April 2005 Archives

The Bermuda Sun seems to have picked up Fred Barritt (of Not the Um Um fame) as a columnist, and a good one at that.

His first column on Independence cut through the BS to address the real question, which is not can we go Independent, but should we. He nailed the question, and the answer.

This week he penned a highly entertaining piece on the pay for play scandal and the quality of representation and our representatives.

He generated more than a few chuckles with some lines I wish I'd come up with.

The Sun has done well to pick up such an entertaining writer. Mr. Barritt's column is one more reason to look forward to Fridays.

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RG Opinion (27 Apr. 2005)

This isn't about race, it's about integrity

In the wake of the pay for play scandal, Dr. Brown has been conspicuously and uncharacteristically absent in the press; quite a departure from his track-record of almost daily press conferences. That the Transport Minister has an affinity for air travel – with his shoes on please – is well known, making his journey underground all the more notable.

Despite this attempt to stay out of the spotlight – in the hope that silence will starve the scandal to death – new details continue to emerge. The ethical and legal questions persist for both Dr. Brown and his pension fund consultant buddy Tina Poitevien.

Other than the usual suspects, no-one has been brave enough to publicly defend the ‘fundraising’ luncheon held in Washington DC. The lone voices who dared venture out have – setting aside the predictably desperate insertion of race – professed Dr. Brown’s innocence on the basis of his lack of direct involvement in Bermuda’s pension fund administration, coupled with the suggestion that those who “played” didn’t get “paid” – other than the Transport Minister that is.

Those issues however amount to only a fraction of the problem. Favourable responses to them all wouldn’t put to bed some of the more disturbing aspects of this still young scandal.

Setting aside the specifics of ‘pay for play’ for the moment, there are some other disturbing aspects to the DC event which haven’t received much attention, but are particularly troubling.

For a Cabinet Minister to use a Government consultant, and a foreign one at that, to organize a political fundraiser is highly inappropriate and compromising for both parties. Consultants working for the Bermuda Government, like civil servants, serve the people of Bermuda not a political party. Under no circumstances should they offer, be invited, or be allowed, to become involved in local politics.

The moment Dr. Brown used Ms. Poitevein as his overseas fundraiser, whether paid or not, he brought himself, her, and the integrity of the Bermuda pension funds into question. Furthermore, the disclosure that Ms. Poitevein is a close friend of Dr. Brown only raises more questions about her appointment as a consultant in the first place.

Unless you support taxpayer funding of political parties and electoral campaigns, donations are a necessary evil in politics. The parties and their candidates incur expenses during and between elections, and should be able to cover these costs through legitimate and ethical fundraising. A political party unable to find financial support for their candidacy is unlikely to be able to attract voters to the polls.

But this scandal shouldn’t be confused with normal political fundraising. The idea of Bermudian MPs fundraising and accepting money from foreigners, in a foreign country, is unsettling.

Many countries expressly prohibit political fundraising from foreign sources as it tends to corrupt the electoral process by raising a litany of murky issues around the motivations and allegiances of both the donors and the recipients.

In Dr. Brown’s case, his Washington DC fundraising efforts were aimed at the employees of foreign corporations with no physical presence in Bermuda, but a vested economic interest in our pension funds. Not much good can be read into that.

Next in the list of worrying non-“pay for play” aspects to this saga, is the solicitation for “cheques payable to Dr. Ewart Brown (PLP)”. Any MP, let alone a Cabinet Minister, who accepted cheques made out to them personally – bracketed “PLP” notwithstanding – is reckless at best or misusing their public office for personal financial gain at worst; a “shakedown” as they say.

Despite the claim that this was an innocent political fund-raising event, those cheques present as much evidence to support that conclusion as the following alternative one: that Dr. Brown was using his Cabinet position to raise funds from the Bermuda Government’s overseas money-managers for his personal use.

Bermuda’s political parties and their branches should and do maintain their own bank accounts. Donations should never, ever, be payable to an individual MP, but their branch, “PLP Warwick South Central Branch” for example; not “Dr. Ewart Brown (PLP)”. There’s absolutely nothing preventing those cheques from being deposited in Dr. Brown’s private bank account, never to be used for any political purpose whatsoever.

