what was said [during last Wednesday’s debate] was false and pure politics. Never before has my character been questioned in this way. I will do whatever I have to do to clear my name.”
Edward said he was looking forward to addressing the issue at next week’s meeting of parliament, when the prime minister is expected to read the budget statement.