Almost one month after Duane O’Connor—a calypsonian and police officer—was officially chosen by the PNM Central Executive Committee as the local government candidate for the St Ann’s River South (Sea Lots area) for the December 2019 local government elections his candidacy was rescinded.
Was it because O’Connor had “lied” to the screening committee about where he lived at that time or because of his perceived allegiance to the UNC who had given him a house? Or was it because of Sea Lots residents did not want an “informant” representing their community?
Who called the shots on O’Connor’s candidacy, was it the Sea Lots community?
Why was there a sudden change of heart by the screening committee to hastily replace O’Connor with Jenneil Frederick after he had already been chosen?
Party insiders are dismayed over what may have led to O’Connor being replaced and believe that the executive was influenced to change their mind about O’Connor.
The Sunday Guardian obtained a 30-minute recording of a meeting from a PNM insider who was present at the meeting held at MP for Port-of-Spain South Marlene McDonald’s Port-of-Spain constituency office on August 5, last year.
McDonald, along with then-acting constituency chairman Anthony Ferguson, chaired the meeting which also included Rono Calendar—constituency secretary, Wendell Stephen—then social media officer (now the constituency chairman), Keno Romeo—former councillor, June Durham—councillor, James Chin Ching—treasurer, Ken Taylor—MP’s office assistant as well as Beverley Gonzales, Andrew Stephen and two other people.
During the conversation, a voice resembling that of McDonald revealed she not only spoke to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley about replacing O’Connor but stated among other things that O’Connor had “lied” about where he resided. The voice in the recording also said the Sea Lots community would not be comfortable with a policeman representing them in their community as they saw him as an “informer.”
‘O’Connor lied about his residential address’
According to the recording, the woman said she contacted the prime minister indicating a change of heart in selecting O’Connor, “...the prime minister, I had a long chat with him this morning, but I thought it was necessary...last night I did not sleep. I thought it was necessary this morning to call him and have a conversation with him and he agreed with me, with the decision I made.
“Sometime over the weekend I got word from the Sea Lots area that I am sending a policeman to represent them. We had been asked by the screening committee not to announce who the people are. Somehow or the other the story got out there and I was called several times and I was told how could I?...
“You see, that is not the part that really affected me. The part that affected me was the fact that the person had lied to the screening committee and said that he lived Cocorite. Truth be told, he lives at Ramgoolie Trace in Curepe. Now, he was screened twice in this office and on no occasion was it brought to my attention or to the executive’s attention that he did not live in Port-of-Spain South constituency.
“The lie he took to Balisier House and the night of the screening, he was asked that question and he made no mention of Ramgoolie Trace in Curepe.”
The woman speaking at the hour-long meeting said that even “constituents from Sea Lots” had told her the guy (O’Connor) lived at Ramgoolie Trace and she even conducted her own investigation and found out that “he was living Cocorite and his place burn and he got a house under the UNC.”
O’Connor’s house was destroyed by fire in Cocorite in early 2015, and it was public knowledge that he was allocated a house by the then government.
“And he got a house in Ramgoolie Trace. Now, boy, I don’t have a problem if you live Ramgoolie Trace, but disclose it. Disclose it.
“Because we live in a period where if you close to the other side and they (sic) aware and they well aware, they gave him a house, and they know that is where he lives. So if he goes offside and he claims he lives in Cocorite you could imagine what would happen on an election day.
“The only saving grace is the next part of the qualification, he has a business in the area.”
‘Sea Lots people not comfortable with O’Connor, an informant’
In spite of this, the voice in the recording revealed, “be that as it may, the Sea Lots people are not comfortable with this particular individual.”
The woman said she even decided to chat with the Sea Lots residents about O’Connor’s selection, “It turns out that they would want no part of it. When I look at their votes it could not have been a situation where I could have turned a blind eye on. Sea Lots has the biggest pool of workers in East PoS and you cannot overlook. So it was something I need to look at.”
The decision, the person said, had nothing to do with her wishes or with the people of Sea Lots, but rather if the people lost such an important seat.
“For the party to drop an electoral district in their heartland, if you went in the heartland of the PNM in East Port-of-Spain and you should drop such an important district like that, you could imagine what the Opposition would say. That they are penetrating us and we will look weak in our own backyard.”
A decision was taken to go back to the “hierarchy of the party and speak with the general secretary, elections councillor and vice-chairman, and the prime minister. “
“This is not corrupt. Don’t go out there and misrepresent and misconstrue what I have said.”
“The thing about it, the same concern I had that this person could represent that area at this point in time. is the same concern these (inaudible) would have had about the confidence of a policeman bringing to that area.”
The individual did not mince words in the recording, “Look, I coming down there this evening and hearing Burkie was arrested and certain electrical devices were found in his place. I don’t know what devices they are.
“So you could imagine you bringing somebody like that in the middle of that? You know what they going to say, we have sent an informant.
“Port-of-Spain South has sent an informant into Sea Lots to mark them. We are not national security. National security could do their job and I have to take on board what those constituents are saying.
McDonald was a key member of the screening committee at the constituency and central executive levels.
O'Connor: I told no lies
The Sunday Guardian contacted O'Connor about two weeks ago via phone.
O'Connor acknowledged that he was the candidate chosen to contest the St Ann's River South seat and said about a month or so after that, July 3, he was contacted by McDonald who told him they would be considering someone else.
O'Connor said he wrote a letter to Dr Rowley but did not share the contents of the letter with the Sunday Guardian. "I have no other comment to make about what transpired," he said.