Finally, everyone knows that in Bermuda you’ve got to “Pay and Display”. The exemption granted by the Transport Minister to his Cabinet colleagues and their oversized cars at the airport doesn’t apply in Parliament.

According to MP Trevor Moniz, the monitor of the Parliamentary Register of Interests, Dr. Brown failed to declare the Washington DC transactions as required; the second known failure by the Deputy Premier to comply with financial disclosure requirements. The Minister also failed to disclose the controversial and lucrative sale of a property to the Bermuda Housing Corporation.

This cavalier attitude towards the Parliamentary Register of Interests, an important tool to protect the electorate from abuses of power and conflicts of interests by our elected officials, is worrying in the extreme.

Public disclosure of financial information for Bermuda’s MPs isn’t particularly onerous; in fact it’s completely inadequate. The Register of Interests is not a minor nuisance to be ignored at will, but even its minimal requirements appear to be too much for Dr. Brown.

The repeated failure to comply with Parliamentary rules is disturbing, before even considering the ‘pay for play’ aspects of the fundraiser. Additionally, the circumstances surrounding the Washington DC luncheon indicate either a terrible lack of judgment by Dr. Brown (and Ms. Poitevein), or an MP with appalling ethical standards rendering him unsuitable for public office.

Any of these issues individually, let alone combined, warrant an immediate expulsion from Cabinet. A Premier who valued ethical conduct, and a Cabinet who weren’t willing to have their own reputations permanently tarnished, would draw a line in our pink sand and declare this conduct intolerable.

Bermuda is on a slippery slope where ethical standards are being rolled back, accountability measures for public officials are ignored, and modern disclosure requirements are dismissed as worthless.

The integrity of our political system is suffering terribly from the actions of a few.

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Wow, that was fast!

First off the mark with another example of the PLP's not-so-subtle 'the UBP love England jabs' is reader CD (no that's not me):

"While we seek to serve all the good people of this great country of ours, we would encourage the Opposition to experience life here in Bermuda up close and personal and not from the decks of the now decommissioned, Royal Yacht, Britannia."

- From "The Power of Positive Thinking" Opinion by Scott Simmons, Royal Gazette, April 5th 2005

I missed that one while on vacation.

But indeed, another great example. In fact, this one's particularly glaring, because like Mr. Simmons' previous Opinion that was again the payoff line of the piece. More bizarrely, it w was also the sole reference to the UBP in the whole article.

Desperation.

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Posting has been light lately as I've been on vacation for a week, followed by a week of business travel, and then it took a week to get re-oriented. But I'm back in the swing of things now.

So I apologise for playing a little bit of catch-up over the next few days, on a variety of topics.

First in that list is a follow-up to my post of a few days ago discussing why most people are uninspired by the topic of independence.

One of the points I made, but didn't support with concrete examples, focused on the signs of an emerging strategy by the PLP to portray anyone not supportive of independence as a 'royalist', UK loyalist or aligned with the UK.

So I think it's only fair to follow-up with some examples, statements that just didn't fit in with the topic being discussed, but clearly made for one purpose only; to try and plant a seed in people's minds that in particular the UBP are royalists and loyal to the UK not Bermudians.

The problem? These references are glaringly out of place.

Example A: Scott Simmons' rather meandering, probably ineffective, but at times mildly entertaining Op-Ed in the Royal Gazette, 'What's new about the UBP?'.

The piece was essentially an out of the blue attack on UBP Leader Dr. Grant Gibbons by the PLP's spokeperson. It was the last sentence of the piece that just didn't fit in and got my attention:

In the mean time, the Progressive Labour Party will continue to govern in the best interest of the people of Bermuda while the old UBP guard brushes up on the opening bars of "God Save The Queen".

Huh? The UBP is brushing up on "God Save the Queen"? That was the article's payoff?

Figuring that this wasn't used because Mr. Simmons thought it too good of a joke to pass up, even though it had little relevance to the piece, I decided to keep an eye out for further examples.

