EDITORIAL: An innocent illusion

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When the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) administration announced that it would be launching an audit into the cost overruns on the construction of the Antigua and Barbuda Department of Marine Services and Merchant Shipping (ADOMS) headquarters, we applauded the move.  When the United Progressive Party (UPP) public relations officer, Damani Tabor, labeled the government’s announcement as being “laughable,” we retorted that there was nothing laughable about accounting for the people’s money, because for us, accountability and transparency are too rare to simply dismiss.

 With millions of dollars in cost overruns, the audit, if executed by an independent, reputable accounting firm, would get to the bottom of things, and it would be easy to determine where the blame should lie.  So far, there has been a whole lot of finger-pointing.  Everything from the site itself, to poor architecture and planning, to questionable project management – and everything else in between. Most recently, the government, and especially the prime minister, had focused their wrath on the project manager, Wendell Marshall.  Prime Minister Gaston Browne had publicly called for the firing of Marshall and  made it clear that either Marshall be fired or the project  be halted.  He said that government was no longer willing to commit any more money towards the project if the ADOMS board did not get rid of the project manager; and, if they were unwilling, he would be happy to receive their resignations.

Fast-forward a few days and the axe has dropped.  In one fell swoop, cabinet has decided to dissolve the ADOMS board, parted ways with Marshall and put control of the project under the Ministry of Public Works.  Audit and investigation be damned, a guilty verdict has been rendered, and all those found guilty have been sent packing.  The keys have been secured, and construction has been temporarily shut down. Wow!

While we feel that something needed to be done, and we certainly support a temporary halt while the project is audited, we also support due process and the concept of innocent until proven guilty.  The audit, we thought, would have been the foundation for assessing the deficiencies and eventually assigning blame for the overruns, but that course of action has been usurped, and we are told that there is likely never to be an audit.  If that is the case, we will never know if the sacking of Marshall and the disbanding of the board were justified. 

This pronouncement of guilt before an independent investigation is in stark contrast to the position that the government has taken in regard to our newest billionaire citizen, Mehul Choksi. Choksi is alleged to be involved in a gigantic bank fraud in his native land, India, and he has fled that country’s authorities claiming that he fears public and political persecution.   He received citizenship last November and pledged his allegiance to Antigua and Barbuda in January of this year.

His claims of innocence have been supported by the authorities.  Not that they say that he is innocent of the allegations against him, but rather, they support his assertion of innocence until he is proven guilty.  That is how due process is supposed to work and we are sure that Mr. Marshall and the board of ADOMS expected a similar treatment, considering the fact that they have proclaimed their innocence.  In fact, the Chairman of the Board, Henderson Bass has already gone on record saying that the Board had no “fear” of saying Marshall was accountable for the cost overruns, etc., but could not come to such a conclusion without an investigation.  He added that action should only be taken against Marshall when an investigation was completed and the findings shared with the authorities. He concluded by declaring “I have to have proof of what is being said.”   The Cabinet and the prime minister apparently need no such proof.

In the Choksi matter, that claim of due process and innocence before being proved guilty are essentially what is being proposed by the local authorities and the ABLP administration.  They have basically told the Indian authorities to show them the proof of wrongdoing because right now ‘Choksi the Antiguan’ claims innocence, and we are a land that provides a presumption of innocence until proven guilty – unless you are involved in cost overruns at ADOMS, then it is off with your head before any investigation or proof.  

For those looking to spin and defend and ask, what more proof do you want than the millions in cost overruns, we ask, “but, who is at fault?” Where do the deficiencies lie? Was civil engineering a contributing factor?  How about the architecture?  Maybe inefficient contracting played a major role.   Just a few questions from a long list that we hoped and expected to be answered by the audit investigation.  From that, “innocence” or “guilt” could have been determined.  But this is Antigua and Barbuda, and we are less concerned about transparency and accountability as we are concerned about the illusion of transparency and accountability. Smoke and mirrors, anyone?

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