Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs Minister Marlene McDonald has dismissed accusations that bursaries awarded through her ministry served as a slush-fund to further the education of members of the ruling People's National Movement (PNM).
She denied that the disbursement of more than $45 million in bursaries through her ministry for the period 2003 to 2007 discriminated against non-PNM members. "It does not discriminate against anyone, whether supporter of the UNC (United National Congress), PNM or any other political entity...The programme has always been and continues to be open to all," McDonald said in a statement to the House of Representatives yesterday afternoon. "For every well-known name on the list of recipients which the political opportunists have highlighted, there are hundreds more of ordinary, everyday, law-abiding and deserving citizens of this country who have been helped." Among the beneficiaries of the ministry's bursaries included Government Senator Laurel Lezama, Office of the Prime Minister communications manager Paige De Leon and CNMG executive producer Curtis Williams. Their names were among the listed recipients of bursaries from the ministry between 2003 and 2007, which was released to the Indo-Trinbago Equality Council (ITEC) following a court order.
According to McDonald, the availability of financial assistance through her ministry for the pursuit of tertiary studies was "so well-known to the national community" that former and current members of Parliament from the Opposition submitted cover letters in support of applications from their constituents. She revealed that these included the UNC's former agriculture minister, Dr Reeza Mohammed and its Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal. McDonald added that her ministry received telephone calls from either Opposition parliamentarians or their constituency officers that queried the status of application submitted. She said these included queries related to the constituents of Opposition parliamentarians Chandresh Sharma, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Dr Adesh Nanan. "Not one got (a bursary)," Moonilal said, "not one constituent got." McDonald also proceed to offer an apology for embarrassment suffered through the publication of details related to recipients of financial support from her ministry to pursue further studies.
"I wish to speak directly to all the recipients of financial studies assistance whose names appeared in the media for the years 2003 to 2007, you have done nothing wrong," she said. McDonald and said that it was she and her ministry who had done wrong. She said: "I know you are feeling hurt and embarrassed. Stand proud, stand tall. Government will continue to serve you unwaveringly. "None of those who sought financial assistance did so with the expectation that their personal circumstances would have been exposed for public ridicule and I hereby apologise for those who access our services and now find themselves and their families facing acute embarrassment through media exposure."