Scandal, PM Browne denies a ‘formal’ report

Prime Minister Gaston Browne (File photo)

Gaston Browne, prime minister, has declared that he has not received a “formal” report from Raju Boddu, the comptroller of customs, about the Michael Freeland auction scandal that unfolded in the ministry of finance. “I want to make it abundantly clear that there is no such report,” Browne said yesterday.

He reached out to the OBSERVER newsroom on Friday after it was published earlier this week that Boddu said he had given Browne the details on the matter in December. The prime minister’s denial is the latest development in the scandal surrounding former senator and former auctioneer Michael Freeland, who sometime in 2016 reportedly collected $119,866.50 in auction proceeds, failed to immediately surrender it to the Customs and Excise Division, and paid it back in installments in 2017.

Asked whether he had provided the prime minister with all the details of what happened between the time of auction and the reported repayment, Boddu said, “Yes.” He was speaking to an OBSERVER reporter earlier this week. “We have already given it in writing to the prime minister – what is the situation. The details have been provided to the prime minister,” Boddu said. However, Browne said yesterday, “It is true that the comptroller met with me in December to give me a report – a verbal one as to what transpired. What I have from him is a sheet of paper here with payments that were made.”

Additionally, the prime minister said he could “confirm once again” that Freeland gave back the money. He asserted that there was “nothing further to report” and the matter was “a dead issue.” He also said those who continue to seek answers about the scandal have a “fetish.” He added that “it is a form of disrespect” that he “as the prime minister” should be asked to answer for “how the funds were spent.” However, it has never been confirmed by anyone that the funds were “spent”.

All that has ever been said is that Freeland failed to surrender the money in one instance, and that he subsequently repaid the sum in installments. Freeland resigned from the Senate on December 31, 2017, without explaining what happened to the money. However, another official, Senator Lennox Weston, later asserted that the money was stolen from Freeland, though this account is yet to be corroborated. Meanwhile, Browne expressed the view that resigning from the senate was “the ultimate price” which Freeland paid for failing to surrender the funds and refusing to explain himself to the public.

The prime minister also said that he, Browne, had never “had any discussion with the police about the matter.” This week, Gisele Isaac, chairwoman of the United Progressive Party and Joanne Massiah, member of parliament and political leader of the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) both asserted that upon Freeland’s failure to surrender the money in 2016, the comptroller should have notified the police.

The two women also asserted that Browne should have done the same once he became aware of the matter. However, Browne told the reporter who interviewed him, “Y’all need to allow the issue to rest. There is nothing further to report.”

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