Feel free to describe us as being like a ‘dog with a bone’ as it relates to the entire Michael Freeland saga. Finding answers is what we do. Dodging answers is what politicians do and that will always be the relationship between an independent press and politicians.
The prime minister has blamed OBSERVER media for “making [the scandal] a big issue,” but he is wrong. The facts and stories surrounding the $119,866.50 and former Senator Michael Freeland’s handling of the funds made this a big issue. And in this case, there are few facts and lots of stories.
Let’s look at some of the facts. The amount of $119,866.50 from an auction conducted by Mr. Freeland, on behalf of the Customs/Port Authority, was not remitted to the relevant authorities. After a period of time, the prime minister announced that Freeland would no longer be permitted to represent the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) in the Rural East constituency. Strangely, when the PM made the announcement, he said, “He did an auction and the funds remain unpaid. Again, I don’t want to pronounce further on this issue until I speak to him but on that basis, we did put a hold on any potential candidacy because it is a serious issue, and again it is fair that I give him an opportunity to find out exactly what he has to say.” The fact that he decided on Freeland’s fate prior to hearing what he had to say was not lost on anyone.
Meanwhile, the leader of government business in the Upper House, Senator Lennox Weston, rose to defend his then colleague against any “imputation of bad motive”. He said that the now former senator was the victim of a robbery and that in order to maintain his good name, he made arrangements to pay back the near $120,000.
Actually, Senator Weston said, $160,000 but the head of Customs said that he was mistaken. But, let’s hear from Weston, “The colleague, Senator Freeland, is an auctioneer, and he did an auction,” said Weston. “The very night of collecting the [proceeds], he reported a break-in in his vehicle to the police … $160,000 was stolen. And he went the next day and made arrangements to pay back the sums in three tranches, and he has been meeting those requirements in a very straightforward manner.” He added, “There was nothing hankypanky. There was no coverup. There’s nothing illegal. It is a straightforward matter in terms of a transaction.”
Then we had the ABLP Rural East branch talking about “integrity issues” as a reason for eliminating Freeland as a possible candidate, Maria Bird-Brown percolating to the top, and eventually the December 2017 resignation of Freeland from the Senate.
So, was it a robbery or something else? We have been unable to get confirmation from the commissioner of police or the attorney general. If it was not a robbery then why would Senator Weston mislead the people, or was he misled? What really happened to the money? There are just so many questions.
While sidestepping the obvious questions, the PM has stated that he considers the matter “settled” and that any further questions should be addressed to the now mute Michael Freeland. It seems that there is some strange perception that once someone resigns or is fired, that becomes the end of a story, but it is not.
The beneficial owner of the funds were the people, and until the people are satisfied, the story has not ended. It is on their behalf that we will continue to ask the same question that we have always asked: “Whey de money gorn?” (or one of the many variations). And we do not care if we are told “Yuh pass yuh place!”.
In fact, we see that type of criticism as a badge of honour because if we were to politely sit in the corner and not move from that “place,” we will not be doing our job. It is not for us to swallow every soundbite thrown to us, like hungry puppies waiting to be fed. We are eternal skeptics and we take each and every utterance from politicians with a grain of salt until we have had the opportunity to vet the information and satisfy ourselves that it is accurate and complete.
The job of our employees, a.k.a. the politicians, is to feed us what we want to eat, not what they want to shove down our throats. And if we are not fed, we will sniff out the meaty stuff wherever it may be hidden. That’s just what we do.