By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
FORMER Education Minister Jerome Fitzgerald yesterday accused Works Minister Desmond Bannister of making “defamatory” statements, while insisting he did not benefit from a Bahamas Power and Light Company Ltd brokerage contract awarded to Bahamas Courier & Logistics (BCL), a company owned by his father.
He said the minister’s reference to him in Parliament on Wednesday was “gratuitous” and not protected by the privileges of the House of Assembly.
He also threatened to bring legal action for “defamation” in reference to newspaper headlines and “skillfully misleading information” in the publications regarding the matter.
Rejecting the assertion contracts were given to BCL because of familial ties, the former Marathon MP pointed to “a longstanding commercial” relationship with his father’s company and the government owned electricity provider dating back to the 1980s.
This comes the day after Mr Bannister revealed to parliamentarians a forensic audit by Ernst & