Former T&T Guardian photographer Lester Forde died last Friday at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital.
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Roberts: If Life Sport shows wrongdoing by my ministry I will resign forthwith
Sport Minister Anil Roberts says he will resign from the People’s Partnership Government forthwith if the audit into the controversial Life Sport programme shows that his ministry has been funding terrorists, criminal gangs, a militia and a sprawling palace. On Friday, Roberts finally broke his silence on the programme, which Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley has sought to link to the murder of prominent attorney Dana Seetahal.
In May, the programme came under scrutiny after it was reported that a Carapo-based Jamaat-Al-Muslimeen was controlling the mammoth share of the Ministry of Sport’s $113 million spent on the Life Sport programme, which the Ministry of Finance had found to be riddled with irregularities. The co-ordinator of the programme is Rajaee Ali (otherwise known as R Ali), son of the north-west leader of the Jamaat, Imam Hassan Ali.
It was reported that R Ali was detained by police for gang-related activities following the murder of Seetahal in May. Ten weeks after the issue raised its ugly head, Roberts, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Guardian on Friday at his Port-of-Spain office, said while some people may interpret his silence as indicating fear or guilt, he did not want to speak out until an audit into the programme, requested by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, was done.
In June, Persad-Bissessar had said the results of the audit would determine the future of the programme and whether any action would be taken against Roberts.
End of political career
Roberts said: “If it is proven that a programme I conceptualised to help poor black people is funding terrorists, criminal gangs, and an armed militia of 250 men in a palace in Carapo...a huge compound from which they can train, operate and terrorise the people of Trinidad and Tobago, I will resign forthwith.”
He said if the audit showed “that the programme was giving money to a terrorist organisation to the tune of $1.5 to $3 million monthly, had 1,400 ghost names with aliases such as Michal Jackson, Madonna, Beyonce and Kanye West, spent $8 million on a sports day for bandits, robbers and crooks, as soon as that audit comes out, the Prime Minister will not have to call me. I will write my resignation immediately. If that happened under my watch, I do not deserve to sit in this chair and be the Minister of Sport in Trinidad and Tobago.
That will be the end of my political career.” Last month, Diego Martin North East MP Colm Imbert said in the House of Representatives that an armed militia of about 250 men was being cultivated and funded through the corrupt administration of the Life Sport programme.
However, Roberts said, if the audit gave his ministry the all clear “many people may have a lot of apologising to do...some other people may have to resign too. Let the chips fall where they may because some serious decisions across the board will have to be taken.” He also warned that he stayed quiet because of his discipline, but when the contents of the audit is revealed “Anil now start to talk.”
Despite Cabinet’s approval for Roberts to attend a meeting at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow today, he opted to stay put because “I heard the audit is soon to come out.” The 2013 auditor general’s report, Roberts said, showed that his ministry had operated above board. “You would always have people who would try a skull. The job of the auditors is to pick up that and deal with it. If someone is found to be corrupt the police will investigate and lock up whoever did it.”
Roberts said that as for the daily management issues at his ministry, involving procurements, issuing of contracts and signing of cheques, “I have no control over that. This is managed by responsible employees. If it shows otherwise they will be dealt with.” Roberts believes the PNM was trying to tarnish his name and ministry in order to reclaim the D’Abadie/O’Meara seat, which the PP Government won in 2010.
“All the PNM sees is politics. They are so narcissistic. They want to get into power. The PNM wants to rewrite the Constitution and decide who are criminals.”
Country’s reputation at stake
Roberts said the allegations levied against the programme and ministry by Rowley, Imbert and PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi were not only grave and serious, but had far-reaching implications for T&T, as well as international implications. “It is something that has impacted on the country’s reputation domestically and outside.”
Asked about issues raised by National Security Minister Gary Griffith, who stated that the programme was funding ghost participants and approximately $90,000 in cash was put into paper bags and given to one person to distribute to 60 Life Sport participants, Roberts said, “Well he would have to talk for himself. I cannot speak for him. May God bless him.” Roberts said he met R Ali, who is co-ordinator of the Carapo centre, but did not know him or his father personally.
“I have met all 40 co-ordinators of the programme as minister.” He did not deny that “most of the participants” in the programme had criminal records. “The minister does not hand-pick anyone. Many of them would have been dead had it not been for Life Sport.” He said the programme was created to positively reshape the lives of “at risk men” who were going down the wrong path.
Daily, Roberts said, people would tell him “to leave those young black boys to kill one another, if they want to be bad. But I came here to help those most in need and offer my assistance.”
Roberts said no amount of guns, jail, bullets and batons could solve the country’s crime problem since the issue needed a different approach and one where those participants could feel appreciated, accepted and trusted. Questioned about the ministry’s deputy director of Physical Education and Sport Ruth Marchan who claimed her life was threatened, Roberts said, “anyone who is being threatened is a serious thing...they should go to the police. Let the police handle it. Other than that, Hollywood makes lots of movies.”
Life Sport stained for life
With all said and done, Roberts said, Life Sport was now stained for life—a stain that would be hard to remove or cleanse. “If Life Sport is stained we will come up with something else. But those who stained it, would they be men or women enough to say they were wrong and apologise? I don’t think so.” The PNM, Roberts said, has historically “been a curse on black people in Trinidad and Tobago” with their policies.
“The PNM hates black people. I was born a PNM. Their policies have ensured that black young men remain the highest risk [population] in society.” Of the 2,097 participants in the programme, Roberts said, “at least 98.8 per cent are Africans, with the other 1.2 per cent being dougla and Indians.” He said, “That is frightening for Rowley because they depend on black people staying poor and impoverished and beholden to the great czar of the PNM.”
He said the PP Government would not keep people in starvation and begging for handouts.
Pulled in by PM
Roberts said media reports of R Ali collecting about $1.5 million a month in profit and raking in about $18 million in the last year was what had prompted the PM to call for an audit. “As soon as this allegation was made, wherever they came from, I was called in by the Prime Minister.” Roberts said he explained his side of the story to Persad-Bissessar. “I told her I don’t know anything about that.”
Roberts said after the PM had listened to him, “her exact words to me were ‘these are grave allegations and it must be investigated’.” He said he agreed wholeheartedly with the PM, who informed him that she would shift the programme to the National Security Ministry “where it was intended to go anyway because of its anti-crime initiative. I was in full agreement.”
Shandell—a tower of strength
“Unadulterated mayhem.” That’s how Roberts described those last ten weeks of his life after the Life Sport programme was put under the microscope and attacked from all sides. In the last 70 days, Roberts said, he was under “absolute stress” due to the daily onslaught at the hands of the PNM and the media. “I thought about my young, beautiful, pregnant wife and the pressures and tension she had to be going through. She is now 23 weeks pregnant. For the last ten weeks she had to be going through stress, which she didn’t ask for.”
Last December, Roberts married Shandell, 22. “Yes, she knows she married a politician, but for a young mother to be going through those critical weeks, from 13 to 23 weeks of her pregnancy with all that unnecessary stress and worry, I must say she is a tower of strength. She handled it brilliantly.” Luckily, Roberts said, both mother and baby were in good health. Roberts said even his deceased mother was unfairly targeted.
He said social media was the most dangerous invention known to man, as cowards hid behind computers to assassinate his character and spew their unsubstantiated garbage.
Howai to get report this week
Contacted on Friday, Cheryl Lala, strategic communications adviser to the Finance Minister, said the audit into the Life Sport was in its final stages of preparation. “It is being reviewed by the CAU before being presented to the Minister of Finance.” She did not say, however, when it will be presented to the minister. The Sunday Guardian understands that Howai is expected to receive the report early this week.