I was marked for death

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File photo: Prime Minister Dr Rowley

THE Prime Minister said on Friday he had to be driven around in a bulletproof vehicle, when he was opposition leader, because he was targeted by certain elements for his determination to expose corruption at all levels in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Rowley said this when he opened debate on the Whistleblower Protection Bill 2022 in the House of Representatives.

He said anyone familiar with TT’s past and present will have no trouble with understanding “there is an overwhelming level of corruption.”

Describing this as an unfortunate fact of life, Rowley said the corruption was not limited to politicians but found at every level of society.

He said, as someone who committed himself to exposing and eliminating corruption wherever it is found, people threatened to kill him.

“I ran through the 2015 (general) election (as opposition leader) with a threat to my life because it appeared as though we (PNM) could have won that election and I could have become the prime minister.

“There were people who were prepared to kill me to prevent that from happening.” He added, “I went through the (2015 election) campaign in a bulletproof vehicle, surrounded by security officers.”

When she was prime minister in November 2011, Persad-Bissessar said death threats were made against herself and three other government ministers. TT was under a state of emergency (SoE) at that time. The SoE was declared in August 2011 after 11 murders happened in the space of two days.

Persad-Bissessar said the killings were a reaction by drug gangs to recent major seizures by the police of consignments worth millions of dollars.

Rowley, as opposition leader, said the SoE demonstrated that the government had no plans to deal with rising crime.

“Our initial thought is that this is a panic response which has not been the product of any serious deliberations.”

That SoE ended on December 5, 2011.

On Friday, Rowley said his government will not protect anyone accused of corruption, and rejects the views of the “leave it just so” people who want corruption to continue. Government MPs thumped their desks as Rowley declared, “I am saying no!” Referring to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi’s frequent statement of “follow the money”, Rowley reiterated there is a close connection between corruption, white collar crime and violent crime.

The bill deals with instances of corruption from inside institutions to outside on the streets.

In all those places, Rowley said, “Somebody knows (that corruption is happening) and what this bill is asking us to do is to encourage those who know, that if you know something, say something, and this country will protect you as far as you are able to.” He admitted that while the bill will not eliminate corruption, it would set the stage for it to be properly addressed.

Rowley cited instances in his public life where he encountered cases of alleged corruption. The first was as a government minister in the 1990’s under then prime minister Patrick Manning. He said a public servant went to him to protest about being promoted. Rowley said his subsequent investigation discovered that the man did not want to be promoted because he was supposedly involved in illegally influencing the issuing of licenses.

Fast-forwarding to 2015, Rowley cited the acquisition of Damen vessels for the Coast Guard and the contract for the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension project under the then UNC-led People’s Partnership (PP)coalition government, as other examples of alleged corruption exposed by whistleblowers.

On the highway project, Rowley said many people do not know that TT could stand to lose $921 million because of certain actions taken by the PP and if the former contractor for the project, OAS Construtora, is successful against the Government in ongoing arbitration proceedings.

He also said, while he was overseas on Government business Finance Minister Colm Imbert and officials in the Office of the Prime Minister alerted him to a document he signed, which was subsequently altered to increase an allocation he previously authorised by $100 million more.

He said that matter was nipped in the bud because of a safeguard he left in place – that the payment was approved pending a review by Imbert.

Naparima MP Rodney Charles complained that Rowley was speaking nonsense. Speaker Bridgid Annisette-George overruled Charles’ objection.

Rowley said he was not surprised by Charles’ reaction and by the Opposition’s reluctance to support the bill.

He recalled the UNC and other people were seemingly offended by the demonetisation of $100 cotton notes in 2019. That exercise, he continued, resulted in $500 million never returning to commercial banks. Rowley opined that money is still with its owners but is now “as good as old newspapers.”

While the bill requires a special majority for passage, and the UNC did not support it while it was before a joint select committee, Rowley said parliamentarians as lawmakers can make amendments to the Constitution to pass laws which offend any of its provisions.

Referring to TT’s history of being ranked on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and other countries around the world which have some form of whistleblowing legislation, Rowley asked why is it that TT should not have that kind of legislation.

After predicting that Opposition MPs would nitpick at the bill and concoct claims as to why they will not support it, he urged the Opposition to “put the politics aside, put the political divisions aside and put TT in front.”

He suggested that once the bill becomes law, a reward system for people who give credible information about alleged corruption could be developed. But Rowley warned that people who are found to be telling lies against other people, and passing it off as whistleblowing, will face stiff penalties.

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