By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC) chairman yesterday denied that underwater salvage/exploration licence approvals were being tied to multi-million dollar donations to preserve historic Bahamian sites.
Courtney Strachan’s denial came despite Tribune Business possessing a January 22, 2013, letter to one salvage licence applicant, in which he promised to “personally pursue” Prime Minister Perry Christie for an approval if the latter was able to secure a $22 million donation to the Historic Bahamas Foundation.
In the letter, shown here on Page 1B, Mr Strachan tells Key West-based applicant, Roger Miklos: “Further to our meeting and discussion (January 22, 2013), you are prepared to show good faith by securing a commitment for a donation of $22million to the Historic Bahamas Foundation.”
Mr Strachan goes on to describe the Historic Bahamas Foundation, and then tells Mr Miklos: “Once we have verified the authenticity of this donation, I will personally pursue the Prime Minister and support the immediate signing of your licence for the search of underwater cultural heritage in the Bahamas.”
When contacted by Tribune Business yesterday and asked whether underwater salvage/exploration license approvals were being linked to donations to the Foundation, Mr Strachan replied: “No, not at all.”
When reminded of the January 22, 2013, letter, which Tribune Business quoted to him, Mr Strachan said that although he remembered the meeting with Mr Miklos, he did not recall the letter.
He then promised to check the files and call this newspaper back. When he did, Mr Strachan confirmed that the letter obtained by Tribune Business was genuine, but he “preferred” not to comment further.
The Historic Bahamas Foundation, which is separate from the AMMC, has been created as a non-profit entity to secure philanthropic, charitable donations to finance the upkeep of historic and cultural sites in the Bahamas, such as the $13 million Collins House.
Recalling the meeting, Mr Miklos told Tribune Business in an interview that Mr Strachan had informed him he needed “millions” to finance the restoration of historic Bahamian sites.
But, while he eventually found a US philanthropist willing to donate $22 million to access tax credits and write-offs, Mr Miklos said it eventually fell through because the Foundation was not set-up to receive donations.
Other Tribune Business sources also confirmed the meeting between Mr Strachan and Mr Miklos, which was recorded in writing by the AMMC’s senior archaeologist, Dr Michael Pateman.
In a letter sent to Mr Miklos on the same date, Mr Pateman confirmed the meeting with Mr Strachan and said: “As we discussed, the chairman will pursue the Prime Minister regarding the signing of your licence.
“Additionally, I will follow-up with the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister regarding the issues you discussed with him in your meeting yesterday.”
The documents obtained by Tribune Business are a new twist to the ongoing confusion over the fate of 18 completed wreck salvage/exploration licence applications, which were submitted to the Government two years ago.
The applicants, and their advisers, have become increasingly frustrated over the Government’s, and AMMC’s, inability to make a decision and inform them of what is happening, especially as answers were promised within 90 days of submission.
It is now more than two years, and neither Mr Strachan nor Dr Pateman were able to tell Tribune Business what the AMMC and Government’s position was. Both men referred this newspaper to Creswell Sturrup, permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, who could not be contacted.
But, when asked by Tribune Business whether the underwater exploration licence issue was a ‘sensitive one’, Dr Pateman replied: “Unfortunately, it is.”
Dr Keith Tinker, the AMMC’s director, did not return numerous Tribune Business messages seeking comment.
One frustrated applicant is Mr Miklos himself, who told Tribune Business that his inability to get a definitive answer on his salvage application had made him look “pretty damn bad” and cost him two multi-million dollar financial backers.
Unhappy that his reputation has been damaged, Mr Miklos said the Bahamas was losing “billions of dollars” in historical artifacts and treasures to pirates and unlicensed salvors who continued to plunder this nation’s waters with impunity while the Government dithered on approving genuine applicants.
“I’ve been promised so many things, been there back and forth, and nothing has come to pass,” Mr Miklos told Tribune Business of his still-fruitless search for a Bahamian licence.
“Let me tell you that I have lost two backers, at $2 million apiece, over this because they lost faith in me. I’ve lost faith in the Bahamas, lost faith in the letters they [the AMMC] have sent.
“I’ve spent $37,000 on trips back and forth, hired an attorney who got me for $5,800 and did absolutely nothing. He told me: ‘The Prime Minister’s put it on low priority, that’s where it sits’.
“I got ripped off. They took me down the long road and up the garden path. All anybody asked them is to give me a timeframe so I knew where I stand, and they won’t even do that.”
Mr Miklos, who has been in the salvaging business since the 1960s, has long-standing ties to the Bahamas, having met and married his wife here, and lived in this nation for several years in the 1990s.
He first applied for a wreck/salvage licence in the Bahamas in 1993, only for the then-government to put a moratorium on such activities.
But, when the outgoing Ingraham administration seemingly lifted the moratorium in 2012. Mr Miklos “rushed back” with his new application only to be stalled again.
“It’s made me look pretty bad, damn bad,” Mr Miklos told Tribune Business. “It’s my only income, and it’s made it hard to raise funds. My reputation has really been hurt by this. All they’ve got to do is pick up the phone.”
Mr Miklos showed Tribune Business a draft copy of his underwater exploration licence that was sent to him by Dr Pateman in 2012.
However, he received a letter from Dr Tinker on September 18, 2013, apologising foe the Government’s delayed response to his licence application.
Dr Tinker effectively said the delays had been caused by the Government’s inexperience in such matters, and indicated that the moratorium was still in place.
“Please be reminded that licences have not been issued for over 15 years, and on reconsideration of the matter, the process as outlined in the regulations is taking a longer period than anticipated,” Dr Tinker said. “Once a final decision has been rendered, you will be notified in writing.”
Pointing to the enormous opportunity costs the Bahamas was suffering as a result of these delays, Mr Miklos told Tribune Business: “It [underwater salvage] would make the Bahamas totally independents. It would never have to depend on an outside source.
“There’s billions of dollars in those wrecks out there, believe me there is. It’s a shame.”
As an example, Mr Miklos referred to a sword allegedly recovered from a wreck in the Berry Islands, sharing photos (SHOWN HERE) of it with Tribune Business that he had received from Drs Tinker and Pateman.
“That sword is solid platinum, and belonged to a Sultan in India. It’s 300-400 years old,” Mr Miklos told Tribune Business.
“There’s all these unique treasures in these waters. By the time they sign these applications, these artifacts will be stolen or scattered over the oceans and never found.”
He added: “I just don’t understand why they can’t get it into their heads that this stuff is true. It’s not costing them a penny to sign a lease; it costs them nothing.”
The veteran salvor estimated that the wreck site he was interested, which he declined to identify to Tribune Business, was worth $500 million, with rival applicants’ at least worth $300-$400 million.
Mr Miklos said placing all recovered artifacts in a museum would further cement the Bahamas’ tourism position and generate a new revenue stream from the industry.
A Bahamian source familiar with the situation suggested that the Government was unlikely to grant any wreck exploration/salvage licences.
“It will be easier to get an oil drilling licence in the Bahamas than it will be to get a wreck salvage licence in the Bahamas,” the source said.
“That will not happen right now, so the pillage continues. It’s wrong what the Government is doing.”