Then, just a few weeks later, a similar off-topic reference appeared again, this time in an even stranger place; Dr. Brown's sole public comment on the 'pay for play' scandal:

The Deputy Premier also touched lightly for the first time on the pay-to-play allegations last night. “Regardless of his beliefs about the Premier's positions on the issues of the day (including groundless allegations against me), the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition has revealed a most unseemly and ungentlemanly side of his character,” he said.

"The Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition"? Since when have we been going to those lengths to say "The Opposition", and do you think the PLP would refer to themselves as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition"? Nope. It might be the technical term, but they're also Her Majesty's Government in that case.

And I can only presume that Dr. Brown isn't too concerned with the pay for play scandal if he'll insert something like that in his press release.

It's a pretty sad state of affairs when the PLP are having to resort to such childish tactics in order to try and advance Independence.

I'll be on the lookout for more references like this, both in the print and broadcast media. The more the merrier. Send in any you see and I'll post them here.

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RG Opinion (21 April 2005)

Pension funds are the new BHC

All modern political democracies are built on a system of checks and balances, Bermuda is no exception.

But while the principle of "checks and balances" usually refers to the separation of powers between branches of government, the PLP Cabinet seems to have a different take – cut me a cheque and increase my balance, principal not principle.

If you thought that the dead-on-arrival BHC investigation would put an end to the ‘unethical but not illegal’ campaigns, you’d be sadly mistaken. The revelations just keep on coming.

The Bermuda Government’s pension funds are the new BHC.

In the past few months alone we've learned that two Cabinet Ministers were involved in highly inappropriate activity.

First we saw a sitting Government Minister receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions for broking Government pensions into a company she was a major shareholder in.

Now, just weeks later, it has been revealed that a dozen or so current and prospective pension fund managers, who we were told just coincidentally happen to be Dr. Brown’s friends, each paid the then Transport Minister $2,500 for the pleasure of his company. If they weren’t his friends before the lunch – which now seems to be the case – I’m sure they were afterwards. Wasn’t that the whole point?

So what has been the official response to this latest scandal? We’re being asked to believe that this gathering of investment professionals – all with a current of prospective interest in the Bermuda Government’s pension portfolio – had nothing whatsoever to do with influence peddling with a Cabinet Minister and his pension fund consultant friend.

The voters in Warwick South Central must feel very reassured knowing that their local MP is financed by foreign corporations – a collection of investment professionals with an odd concern for Bermuda’s transportation issues.

The upside however is that we at least have a new PLP campaign slogan for the next election. “Pay for play” easily sums up the 7 year track record of the New Bermuda. Unfortunately though, while our "leadership" plays, we’re the ones who will ultimately pay, with both our tax dollars and our good name.

But while we’re on the topic of paying and playing, who paid for Dr. Brown’s travel expenses to these "fundraisers" anyway? What else don’t we know about? Who keeps spilling the beans?

Is Cabinet turning on each other yet again? It seems that way.

Thus far, not one of Ms. Webb or Dr. Brown’s Cabinet colleagues have come to their defense, indicating all the outward signs of a continuing internal power struggle. Dr. Brown is probably receiving a little pay for play himself, with his colleagues engaging in a little payback for his surgical separation of Jennifer Smith and the Premiership.

And speaking of Premiers, why is the current one chronically AWOL when it comes to speaking up on financial dealings and ethical failures, of which there have been many? We have a Premier who is yet to flex any muscles, preferring instead to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Cabinet level abuses of power; inaction that amounts to a tacit endorsement. So much for Mr. Scott’s self-professed strong leadership.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of this most recent revelation (remember the undeclared, double market value, twice rejected, Flatts real estate deal) the Premier is again conspicuously out of sight, his primary concern being self-preservation, not good governance. More than likely, the Accidental Premier’s position is so tenuous, so compromised, that he can only sit back and watch this apparent free for all unfold?

