'Symonette should resign to avoid a conflict of interest'


Deputy Chief Reporter


A FORMER member of Parliament said any sitting Cabinet minister who wants to enjoy the benefits of receiving state contracts should resign his seat to avoid conflicts of interest.

George Smith was referring to Immigration Minister Brent Symonette, who partly owns Town Centre Mall, which the government intends to rent to house the General Post Office.

The government tabled a resolution in the House of Assembly on Wednesday for the five-year lease.

Mr Smith told The Tribune yesterday this resolution, in his view, was a "misuse of the government's majority at Parliament and an attempt to make something morally acceptable when it is not."

The government intends to rent the 203,000 square foot mall at $12 per ft. Town Centre Mall was once listed for sale at a cost of $16m.

However, there was some discrepancy yesterday among local realtors as to whether this rate was commercially concessionary and generous as the government has said.

One real estate agent said location must be considered. If the comparison is made to the Mall at Marathon, then Town Centre Mall is underpriced, The Tribune was told. But compared with rentals at Baillou Hill Road, nearby Robinson Road and East Street South, the proposed post office location is priced at market value for $10 to $15 per sq ft, the real estate agent said.

On the other hand, the $12 per square foot the government is set to pay would be considered under commercial market value, another real estate agent said. It was noted that warehouse space typically starts at $14 per sq ft and retail spaces even higher. So considering the mall and its vacancies, without knowing the condition, would be a saving compared with other properties. Both agents asked not to be identified.

According to the government's resolution, the building is to be made suitable for the operations of the post office at the expense of the landlord.

Still Mr Smith insisted it does not matter the cost, wrong is wrong.

"It's an obvious case of conflict and the fact that the Constitution of the Bahamas talks about members of Parliament having contractual relationships with the government is designed to discourage them from even doing it," he said.

"In this particular case, it is so obvious that Brent Symonette behaves as if these rules don't apply to him and I have never heard of a case where a sitting Cabinet minister permits the government to enter contractual relationships with them. Now that is one aspect of it.

"The second aspect of it is if the government wants to lease a place temporarily I am sure that if they looked at a place like Norfolk House on Frederick Street they may be able to find places within the city of Nassau.

"The General Post Office should be in the city of Nassau because it deals with P O boxes that has the letter 'N' affixed to them, which means that the letters are intended to have the post office in the city of Nassau.

"So Mr Symonette has to have an exemption in the House of Assembly and only the House of Assembly can permit him to having a contractual relationship with the government," Mr Smith said.

On Wednesday Dr Minnis said at some point in the debate of the resolution Mr Symonette would declare his interests in Town Centre Mall.

As he defended this decision, Dr Minnis did not seem concerned that it could hurt his political footing. This is because he said the process would be transparent.

"I think it's complete transparency and I don't want to get into any details because they are going to debate it, but I think it's complete transparency and if you have done due diligence, searched around, the Bahamian public have been without an adequate post office now in excess of three years the matter must be resolved," Dr Minnis told reporters Wednesday. He spoke moments after the resolution to approve the lease was read into the record of the House.

The government plans to begin debate on it next Wednesday.

Asked by this newspaper if the government did not have another option, Dr Minnis said: "I don't want to get into details because what's going to happen is more details will come out during the debate, but what you will find out is that at a particular point in time even the PLP had selected the facility and they had also already drawn the plans.

"I believe in transparency," he added. "I believe in doing what is right and what I feel is right. I believe in improving the quality of life for the Bahamian people. How much longer do you want them to have no access to a post office? How much longer do you want them to work in inadequate facilities and inadequate conditions?"

When asked about concerns of losing political capital, he said: "It's going to the Bahamian public. The Bahamian public will see the facts.

"Let me ask you a simple question. If Bill Gates was a Bahamian Microsoft with the best possible computers for your country in terms of e-Bahamas and internet systems, and Bill Gates was also a member of Parliament, would you deny the country the use of Microsoft because he's a member of Parliament when he declares, and you know (he is) the best in taking you to first world status?"

But the Progressive Liberal Party has branded the move as a "shameful, naked conflict of interest that no parliamentary or constitutional device or sleight of hand will disguise." PLP Chairman Fred Mitchell rejected the decision, adding the opposition party would not support the move.