Letter seeks to clear the air with PM
However, a PNM party insider showed the Sunday Guardian a copy of a letter dated August 14, 2019, that was written by O' Connor, sent to the prime minister and cc'd to the PNM's general secretary Foster Cummings and then acting constituency chairman Anthony Ferguson.
O'Connor said he was "successfully chosen as the St Ann's River South candidate."
He further explained that at no time during the screening did McDonald ask about his residential address. "But rather questions centred around my job as a police officer and as a businessman in Port-of-Spain. To my great surprise. I was informed by Ms McDonald sometime after that they would look for another candidate."
O'Connor told Dr Rowley in the letter that he wanted to set the record straight on issues related to his home address. According to the letter, he said he was also told that "as a police officer I was unfit to represent the community as the majority of the Sea Lots community due to recent events in the area, that I would be viewed as an informer by the constituents."
O'Connor said the purpose of writing the letter was to "clear the air on the assertion that I lied about my address and to state the fact that my home was destroyed by fire, and I was the recipient of a house which I am still paying for and I continue to reside at my sister's place at Cocorite."
Attached to the letter was a cable bill in O'Connor's name from the Cocorite address where he still had a room at his sister's place, where he stays from time to time.
O'Connor stated that despite the decision, "I have always been willing to support the party in everything and willing to support whoever is selected as I am of the firm belief that the PNM is the only party that can solve the problems of the nation."
He added, "As a police officer, a community individual and a calypsonian I stand proud to steadfastly hold and adhere to the principles of the party, but I cannot allow anyone to cast aspersions on my character due to the fact that I occupy different residences in Trinidad and Tobago."
In an attempt to seek the truth about the matter and why O’Connor was replaced, the Sunday Guardian caught up with McDonald at Calypso on The Greens, where members of the Revue tent were performing for the community at Picadilly Greens last Monday.
This is the question and answer exchange between McDonald and GML’s Lead Editor of the Investigative Desk Mark Bassant. McDonald was clearly stumped during the questioning.
Q: Some things have recently come to light regarding a local government candidate, Mr O’Connor, in a meeting on August 5 last year. You indicated he could not go up for the constituents of St Ann’s River South because he lied about his address and the fact he was given a house by the former government, what do you say to that?
A: I would say that the screening committee...there was a process. The process took place and therefore I have nothing to add to it. It is not a Marlene McDonald decision, it is a screening committee decision, and I want you to understand that clearly.
Q: I understand that clearly. One of the things raised was the fact that Mr O’Connor was a police officer and it was claimed he was an informant and Sea Lots people did not want someone like that representing them.
A: I am unaware of that, sir.
Q: But there is a recording that indicates such...
A: Sir, as I said, I am unaware of that and whatever transpired there. I said there was a screening and whatever was the decision of the screening committee, that would stand.
Q: But you spoke to the prime minister about what had transpired about him not telling the truth about where he lived—not in Cocorite, but rather Curepe in Ramgoolie Trace, what did the prime minister tell you when you had that discussion with him?
A: Mr Bassant, I really don’t think I should indulge in this type of conversation. I really do not think so. Something transpired last year, the screening committee...we are a 63-year-old party. The screening committee did their job and I stand by the decision of the screening committee.
Q: Most definitely and I am not negating that, I am just trying to get clarity on the incident based on the recording that was sent to us.
A: I think whatever clarification you need, take it up with the screening committee.
Q: Fair enough. Is it because the Sea Lots community did not want him or because he lied about where he lived?
A: I will not answer that question.
The new chairman of the constituency Wendell Stephen, who was sitting beside McDonald, said, “Dwayne O’Connor offered himself as a candidate, and I commend him for that. He remains a supporter, especially a friend of Port-of-Spain South and we appreciate that. He has done a lot for this constituency and the people he represents, and we appreciate that there will be other changes.”
McDonald interjected, “Let’s get on with the show, after all, isn’t that’s why you are here? Let’s stick to that, please. This is in the interest of the constituents, the poor people behind the bridge.”
QUESTIONS FOR THE PRIME MINISTER
GML sent several questions to Dr Rowley via WhatsApp on Tuesday but got no response.
Here are some of the questions sent to the PM.
1. Was it that Ms McDonald was bowing to the Sea Lots community or the request of gangsters instead of endorsing Mr O’Connor who had been chosen previously?
2. What did Ms McDonald tell you when you spoke about the situation since at the beginning of the recording she indicated she had spoken to you and you had agreed with her decision?
3. Are you satisfied that replacing O’Connor was the right decision? Was that done because he failed to follow protocol although he justified his residential address with cable bills in Cocorite or because the Sea Lots residents did not want an “informer”? Who was really calling the shots in this case? The Sea Lots community or the PNM screening committee?
Flashback: Young on criminal elements
National Security Minister Stuart Young recently alleged that top UNC members were conspiring with criminal elements that were connected to the LifeSport project and also claimed that they were fuelling the upsurge in murders within the country.
While those allegations have been vehemently denied by the Opposition, the issue of McDonald’s perceived relationship with community leader from the Sea Lots community Cedric “Burkie” Burke has been raised.
There was controversy when Burke was allowed into the President’s House in 2017 at the swearing of McDonald in her second incarnation as a government minister. The public outcry following this fiasco forced Dr Rowley to fire McDonald from her ministerial post three days later.
In 2018 she was rehired as a government minister and last year was sacked after she was slapped with several charges including misbehaviour in public office and conspiracy to defraud the State.
Tune in to CNC3 at 7 pm on Monday for more of this story.