Thursday, March 14, 2019
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas has been “left in a Mickey Mouse state of governance” by the continuing silence over the Renward Wells Letter of Intent (LOI) controversy, the DNA’s ex-leader blasted yesterday.
Branville McCartney told Tribune Business that the failure of the now-Cabinet minister, and both major political parties, to provide a complete explanation for the affair that resulted in his departure as Ministry of Works parliamentary secretary had set “a bad precedent” that continues to haunt The Bahamas.
Speaking after the Supreme Court last week struck out the LOI-related $727.364m claim against Mr Wells and two co-defendants, Mr McCartney agreed that the controversy was now likely to be “swept under the rug” and forgotten as a result of that verdict.
He added that the case brought by Stellar Energy, which had proposed developing a $600-$650m waste-to-energy plant at the New Providence landfill, had likely represented the Bahamian people’s best hope of uncovering the truth surrounding the controversy that erupted in summer 2014.
Mr McCartney said the veil of silence drawn over the matter by both the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and Free National Movement (FNM), together with Mr Wells himself, had made a mockery of “transparency and accountability” in government with the Bahamian people the “biggest losers” as a result.
With the prospects of Stellar appealing the Supreme Court’s ruling thought to be remote, the potential end to its action means further answers to the LOI controversy will not emerge via the legal discovery process.
However, Mr McCartney told Tribune Business: “That does not take away from the fact there was a lack of transparency and openness to the Bahamian people at the time the LOI was signed.
“At the time it was signed the then-PLP government was very quiet on it and said nothing up until the 2017 general election. During that time, the then-Opposition, which is now the government, was very adamant about knowing what happened and why is was signed.
“But, when Mr Wells decided to go over to the FNM when it was still in Opposition, notwithstanding there was a previous cry by them regarding those questions, they then said they were satisfied with the explanation he gave - which has been kept quiet, and unknown, until this day.”
Mr Wells, who is currently minister of transport and local government, became embroiled in controversy in mid-July 2014 when the LOI he signed with Stellar over its waste-to-energy project was leaked to the media.
He was accused of signing it on the Government’s behalf without proper authorisation, and departed his post as Ministry of Works parliamentary secretary some 80-90 days later. Mr Wells and fellow MP, Andre Rollins, ultimately switched sides from the PLP to the FNM but even that failed to produce an explanation for the affair.
Despite describing the LOI sage as a “tempest in a teapot” and “storm in a team cup”, suggesting it was much ado about nothing, Mr Wells has failed to detail the events leading up to the LOI’s signing to this day. Dr Hubert Minnis, then Opposition leader, said at the time the FNM knew what had happened but provided no details or further comment.
“The issue of transparency and accountability is at the foundation of all of this,” Mr McCartney said yesterday. “It is fundamental and still outstanding. It just tells us that talk is cheap and money buys land.
“We as the Bahamian people still don’t know what that’s [the LOI] all about. It’s amazing in this country. In other countries the people would be screaming to get answers, just like we ought to be screaming to get answers to many things, and there ought to be consequences for those in authority that fail to give answers.
“It’s the people’s money, it’s the people’s business. In many instances it’s the people’s land, and I hate to be funny, but it’s the people’s time.”
The former Democratic National Alliance leader added that episodes such as the LOI controversy, where there was no accounting to the Bahamian people for actions in public office, inevitably undermined good governance and trust in government.
“I think it’s going to be a dead issue,” Mr McCartney told Tribune Business, referring to Stellar’s court defeat, “like others that had fundamental consequences for transparency and accountability. This matter will be swept under the rug.
“This particular one is quite unique because both administrations are culpable in not giving information. The governing party, the PLP, and a few months later the FNM as Opposition. The FNM took ownership of it [after Renward Wells joined them] and did exactly what the PLP were doing and felt it was OK.”
Mr McCartney said the LOI saga had “set a precedent” that continues to sour the political climate, with the two major parties constantly trading barbs over the other’s alleged poor governance - as illustrated by Disney’s Heads of Agreement for Lighthouse Point.
“It positions the political dynamic in a way where: ‘You did it,so I can do it too’,” he argued. “Who suffers for it? The Bahamian people, and it certainly doesn’t advance our country as a result. It’s sad, man. It’s a sad situation.
“You know what it does? It keeps us in a Mickey Mouse state of governance. Look at us. We’re not modernising, we’re not progressing in that regard in ensuring good governance and true accountability and transparency. We have not progressed.”
The LOI controversy abruptly resurfaced this week after the Supreme Court dismissed the $727.364m damages claim brought against Mr Wells and two co-defendants, former Cabinet minister Algernon Allen and Frank Forbes.
Stellar Energy launched its ill-fated lawsuit in September/October 2016, claiming damages for loss of opportunity/profits, and seeking declarations that the Government both “honour” the LOI contract and not award a waste-to-energy contract to any other company until it received those funds.
But Carol Misiewicz, the deputy Supreme Court registrar, found that Stellar Energy and its affiliates were “from any angle unable to sustain an action on the basis of the LOI”.
“In any event the LOI, for whatever it was worth, automatically expired one year from the date of its execution, which was on July 3, 2015,” the deputy registrar found. “It was a discussion document, subject to contract and was not binding in law. Approached from any angle, the plaintiffs [Stellar] are unable to sustain an action on the basis of the LOI.”
The best explanation for the LOI affair came from Mr Wells’ former parliamentary colleague, Dr Andre Rollins, who described it as a “manufactured political controversy”. That matched evidence uncovered by Tribune Business, which suggested Mr Wells became a “fall guy”, or “sacrificial lamb”, in a battle between different Christie Cabinet factions over the New Providence landfill.
These factions were backing different private sector offers to take over the landfill, and the LOI is thought to have been leaked by one side in a deliberate effort to scupper Stellar’s chances by embroiling it in a firestorm of political controversy.
This newspaper obtained a May 26, 2014, letter written by Michael Halkitis, then-minister of state for finance, to the Inter-American Development Bank’s (IDB) Bahamas country representative stating that “the Government has issued an initial LOI” to Stellar Energy.
That letter was dated some five to six weeks BEFORE Mr Wells signed the LOI, suggesting key members of the Christie Cabinet knew of its existence in advance and of the Government’s intentions - at least at that point - to sign it. There is nothing, though, to suggest Mr Halkitis did anything wrong.
All involved with the Stellar LOI and subsequent court case, along with both major political parties, are likely to welcome the Supreme Court ruling given their eagerness to put the matter behind them.