Friday, February 17, 2012

Wikileaks and Bahamian Politics: ...former Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell is accused of being ‘complicit in visa fraud’ and ‘pressuring’ staff at the ministry to issue visas to ‘ineligible’ Chinese applicants during his term in office... according to a secret U.S. Embassy cable tabled in the Senate

Mitchell accused of corruption

By Taneka Thompson
Guardian Senior Reporter

A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official accused former Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell of being ‘complicit in visa fraud’ and ‘pressuring’ staff at the ministry to issue visas to ‘ineligible’ Chinese applicants during his term in office, according to a secret U.S. Embassy cable tabled in the Senate yesterday.

Bahamian Consular Affairs Chief Dorothea Lafleur also told an Embassy official that Mitchell was ‘likely receiving financial kickbacks for the visas that were issued’, though she said she had no hard proof of this, the cable said.  Leader of Government Business in the Senate Dion Foulkes tabled the cable, which was written on April 24, 2007, and published on the Internet by the whistleblower organization, WikiLeaks.

According to the cable, the U.S. Embassy’s consular chief met with Lafleur on April 12 at Lafleur’s invitation.

The cable said, “[Lafleur] accused Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell of complicity in pressuring consular officers to issue visas to patently ineligible applicants.

“She further alleged that Mitchell was involved in a fraudulent visa scam to bring in a large group of Chinese nationals.  According to Lafleur, Mitchell attempted to pressure consular officers to issue the visas and, when unsuccessful, attempted to bypass Bahamian consular law and division leadership.”

After Foulkes tabled the cable in the Senate, Mitchell released a statement, dismissing the allegations as fabrication from a disgruntled employee.

He said the fabrication is now being used in the government’s election smear campaign.  The former minister also told The Nassau Guardian he plans to sue Lafleur over the comments attributed to her in the cable.

He said the Free National Movement made similar claims back in 2007, which were unsupported after a police investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing in the ministry during his five years as minister.

The cable said Lafleur told the Embassy official that Mitchell directly ordered her to issue visas to 30 Chinese nationals whose applications were sponsored by then Member of Parliament Sidney Stubbs.

Lafleur said she refused to issue the visas and after pressure from Mitchell she asked for further documentation on the applicants, according to the cable.

“She was informed by Mitchell and Stubbs that they all were high-level managers at large, multinational Chinese companies in China and were coming to The Bahamas at the invitation of Stubbs for business related travel,” the cable said.

According to the cable, after a week-long review, the Chinese Embassy told Lafleur that there was no record of any of the companies listed by Mitchell “with the exception of one company which they characterized as a small ‘mom and pop operation’ in China”.

“Lafleur again refused to issue the visas,” the cable added.

The document also said: “Lafleur claims that as a result of her refusals, Mitchell appointed another official above her in the Consular Affairs Office, who would have the authority to issue over Lafleur’s denials.

“This unlawful appointment provoked the entire consular division to go on strike.”

The Embassy official noted in the cable that the strike was widely reported in the news, but it was attributed to administrative issues in the consular division.

“Mitchell was forced to remove his appointee from the oversight position to end the strike,” the cable said.

“He then tried to get the Chinese visas approved by assigning issuing power to the Bahamian Embassy in Beijing, staffed by an ambassador.  That idea was squashed when the permanent secretary asked Consular Affairs about the idea, and was told that the ambassador had no consular training and that the UK Embassy in Beijing was more qualified by virtue of language and cultural familiarity to issue visas on behalf of The Bahamas.”

The cable said Lafleur also stated that Mitchell had sent another Bahamian to China to promote travel (and visas) to The Bahamas, but that person lacked diplomatic status there and had been removed from the country as a visa overstay.

“Asked why Mitchell would be personally interested in facilitating fraudulent visa issuance to Chinese nationals, Lafleur alleged that Mitchell received a portion of whatever fee the Chinese nationals paid for the visa,” the cable said.

“While lacking hard proof, Lafleur cited the lack of support for the visas from the Chinese Embassy and the involvement of the notorious Sidney Stubbs.”

The cable said Lafleur also expressed relief that Mitchell would not be returning as Foreign Minister.

“Citing internal sources, and noting that Mitchell had already completely cleaned out his office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lafleur said that regardless of which party wins the election, Minister Mitchell would not be returning.

“Lafleur noted that she favored the governing PLP in the upcoming election, as long as the PLP does not reappoint Mitchell as foreign minister.”

The cable said Lafleur's bribery allegation adds credence to allegations that have long been circulating in The Bahamas regarding Mitchell, and which are being used by the opposition (FNM) to discredit Mitchell, who faces a tight race against a formidable opposition candidate for his  parliamentary seat, the 2007 cable said.

“The allegation also fits with a number of events that took place and suspicions that have been suggested by Ministry of Foreign Affairs contacts,” it added.

“For example, a staff walkout did take place within recent months that was poorly understood and explained in the media.  Newspaper reports have, however, hit around the edges of this scandal, and Mitchell is squarely in the cross hairs of the Free National Movement and its anti-corruption ‘It is About Trust’ election theme.

“In fact, FNM leader [Hubert] Ingraham has privately pledged to devote whatever resources it takes to defeat Mitchell.  The fact that Mitchell now also appears to be a target of his own senior staff — even staff that supports his party's re-election — adds more credibility to the view that Mitchell may not keep his Foreign Affairs portfolio even if he and the PLP are able to win re-election.”

But in his statement yesterday, Mitchell said, “There is not one scintilla of evidence to suggest any malfeasance by me in public office.  In fact, the record shows that with regard to both passport issuance and visa issuance I never issued any visa or passport to anyone or caused such an issuance. [The allegations] were discredited by a thorough police investigation, a management audit by the Public Service Commission and by the auditor general.”

During her contribution in the Senate yesterday, Leader of Opposition Business Allyson Maynard-Gibson said Foulkes’ comments were based on ‘Wikileaks gossip’.

She said there was an investigation into the allegations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before the PLP was voted out of office in May 2007 and added that “no irregularities were found”.

Foulkes tabled the document not long after Maynard-Gibson asked him to.

Feb 16, 2012