The resurrection of a six-year-old investigation into the alleged siphoning of over $1 million from a government ministry to three organisations linked to family and friends culminated in the arrest of Public Administration Minister Marlene McDonald and her husband on Thursday.
Officers of the Fraud Squad swooped down on McDonald’s home at Valley View, Maracas, St Joseph, where they executed a search warrant and took away several items.
The chain of dramatic events triggered several reactions as to what this meant for the ruling PNM and the upcoming elections. In 2015 and 2018 Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley had defended his decision to bring McDonald, a key platform campaigner, back into his Cabinet even though the investigation was unresolved.
But the situation is likely to change if the police charge McDonald with criminal offences, including misbehaviour in public office. Rowley told Guardian Media yesterday that he was awaiting the outcome of the police probe.
Guardian Media understands that a hand-picked team of officers under Snr Supt Totaram Dookhie had been quietly gathering corroborating evidence and had been liaising with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions throughout the high-profile inquiry.
Investigators were expected to ask McDonald and her husband, Michael Carew, pointed questions relating to the request, approval and distribution of state funds through three NGOs— the Calabar Foundation, Waterwheel Foundation and a third entity—which were allegedly misappropriated.
A terse statement from the Police Service confirmed published media reports that McDonald and her husband had been arrested and taken into custody.
“They were detained earlier today...inquiries are ongoing at this time and more information will be provided when it becomes available,” it added.
Outside the minister’s home in Valley View, St Joseph on Thursday, officers were seen moving in and out of the premises. They appeared to be searching.
One neighbour who spoke with Guardian Media on the condition of anonymity, said the officers arrived shortly after 6.30 am. Almost five hours later, at around 11.24 am the officers left McDonald’s home with a bundle of documents.
Guardian Media was unable to determine if McDonald was still on the compound during the search as officers seemed to deliberately manoeuvre their vehicles in her driveway to block the media. The darkly-tinted vehicles left the compound before noon.
However, just after 3 pm, Guardian Media was able to confirm that McDonald was taken to the Fraud Squad offices on Abercromby Street in Port-of-Spain and later taken to the St Joseph Police Station where she remained up to press time. Her attorney, Pamela Elder SC, was also seen at the police station.
Police also searched McDonald’s constituency office on Piccadilly Street, Port-of-Spain on Thursday.
How the investigation evolved
These allegations of misconduct have dogged McDonald for years. Back in 2013, McDonald said she claimed someone was targeting her and planned to seek legal advice on the matter.
Nothing ever came of that but, in 2015, she was appointed Minister of Housing.
Guardian Media was told that McDonald and Carew were being questioned about their alleged connections to the Calabar Foundation, the Waterwheel Foundation, and a third NGO about monies disbursed to those organisations from the Ministry of Community Development and Culture.
The allegations against the duo point to applications for state funding made to the ministry, then headed by McDonald, which were allegedly fast-tracked and approved by the minister. The money, which was disbursed via cheques signed by the then Permanent Secretary Hermia Tyson-Cuffie, the wife of Minister in the Ministry of Public Administration Maxie Cuffie, was to be used for charitable work but was allegedly misappropriated.
In 2014, Guardian Media broke the story that a group named TnTWhistleblower sought to expose McDonald to protect the party.
The group emailed a list of allegations against McDonald to PNM leader Dr Keith Rowley which included allegations of McDonald’s involvement in NGO’s, including the Calabar Foundation.
The Calabar Foundation was registered on August 24, 2010, listing Carew, his brother Lennox Carew and McDonald’s friend Victor McEachrane as directors.
The registered office for Calabar Foundation is the same as Carew’s listed address on the documents.
In an apparent response to the claims, the PNM produced a letter dated December 23, 2013, from the Integrity Commission which cleared McDonald of any breaches of the Integrity in PubWlic Life Act.
The letter did not specify what issue was before the commission.
The matter seemed to die a natural death and nothing further came of the investigations.
That same year fresh evidence was presented to the Integrity Commission relating to the same matter involving the Calabar Foundation and the investigation was reopened.
The investigation, based on the questions posed to the three former employees named above, seemed to be centred on the money donated to the Calabar Foundation, the Waterwheel Foundation and allegations that a relative was listed and paid as a ministerial driver, although he was residing abroad.
In December 2014, McDonald said she was unaware her companion was linked to the Calabar Foundation even though he was listed as a director in the companies registry.
Guardian Media was told that the investigation included verifying the names of people who collected cheques from the ministry.
WHAT DR ROWLEY SAID:
JUNE 2017—MC DONALD REAPPOINTED
“Those investigations to my knowledge have taken place by the authority whose job it is to determine whether a person in public life has conducted him or herself in a manner in keeping with the tenets of the Integrity of Public life Act.”
JULY 2017 —MCDONALD FIRED
“The Government’s inability, and not just this government but other governments inability to properly respond to the threat of criminality in T&T is because of a closeness between Government personnel and persons who engage in criminal conduct and nothing that supports that is to be encouraged in any form or fashion.”
MARCH 2018—MC DONALD REAPPOINTED
“The last time I checked the responsibility of appointing any person to the Cabinet of Trinidad and Tobago lies with the Prime Minister and I am not aware that is circumscribed by any correspondence to or from the Integrity Commission.”