Government’s controversial “Explain Your Wealth Bill” was passed in Parliament last night with amendments, unanimously supported by the Opposition United National Congress.
All 34 MPs in Parliament last night voted for the bill, which was changed by amendments from Government and the Opposition.
During the process, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said as she was voting for the bill, “I say ‘Aye’ for the compromise, it’s a much-improved bill!”
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said afterwards that 99 per cent of the amendments made came from Government.
“We are grateful the Opposition saw the merit in the bill,” Al-Rawi told the T&T Guardian.
Government MPs grinned broadly as they voted for the bill and they laughed loudly and desk-thumped support as Opposition MPs - such as Persad-Bissessar, UNC David Lee and MP Rudy Indarsingh - voted for the bill.
The bill, officially known as the Civil Asset Recovery and Management and Unexplained Wealth Bill, 2019, seeks to establish a civil assets agency and part of its mandate will be to probe unexplained wealth. The Opposition had expressed concerns about its initial form when it was piloted last Friday. But AG Al-Rawi, in winding up the bill yesterday morning, put the Opposition on notice that he intended to propose amendments. The Opposition also had amendments.
Both sides began final (Committee Stage) deliberations on the bill’s 79 clauses from 1.30 pm yesterday and continued to 7.44 pm, when it was passed.
While the Government side was jubilant, UNC MP Ganga Singh told the T&T Guardian afterwards that several of the Opposition’s amendments got in, “the Opposition Leader led the deliberations and the AG compromised.”
Among changes are aspects providing for Customs, police and Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) officials to investigate matters. Government agreed to having the Comptroller of Customs representing Customs, the BIR chairman representing BIR and the Police Commissioner or inspector delegated by him representing the police. The bill provides for the three divisions to take matters to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), with another aspect of the process involving input from an independent trustee. Al-Rawi said this insulated the process from political reach.
Government had proposed a simple majority for passage of the bill. This wouldn’t have required Opposition votes.
But the Law Association (LATT) in a 35-point critique of the bill yesterday, expressed concern about constitutional aspects. The Opposition had also supported a special majority vote. Al-Rawi, however, in winding up debate yesterday morning, had maintained the bill only required a simple majority. Concluding debate, Al-Rawi assured the bill wouldn’t affect citizens unless they were being investigated under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA). This, he said, covers a range of offences from racketeering, bribery, terrorism and corruption, to human and drug trafficking, kidnapping, piracy and other matters.
“So doubles vendors, or an occupier, or people who bought a property or got it by deed as a gift don’t fall into this pot. The bill applies to drug lords, human traffickers, people in public life guilty of misbehaviour,” Al-Rawi added.
AG: PNM will withstand scrutiny
Noting UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s recent press release - calling on him to explain issues with the controversial St Clair property owned by his family which was rented by Government - Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi said, “We’re capable of withstanding scrutiny. This law has no exception for Government and it puts the Attorney General in line under the POCA.”
Speaking during yesterday’s Parliament sitting, Al-Rawi said it wasn’t the People’s National Movement Government which was talking about earning their wealth by selling “nuts” and talking about “pumpkin patches” when he claimed contractors built their houses.
“When you have people in public life outside of this Parliament or dealing with people who held political office in the past, (with) sprawling mansions in palatial standing, with pool tables worth $4 million and ivory and gold-plated, when you’re on a ministerial salary - I think you’re protesting too much,” he added.
“Why should people in public life who are guilty of misbehaviour in public office be afraid to explain themselves in a court of law? People in this country talking about Mr Big repeatedly and allegations about politicians, that they’re either crooks or mooks. And they believe all politicians are crooked. (But) here is Government saying, come, inspect all of us and the only people in Parliament who’re saying ‘don’t do that’ is the Opposition ... is Siparia!”
Persad-Bissessar later made several remarks as he was summarising the bill.
Al-Rawi repeated, “Thou doth protest too much!”
“Can Siparia (Persad- Bissessar) behave herself?” Al-Rawi asked the House Speaker.
Al-Rawi said the UNC threw out the same bill in 2014 when they could have presented it.
“They’re frightened of the application of this law...we have no fear in the PNM, of inspection. We’re the first to be checked - and I know the UNC can’t say that!”
He said the bill would allow the state to go after those who’d held 19 Venezuelan girls recently. Al-Rawi added that Government would provide safeguards on the tax record aspect of the bill since people couldn’t be expected to keep records longer than six years.
The House adjourned to a date to be fixed at the end of last night’s sitting.