by Carlena Knight
The Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister has sought to debunk claims that Prime Minister Gaston Browne is perpetrating corruption by renting one of his properties to a well-known investor.
The claim, by several pundits and opposition members, is in relation to an agreement for the rental of Browne’s Jolly Harbour home to Victor Singh, the investor behind the new Special Economic Zone (SEZ), Western Imperial.
The agreement additionally calls for a payment to the landlord, Browne, of US$20,000 as a security deposit, among other fees.
Since news broke about the tenancy agreement, the opposition has accused the Prime Minister of benefitting from private deals with Singh while conducting government business, claiming the timeline for the lease preceded the agreement for the SEZ.
Browne has denied the accusation several times.
The most recent claim was however made by one pundit Akaash Maharaj as he spoke about the matter on Observer media’s Big Issuesshow on Sunday.
Maharaj, who is the Ambassador-at-Large for the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), explained that although there may very well be no instances of illegal activity, there should be laws in place to bar the PM from being able to conduct such private deals while in office, and thus avoid suspicion in the first place.
But, according to Lionel “Max” Hurst, who spoke a day later on the Observer AM show, no laws were broken, so there should therefore be no suspicion arising of any form of corruption.
“We can all agree that no laws were broken. There’s nothing in the Integrity and Public Life Act that was violated.
“There’s nothing in the Anti-Corruption Act that was violated and, clearly, he had done exactly as the law prescribed that, if he is entering into any business, he has the obligation to share it with his Cabinet colleagues, and the Honourable Gaston Browne did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Hurst said.
He claimed that some pundits are trying to impose other countries’ laws into Antigua and Barbuda but it is wrong to do so, as the law is the law and there were no laws broken by the PM.
Prime Minister Browne has on numerous occasions spoken on the issue, saying that it was not at his insistence that the rental of his Jolly Harbour home took place.
He added that he did not seek out the investor for the new SEZ to engage him about a rent agreement.
Additionally, the prime minister has stated that he did not negotiate the terms of the SEZ, but that they are standard terms given to any SEZ investor.
Regarding the claim of the timeline of these two events, a local businesswoman, Lisa Makhoul, while speaking on another local radio station on January 8, suggested that Singh’s arrangements to create the new SEZ were either underway or near completion long prior to the renting of the prime minister’s Jolly Harbour property.
Attorney Anthony Astaphan echoed those sentiments while appearing on Big Issues on Sunday alongside Maharaj.
“The Cabinet had in fact approved the licence months before its publication and the execution of the rental agreement,” Astaphan explained.
There is a second property in the Villa/Dredge Bay area which has also been leased to Singh, this time by PM Browne’s son, Gaston Browne III, through a company called Investment Facilitation Antigua Limited – IF Antigua Ltd.
In this agreement, a property with at least two villas and a restaurant is leased to Singh through Metropolitan University College of Medicine for two years.
The monthly rent is US$12,000. There is also a reservation and deposit fee of US$72,000.
Little has been said about that agreement, which was signed on October 1 2021, a week after the Jolly Harbour rental agreement.
Meanwhile, Browne had his own opinion on the comments made by Maharaj.
On Sunday via social media, the PM referred to Maharaj as “a conceited, puritanical gun for hire”.
Maharaj offered a response to Browne on social media as well, saying that “the response from the PM shows that his words had some sort of effect on him” as it is “exceedingly rare for heads of governments to take to social media to engage in name-calling, especially towards people who work to advance ethics and integrity in the public sphere”.
He also shared his hopes that his words would urge PM Browne to live up to a certain standard, and appealed to him to implement stronger anti-corruption laws.
A call was also made by Maharaj to reform the local Integrity Commission so that the body may enforce standards.
He also touched on the row between PM Browne and Asot Michael which saw both men accuse each other of illegal acts.
Maharaj added that while the truth is uncertain “if either of you is telling the truth then the people of Antigua and Barbuda have been badly served by a legal and political system that has allowed at least one of you to act in ways that should shock the conscience of the nation”.