The Premier is acutely aware that his second in command would like to be in command. It’s abundantly clear that Dr. Brown comes not only with a big car and a big travel budget, but big ambition after already taking down one Premier - and evidently a big campaign fund.

As the saying goes, you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So inside Cabinet he’ll no doubt stay, a man on his own mission of self-interest and self-promotion.

But if Mr. Scott won’t act, then who will? It certainly won’t be the as yet to be appointed Ombudsman. Not-so-casual observers will recall that Cabinet quietly and conveniently excluded themselves from the investigative reach of this official, and aren’t rushing to fill the post either.

US regulators might have the ability hold the parties involved on their side accountable, but ours will get off Scott free (pun intended).

Yet again, Bermudians are getting no answers and no satisfaction. Will this ever end?

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Yet another article in the foreign press on Independence, this time it's one published a few days ago at ObviousNews.com.

ObviousNews does a good job of making some obvious points - to those of us who live in the real world and not those intent of reliving the battles of the 60s.

On the money quotes:

"The passion for independence on the wealthy mid-Atlantic island and Britain‘s oldest colony seems, however, even more lackluster than most Bermudians‘ fervor for their motherland."

and

"It's the wrong issue at the wrong time," said opposition lawmaker Trevor Moniz, who voted against his own United Bermuda Party to help defeat a previously unsuccessful referendum on independence a decade ago.

Moniz is typical of many whose wish to continue ties with Britain is based more on pragmatism than passion.

Not-so representative sentiments:

Historian Joyce Hall, who can trace her family back to the first English settlers, said the island owed Britain.

"Everything that is stately and dignified is British," said Hall, who admitted she is a dying breed.

Ms. Hall is a very nice and well-intentioned lady who I've met on a couple of occassions. She's very outspoken.

Ms. Hall is also, as she indicated, in a very small minority. And in case you haven't noticed it yet, that's the minority that the spin doctors at the PLP want to try and paint anyone opposed to independence as, when in fact they are few and far between.

Of the majority who oppose independence, very few would fall in Ms. Hall's camp and most would fall in Trevor Moniz's - they don't look at the UK with starry-eyed awe, but from a perspective of pragmatism.

Contary to Ms. Hall's assertion, we don't owe the UK anything, and they don't want much.

The overwhelming majority of people who do not support independence, are not royalists or admirers of the UK. They are Bermudians, of all ages, races and backgrounds who believe that we are best served through the current arrangement with the UK, not some ideological desire for a permanent bond or because they run nice parades.

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It'll be interesting to see whether the idea of full public disclosure of the political fundraising gains any traction, either with the public or the parties.

But I also wouldn't allow this issue to confuse the ethical problems currently engulfing the PLP, and specifically Dr. Brown, over the 'pay for play' allegations.

We're all grown-ups here, and just like the BHC investigation revealed Cabinet level behaviour that was clearly wrong but not illegal, this is no different. You don't need laws in place to know what is and is not appropriate.

The 'pay for play' issue involves a private luncheon for exclusively current and potential pension fund managers with a sitting Cabinet Minister (see Trevor Moniz's comments today). To make it worse, the 'donations' were payable to a politician personally rather than a party account, bracketed "PLP" on the cheques notwithstanding - it is meaningless. That reeks.

There is no reason to just accept the explanation that Dr. Brown was raising for his constituency campaign. It is just as likely that those went into his personal account, based on the name on the cheque, as campaign fundraising.

But moving past that for now...

Personally I'm with the Editor of RG and Trevor Moniz - in full support of campaign finance disclosure. I'm also fully aware that it will curtail the amount of money raised by the parties, which on the whole is probably not a terrible thing, and that experiences in other countries, like the US, Canada, the UK shows that for every law is a loophole (just look at the 527 industry that grew out of the McCain-Feingold financen law in the US last year).

And it's worth pointing out that political fund-raising money is not in and of itself a bad thing. Political parties can't operate without funds. The issue that needs addressing is about creating transparency so that the public can reach their own conclusions on whether people are buying access and gaining favours.

Bermuda's community is very small and there is an increased sensitivity to things like political donations. Some donors might shy away for entirely legitimate reasons knowing that their name would be made public, our political environment can be hostile.

