By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
FINANCE Minister Peter Turnquest’s assertions regarding the former Christie administration’s handling of a $150m hurricane relief loan does not constitute a breach of Opposition Leader Philip “Brave” Davis’ privilege, House Speaker Halson Moultrie ruled yesterday.
As he rejected the request for this matter to be investigated by the Committee on Privilege, Mr Moultrie explained there must be much more than just hurt feelings or the anxiety of fleeing when no one is chasing.
Last month, in a statement, Mr Turnquest said the Minnis administration suspected the former government spent $42m of a $150m hurricane relief fund in a failed bid to buy the election. He had previously stated in the House of Assembly the government was only able to trace $108m of the money, but added at the time this does not mean the remaining money is unaccounted for, just that the government had not been able to trace it.
Mr Davis argued in the House of Assembly shortly afterwards that the comments about election buying were a breach of his privilege and called on the Speaker to refer the matter to the committee.
However, Mr Moultrie said he was not satisfied a prima facie case for referral was established, adding the comments were not made within the confines of Parliament. Meanwhile, following the ruling, Mr Turnquest in an interview after the morning session appeared to walk back earlier comments that the money was in part spent on the 2017 general election.
“I have found that the facts and evidence provided are insufficient to ostensibly establish a fact or a case unless disproved,” Mr Moultrie said yesterday morning in the House of Assembly.
He also said: “Privilege essentially belongs to the House as a whole; individual members can only claim privilege insofar as any denial of their rights, or threat made to them, would impede the functioning of the House. In addition, individual members cannot claim privilege or immunity on matters that are unrelated to their functions in the House.
“The leader of the opposition did not allege that the statement or any party thereof, made by the member for East Grand Bahama, as published in The Tribune’s report, falls specifically within or foul of the rules and/or principles enunciated above.
“The standard of proof demanded in establishing a prima facie case of privilege is the civil standard of proof on the balance of probabilities, but given the serious nature of the allegation, proof of a very high order is required. The need for such a high measure of proof is underscored by the fact that there is effectively no right of appeal.
“Even if the member of East Grand Bahama was loose, negligent or reckless in the use of words, this in itself, falls short of the standard required to hold a member responsible for deliberately misleading the public or the House for that matter.”
He continued: “Honourable members, for misleading of the House to be deliberate, there must be something in the nature of the incorrect statement that indicates an intention to mislead. There must be much more than just hurt feelings or the anxiety of fleeing when no one is chasing.
“It is against this background that I rule that the matter referred to me does not constitute a prima facie case of breach of privilege and to rule otherwise would result in the ancient privilege that I pledged to protect being modified or surrendered.”
Following the House session, Mr Turnquest told reporters he had no reason not to believe the unaccounted funds were not in the Consolidated Fund.
Earlier in his interview, the East Grand Bahama MP said the government was not trying to find the money “because there is nothing to find.”
Mr Turnquest said: “What we are doing and what we have done is that we went through expenditures that were identified as hurricane related and we tallied all of those. So that’s what we have. Now we will continue to go through that process to see if we can find more. Maybe we will, I don’t know.
“The money is in the Consolidated Fund, just as they said. I presume it is. I don’t know that it is or not. They said that it is in the Consolidated Fund. I have no reason to not believe that,” he also said.
Asked how the money is traced, Mr Turnquest told reporters: “Any expenditure out of the Public Treasury has supporting documentation. It is approved. So we can tell based upon coding and determine how the money was spent.
“To what extent it was spent on hurricane related matters or whether it was spent on something else. So that’s how we are able to say $108m was spent on hurricane matters because we can look and the voucher will say paid for lumber, paid for transportation, paid for whatever.
“I can’t find the vouchers for that ($42m) and again the process continues but to date we have not been able to identify $42m of the $150m that was borrowed as being spent directly on hurricane relief expenses.”