Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In The Bahamas, it seems, if the police have "strong reasons" to believe you are guilty of trespassing, or noise pollution, or vagrancy, you are sure to be placed under arrest... ...But if you perpetrate an illegal scheme that has immense diplomatic and national security consequences for the entire country, well that's OK


Tribune News Editor

THE big story last week was obviously the back-and-forth claims of visa fraud between the two major parties.

First, FNM Senator Dion Foulkes told of a Foreign Affairs officer who claimed her former boss, Fox Hill MP Fred Mitchell, tried to pressure staff into granting entry visas to 30 ineligible Chinese nationals. Denying the claims, Mr Mitchell produced a police report showing his accuser was herself suspected of issuing visas in return for cash.

There was nothing particularly new in any of this - the claims against Mr Mitchell were published online months ago by Wikileaks, while the visa-for-cash investigation made headlines in 2005.

What the public should sit up and take notice of, however, are recommendations in the police report released by Mr Mitchell.

The targets of the investigation were suspected of selling entry visas to Haitian nationals at $1,500 a pop.

No one knows how many documents were illegally issued, but the racket is said to have involved a fleet of boats that ferried passports, some of which turned out to be forgeries, to and from Haiti. The scam was also thought to have made use of aircraft implicated in drug and human trafficking operations.

In the end, investigators decided there were "strong reasons to conclude" that certain employees were involved in "corrupt and unethical practices" at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Their recommendations? Safeguards should be put in place, staff should be periodically rotated, and those thought to be involved should be transferred or reassigned.


A group of civil servants are thought to have enriched themselves by helping untold numbers of illegal immigrants enter the country, some bearing fake passports, on flights operated by known drug and human smugglers, and the police believe they should remain on the public payroll?

In the Bahamas, it seems, if the police have "strong reasons" to believe you are guilty of trespassing, or noise pollution, or vagrancy, you are sure to be placed under arrest. But if you perpetrate an illegal scheme that has immense diplomatic and national security consequences for the entire country, well that's OK.

It is hard to imagine a plausible justification for this. The police might say they found insufficient evidence to charge anyone. But in that case, they have to explain why they recommended anyone be transferred or reassigned in the first place.

And since when does a lack of conclusive evidence stop investigating officers in their tracks? Surely strong suspicions should be followed up with warrant requests, arrests, raids, interrogations, and so on.

What's more, according to the report this was an undercover investigation. Are we to believe the police's mole saw enough to have "strong suspicions" about a number of employees, but did not come across a single shred of hard evidence?

The report claims an undercover agent saw a ministry official and a Haitian man suspected of being a passport mule "in the stairway exchanging documents for what appeared to be cash. He returned in the evening to the Ministry at the back door and collected the processed documents."
Shortly thereafter, the report says, the man was seen "distributing the passports to Haitian nationals who were waiting in the parking lot at Market Street."

Surely this is enough circumstantial evidence to make a few arrests.

Critics of the PLP will conclude from all this that the investigation, which took place during the Christie administration, was never intended to have any real teeth.

Indeed, it reeks of a "commissioned" report, requested by the government for future use in just such a mud-slinging contest as the one that took place last week.

But we should pause before condemning the PLP alone.

What about the Ministry of Education staff who were caught red-handed stealing classroom supplies and furniture just last year?

They were all arrested and removed from their jobs, but formal charges were never filed, and a few months later they were back at the ministry in different positions.

Some of them, according to well placed sources, were even appointed to the team managing an $11.8 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Talk about letting the hand into the cookie jar.

There are also long-standing allegations of kickback schemes that permeate the entire ministry. These too have been the subject of investigations, but the most that ever came of it was a few forced early retirements. Full benefits, of course.

And then there is the Ministry of Housing scandal. It is claimed that thousands of dollars in bogus fees were added to the cost of houses under the last PLP government, leading to a multi-million dollar payout to the perpetrators.

The Christie government said it caused an investigation to be launched, but of course found no wrongdoing. And as the FNM's first term back in office draws to a close, the Attorney General's Office has yet to bring anyone before the courts - despite the fact that police recommended at least six people be charged as far back as 2008.

This would all be laughable if it weren't so tragic. In these two cases, let us not forget, the victims are school children and low-income families.

The reasons behind the reluctance of politicians to punish public service corruption are clear.
Whichever party is in charge at a given time is interested in keeping hold of power, and doesn't want any major scandals on their watch, no matter who is responsible.

The public service is also a huge source of support for both major parties, and huge shake-ups that end with people going to jail will probably mess with established voting trends.

But what about the police? Calculations based on image and reputation are all fine and good for politicians, but have no place in law enforcement, right?

Wrong, according to the visa scandal investigators, who wrote in their report that: "At this stage, whether something can be done or not in terms of a criminal investigation and prosecution cannot supersede the need to prevent further damage to the image and reputation of the Ministry..."

And here I was thinking the police's job was to bust law breakers and let the chips fall where they may.

What do you think?

* Email pnunez@tribunemedia.net with your comments, or visit www.tribune242/insight to join in the online conversation.

February 20, 2012