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Spotlight on T&T’s Fifth President
Last week, this country bade farewell to a former president, Professor George Maxwell Richards, and elected a woman, Justice Paula-Mae Weekes, to this country’s highest office for the first time.
The events took place as outgoing President Anthony Carmona was in the Hague in the Netherlands where he delivered the inaugural address at the opening of the law term of the International Criminal Court.
It is the very same court where Carmona was due to take up an appointment on March 1, 2013, but which he was unable to take up after he accepted the nomination of the then government led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar to become the country’s fifth President.
Following Carmona’s election by the Electoral College, Persad-Bissessar in an address to the College opined that the “Presidency is no mere ceremonial position.”
“Our Presidents,” she said then, “is the vital and critical collective voice and conscience of our people.”
The role of the President in the Republic, she said, “is far-reaching, decisive, constant and always vigilant.”
Carmona himself raised the hope of the population when in his inaugural address at the Hasely Crawford Stadium he threw down the gauntlet declaring that while he did not have a “magic wand” and was not an “executive president,” the office of the presidency was not impotent.
While there are “parameters within which I must operate,” he said “Powers you think I have, I do not,” but “Power you think I do not have, I do.” He received a resounding applause from the stadium gathering, many looking with optimism to a new dawning of the Presidency.
Under Section 81 of the Constitution, he said, the Prime Minister is mandated to “keep the President fully informed of the general conduct of the Government, and at the President’s request, to submit information which respect to any matter relating thereto.”
Trinidad and Tobago attained Republican Status in 1976 and the man who helped author the Republican Constitution Sir Ellis Clarke became the first President on August 1, 1976, to March 19, 1987.
He was followed by Noor Mohammed Hassanali, March 20, 1987 - March 17, 1997, who was succeeded by Arthur NR Robinson, March 18, 1997-March 16, 2003 whose term had the hiccup of an electoral 18-18 tie which would take days to resolve and which would eventually lead to a change in the composition of the Parliament to ensure that such an event never recurred.
Robinson was succeeded by Professor George Maxwell Richards March 17, 2003-March 18 2013. Carmona succeeded Richards and is scheduled to demit office on March 18.
While his Presidency started with great promise, what emerged was a series of incidents and allegations which rocked the foundations of the Presidency with some unprecedented events taking place not just at the Presidential office but with litigation against the President.
In under two months, Carmona will demit office and is expected to relocate to his Camp Crest, Fyzabad home where he has sprawling agricultural estate.
REEMA VERSUS RACHEL PRICE
Just over a year into his Presidency in October 2014, President Anthony Carmona was prompted to warn that “unwarranted attacks” which seek to bring members of his family and his office into disrepute will not be tolerated.
His office confirmed that attorneys representing his wife, Reema, had sent a pre-action protocol letter to comedienne and radio talk show host Rachel Price over alleged defamatory and offensive statements related to his wife’s attire at the United Nations in September.
A statement from his office said the constitutional right of freedom of expression was not a licence to defame. The statement said: “The Office of the President respects and values the constitutional right of every individual to freedom of expression and the principles of fair comments. Freedom of the press remains sacrosanct.”
The action was unprecedented but the President’s office said: “It will be vigilant to protect the dignity of Office of the President and ensure that the citizens of the Republic of T&T continue to maintain respect for the office.”
Price’s comments were made after publication of a picture of Mrs Camona, with her midsection exposed, standing alongside the conservatively-dressed Mrs Ban Ki-Moon at a United Nations function in New York, USA.
STRAINED RELATIONSHIP OF PRESIDENT AND PM
In June 2015 then Opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley publicly apologised to President Carmona for saying he was only consulted on the suitability of two members of the Integrity Commission the day before they were scheduled to be appointed. Carmona countered that it had actually been sent and received by the Office of the Leader of the Opposition two days before Rowley said he received it, prompting the subsequent apology from Rowley.
By September 2016 the relationship between the two would be put to the test again when the President invited National Security Minister Edmund Dillon and his advisors to a meeting to discuss the country’s crime problem.
The Prime Minister sought legal advice from Senior Counsel Martin Daly on the matter. Daly’s advice was that the President had no power to invite a Minister for the purpose of discussing matters within his portfolio without reference to the Prime Minister or to seek information directly from a minister.
The opinion noted that the Prime Minister is also chairman of the National Security Council which includes the Chief of Defence Staff and Commissioner of Police and concluded: “It may be considered inappropriate for the President to interact with the Minister of National Security without reference to the Prime Minister and without respect for the Prime Minister’s position as head of the National Security Council”.
The Prime Minister insisted he has no prior knowledge of the meeting but Carmona in an unprecedented act called the media to President’s House on September 26. 2016, telling the media that Rowley had given consent three times for the meeting with Dillon. He also denied leaking to the media a private “missive” which he had sent to the Prime Minister following the talks with Dillon.
Rowley subsequently called a news conference the day after contradicting the statement of the President telling the media that the first he knew of the meeting was when Dillon informed him that it had happened.
The relationship between the two grew cold and there were reports that their weekly meetings were either not held or were very brief.