However, some individuals and business are clearly trying to buy influence, and some MPs appear willing to be bought, and that needs tackling.

This isn't however a simple question, there are many levels to this and ways to address the issue. Some of the considerations would include:

- whether to cap individual/corporate contributions?
- corporate vs personal donations?
- whether to prevent foreign nationals and corporations from donating?
- whether to allow fundraising from non-Bermudian residents (they are affected after all)?
- full reporting of total amounts raised, and on what timeable?
- reporting of amounts (only over a certain level or every donation regardless of size)?
- reporting of the central organisations fundraising vs individual candidates (who do raise money separately)
- do membership fees equal a disclosed donation?
- should we forget campaign finance disclosure and just implement public funding of the parties? (ie. each party gets x amount of tax dollars to run their campaign on - there's potentially some constitutional or legal issues that could come into play here - any lawyers around?)
etc. etc.

Those are just a few that spring to mind.

We also need to be wary of creating a new bureaucracy, and putting onerous reporting on the parties will require them to raise more money, in order to support the regulatory issues. They don't have a lot of resources as it is and will be hard pressed to hire full-time compliance officers.

Bermuda also, particularly of late, doesn't have a great track record on the independence of committees such as the Broadcast Commission, the Pensions Committee etc..

Before delving into some misconceptions though, just a quick comment on something that wouldn't be addressed by campaign finance disclosure: the misuse of the civil service/public funds for political purposes.

Just as important as campaign finance reform is the clear politicisation of the civil service that is going on, and the use of Government Information Services for partisan political purposes by the PLP, or any future government for that matter.

There is inevitably some overlap in Government Information Services for example, but things like the recent focus groups; the advertorial the PLP placed in Time shortly after the 98 election (which was deemed inappropriate but that the PLP never reimbursed the taxpayers for, as instructed); and the broadcast rule changes.

A governing party that abuses the independence of the civil service is both misusing public funds as well as taking an undisclosed donation in kind, that won't be reported. Currently, this is going on and creates an uneven playing field. We need to get resolution on that issue as well.

But back on to campaign finance:

Probably the biggest misconception is that both parties, and maybe more likely the UBP, are awash in money. Obviously the parties function through a combination of volunteerism and donations, but the amounts of cash support are far less that people think. Both parties struggle to raise money, particularly between elections, and it isn't cheap to run a decent campaign.

Public disclosure of donations would certainly discourage some donors from contributing, and I think you can argue both sides of the pros and cons of that. Ultimately however, I would tend to come down on the side of full disclosure.

But again, there are already ethical standards in place, such as Codes of Conduct and the Register of Interest that are being largely ignored: again in the spotlight, Dr. Brown didn't declare a real estate transaction with the BHC and according to Trevor Moniz didn't declare the pensions luncheon, nor did Renee Webb declare her broking of Government pensions to a company she was a shareholder in (although she did declare her shareholding interest).

We can put as many regulations in place as we can dream up, but if they're going to be ignored and there is no enforcement, then what's the point?

The idealist in me though wonders why we can't elect more decent, ethical people into politics, and stop accepting these abuses of power and position as inevitable. They're not ok and we have to take a stand against them.

I'll have much more to say on this over the coming days and weeks and would be interested in any ideas and feedback you might have.

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Talk about trying to change the subject.

The Premier finally comes out of hiding, and Dr. Brown emerges from presumably his legal huddle, but not to address the pay to play allegations. Instead it was to try and shift the focus off of the Premier and his Deputy and onto the UBP. The dynamic due went on the offensive, expressing false outrage over yesterday's quote referring to the Premier as a 'political eunuch'.

As insults go in Bermuda's political arena that seemed pretty tame, although quite creative. But was it appropriate? Did it lower the level of political discourse? Not at all, it's pretty low to begin with.

Dr. Gibbons' comment referring to a eunuch describes a man who has had his testicles removed. That sounds like a rough analogy unless you listen to Pariament, where the PLP, and Dr. Brown in particular, constantly using the phrase 'testicular fortitude'.

