WHILE Prime Minister Perry Christie was desperately trying to ward off the fall-out from the “Panama Papers” by assuring foreign investors that the Bahamas has one of the most stringently regulated banking systems in the world, and secrecy was of top most importance, his Foreign Minister was busily defending the right of a government minister to leak the private financial files of an environmental organisation on the floor of the House of Assembly under the guise of parliamentary privilege.
We needn’t point out that Mr Christie’s assurances would not have been taken very seriously by the international community in view of what was taking place in the House. The justification by government members to leak the private correspondence of Save The Bays (STB) seemingly put a lie to Mr Christie’s assurances. There are those who believe that the fiasco in the House has done more damage to our financial services than the ”Panama Papers” ever could. From what we have heard, we agree with that conclusion.
Fred Mitchell, in high dudgeon – his usual stance when anyone dares question his pronouncements — gave the STB lawyers, especially Fred Smith, QC, a good dressing down for daring to even question members of the House for their actions. Also for having the temerity to write to House Speaker Dr Kendal Major pointing out the legal consequences of what would follow should Minister Jerome Fitzgerald, Fred Mitchell and Water & Sewerage Corporation Leslie Miller disclose more confidential information as threatened. According to Mr Mitchell parliamentary privilege was a primary and unassailable right that could not be dismissed by “half baked lawyers and misdirected public officials and courts.” We wonder on what rung of the ladder of “half baked” lawyers he places himself — we presume below all of those he has dismissed as ”half baked.”
As a young Bahamian – with mother’s wit as his only claim to education – asked us a few days ago: “How can an MP take something that he should know has been illegally acquired, to the House and make it legal by washing it down in parliamentary privilege?”
Good question, maybe the all learned Mr Mitchell will answer that for him. Mr Mitchell must remember that MPs, no matter what kind of “political garbage can” they have trailing them, are not above the law. Mr. Fitzgerald claims that he dug STB’s private files from his “political garbage can” and decided to present them under the cloak of parliamentary privilege to the public.
It was ironic that Education Minister Fitzgerald was the minister delegated to leak this information. Not only is he responsible for producing the legislation for the Freedom of Information Act, but in November last year he was outlining for Bahamians the important relationship this Act had to the “critically” important Data Protection Act. Speaking at the National Data Protection Symposium he said that “given our culture, there is sometimes a misunderstanding of what should and shouldn’t be allowed to enter the public domain. Many people often lament the fact that confidentiality seems to be non-existent regarding certain individuals and circumstances,” he said.
“The Data Protection Act will ensure the protection of personal data. It is designed ‘to protect people’s fundamental rights and freedoms and in particular their right to privacy with respect to the processing and access of personal data.’”
Really? Is this the same Jerome Fitzgerald who stood on the floor of the House a few days ago and laid out the personal data of an organisation that had taken its grievances to the Supreme Court for a hearing? It was an environmental case brought by Save the Bays against Lyford Cay resident Peter Nygard and his lawyer Keod Smith over a piece of land that when bought by Nygard was about three acres, but over the years with the help of Mr Nygard, had grown to six acres. Mr Nygard wanted title to this land. Save the Bays’ position was that it was Crown Land, which could not be sold, added to which the addition to the land was destroying the seabed and had denuded Jaws Beach – a public beach – of the sand that would normally flow its way if not impeded by the extension of Nygard Cay.
Nygard seemed to think that this land was owed him by the Christie government because of his generous political donations. The matter should have been left with the courts. However, government members have done themselves a disservice by reacting as though an action against Nygard was an attack on them. Unfortunately, the position taken by government leaves many of us to wonder whether the relationship between Nygard and the government is more than they would like us to believe.
Anyway, as soon as Mr Fitzgerald’s intent was clear, the Speaker should have immediately ruled that the matter was sub judice and had no place in the House of Assembly. He did not do this. As a result the House had usurped the authority of the courts. Of course, the all-knowing Fred Mitchell would not agree with this. Somehow he has it in his head that the Immigration Department of which he is Minister has the final say — and not the courts — in who is allowed to stay in The Bahamas. He also believes that the conduct of the STB lawyers and Mr Smith, QC, is an “unlawful interference” of enshrined rights to freedom of access to the House and freedom of speech. He warned that he would report the matter to the police if any attempt were made to serve him with any documents related to the matter that had already been forwarded to the Committee of Privileges. Of course, he has failed to explain how this matter got to the floor of the House when it was already in the jurisdiction of the courts, and, therefore, in legal jargon – sub judice.
We hope all parliamentarians are now aware that Save the Bays has a Supreme Court order against any further disclosure of their private e-mails. If they defy this order they could be in criminal contempt of court.
It was pointed out that while their parliamentary privilege will protect them from civil action, it will not protect them from the criminal law.
If Mr Mitchell does not agree with this position, we suggest he find himself a good lawyer and together they sit down and study the English Common Law — the Westminster system — on which our laws are based.