AUDITOR GENERAL, WINE AND HOUSING ALLOWANCE:
Carmona’s Presidency was also marred by reports that although he was living in accommodation provided for by the State he was also getting a $28,000 monthly housing allowance, a report from the Auditor General which pointed to “85 instances of incorrect classification of expenditure totalling $2,685,236.90 in contravention of financial regulation 65 which stipulates that a vote may not be applied to a purpose for which it was not intended, ” and the purchase of wine bearing the Presidential Crest.
The President was also accused of retaining the services of his mother-in-law as a companion for his children.
In an unprecedented move, the President invited the media to his Office which he spoke for more than an hour on the allegations levelled against him.
The President told the media: “The President and or the Office of the President neither stole, misuse nor misappropriated any public funds, including the sum of TT$2.8 million.”
He said: “It is to be noted that the Auditor General’s report for the financial year 2015…made absolutely no mention whatsoever of missing or misspent money by the Office of the President in the sum of TT$2.8 million”.
Carmona said the Auditor General’s report had pointed to an “administrative error in the classification of the money spent and states that the said money was classified under a particular vote or heading when it ought to have been so listed and classified under another related vote and heading”.
On allegations that wine bearing the Presidential Crest was purchased by Italian Import/Export a company owned by Pramati Noe Piccolo, who was employed as a stylist to President Carmona’s wife and then private secretary to the President in 2015 and her spouse, Antonio Piccolo.
Carmona said: “Contrary to false media reports Italian Import Export Limited…did not purchase or import any wine on behalf of the Office of the President.” He said his office had “utilised a well-established registered local company to be the agent who facilitated the purchase and importation of such quality wines”.
The President defended the “legitimate use of the presidential crest,” saying “the National Coat of Arms is not the Presidential Crest and the Presidential Crest is not the National Coat of Arms.” He said the wine was to be used “strictly for official functions at the Office of the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,” and that the wine with the presidential crest can be “monitored” so as to prevent “theft and disappearance.”
CALL FOR PROBE INTO HOUSING ALLOWANCE
In an historic move University of the West Indies lecturer, Rhoda Bharath, wrote to acting Commissioner of Police (CoP) Harold Phillips requesting a criminal investigation be launched into President Anthony Carmona and Chief Personnel Officer, Stephanie Lewis, relating to the issue of the housing allowance granted to Carmona and which she said remained unresolved for two years.
The investigation, she said, should centre around possible misconduct in public office.
Carmona said the Flagstaff Hill accommodation provided to him and his family was leaking all over and he rented an apartment for his family paying $12,000 a month from his own pocket. He said when he moved into the Presidential Cottage on May 30, 2015, he immediately instructed the Accounting Department to stop payment of the housing allowance.
Carmona said “Using the President’s Official Residence—the Great House—as the standard, the Flagstaff residence was not, and cannot, be considered “suitable alternative accommodation”. I did not make the decision nor did I coerce, suggest, authorise or impose that decision of the SRC. It was made by an independent Salaries Review Commission, together with its Secretary, who by letter dated 7 July 2013, informed me that I would receive the allowance during that period I occupied such temporary accommodation.”
BIG MONEY BEING SPENT
In October 2016, the Sunday Guardian published information contained in documents which it obtained, detailing specific payments dating back to March 18, 2013, from the Office of the President.
These documents showed that the Office of the President and The President’s House spent $11.6 million on official entertainment, $2.9 million on hosting conferences, and approximately $3.4 million on overseas travel since Carmona assumed office.
Of the $3.4M for overseas travel, approximately $1.2 million was spent on official travel, while approximately $2 million was spent on vacation travel for Carmona and his family. The cost included allowances for security detail and personal assistants.
Carmona’s official travel was more frequent, with trips to Howard University, Bolivia and conferences on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the 15th conference of Presidents and Governors-General in the Caribbean.
However, vacation trips to Grand Cayman, Panama, Grenada, Scotland and the Bahamas were more costly, with a payment of $441,981.34 being made to Carmona in December 2015 for the cost of vacation travel to the Cayman Islands.
Of the overseas travel expenditure incurred, Savitri Singh, who bears a similar name to President Carmona’s mother-in-law Savitri Seeteram Singh, received allowances of over $300,000 to accompany the Carmona family on several overseas trips, including $78,781.09 to accompany the family on vacation to the Bahamas.
Singh also received payment of a salary of around $14,000 monthly from the Office of the President from May 2013 to January 2014.
A payment of $13,542.54 for “domestic services” to Singh was issued in April 2013.
Queries to Carmona on whether Savitri Singh and Savitri Seeteram Singh were the same person were never answered.
Carmona denied a claim that $2M was spent on jewellery.
Carmona claimed to have saved approximately $30 million of taxpayers dollars in the past three years, the actual expenditure for Head 01, President, in the Annual Draft Estimate of Expenditure has been steadily increasing. In 2010, the actual expenditure was $18,235,425.
This decreased to $17.4 million in 2011, then increased to $18.8 million in 2012, with a further increase to $20.4 million in 2013.
In 2014 the actual expenditure was just over $25 million and for 2015, recurrent expenditure stood at $24,252,300.
In 2016, according to draft estimates $2.2m spent on official entertainment, $1.78m spent on hosting of conferences, seminars and other functions and $25,000 on promotions, publicity and printing, overseas travel revised estimate $1m. In 2017- $1m was spent on official entertainment, $.5m on hosting of conferences, seminars and other functions and $25,000 on promotion, publicity and printing and overseas travel amounted to $1m.
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