A political eunuch would therefore be someone who lacked testicular fortitude.

Seems fair ... and accurate.

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Ahh, if only Dr. Brown had as much success raising money from international companies as he does his pension fund 'friends' in the US.

The chilly reception which has greeted the Tourism Minister's request for the international companies to guarantee profits to airlines perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy can't be all that much of a surprise can it?

But let's get the not-so-subtle threat out of the way first, before discussing the attractiveness of this proposal.

He termed the effort an example of "good corporate citizenship" rather than a form of indirect taxation on international companies. "That's like comparing the opening up of an abscess to major medical surgery," he said. "This is just the same old partnership we're always talking about."

On the surface this might sound innocent enough, which is the intention, but the use of the phrase "good corporate citizenship" is a direct threat.

"Good corporate citizens" is the PLP's code word for work permit renewal and key employee exemption. That's not really a good starting point to entice businesses in for a 'partnership' is it. That type of passive aggressive behaviour is characteristic of this Government.

But moving past the typical PLP Government's intimidation, the question is why would the international companies funding airline guarantees?

For starters, the PLP have always looked at international business as a bottomless money pit to fund their misadventures. This is just another example, after former Tourism Minister David Allen attempted to have the industry finance a grand tourism headquarters (a self-serving idea Dr. Brown has hinted at resurrecting).

Businesses are not charities, although they do give heavily of their own accord, and they're certainly not around to be called on whenever Government doesn't want to pay for their programs.

Then there is of course the fact that Bermuda's businesses actually know how to make money, unlike the airline industry. The primary obligation of our international businesses is to its shareholders, not politicians, and certainly not propping up money-losing businesses. What would their shareholders think knowing that an insurance company was donating money to an airline they already pay exhorbitantly high fares to on a regular basis.

International business is already propping up the Bermuda airline routes. Take away the business travelers, who pay the much higher no-restriction first/business class fares and half of these flights would go away tomorrow.

But is this initiative for the new Miami route even going to help tourism? I doubt it. That Miami flight might do ok, but it'll be because of the locals not tourists. How many tourists are coming in from Miami? It's not exactly in the northeast, our real target market. I'm not against setting up flights for locals, we like to vacation too, but let's not pretend it's the saviour for tourism.

Which of course then begs the question of why the international companies should subsidise people's vacations. Which also raises the question of what guarantee the airlines have given in return to maintain reasonable fares?

But setting all that aside, $3M isn't a huge amount of money out of the Bermuda Budget. It's less than 0.5 of one percent. And wasn't it this tourism minister who was puffing out his chest during the budget debate about not needing any additional funding for 2005?

And of course, we can't forget Berkeley, the poster-child for Government fiscal waste. Over $70M additional dollars will being spent entirely unnecessarily there, not even considering the inevitable legal settlement with Pro-Active.

How many airline guarantees could the Government have offered with that? Hell, you might be able to buy one of those bankrupt airlines for $70M.

We could have taken that money and bought 140,000 tickets (assuming $500 each) to hand out for free on the streets of NY. That would certainly have put it to better use that the current plan to pour it into a building that should have been built for half the cost.

And finally, just one question:

If Tourism can't afford $3M for airline revenue guarantees, how do we propose to fund the infrastructure, both domestic and foreign, of an independent Bermuda?

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Recommended reading on page 1 of the Mid Ocean News this week.

I'd heard inklings that something was coming down the tubes, and I think one other media outlet was working on this story, but it'll probably be dismissed as yet another shameful episode, expected in the New Bermuda.

The Government pension fund seems to be quite an attractive place for Cabinet Ministers to trade favours for dollars, doesn't it? What else don't we know about?

Just to recap: in the past few weeks alone we've witnessed the Premier and Housing Minister be exposed as liars, Renee Webb receive commissions for broking the Government pension fund to a company she held shares in, and now it's been revealed that US businesses are cutting cheques to Ewart Brown.

Anyone who is even remotely considering going Independent under this bunch of bandits need their heads examined.

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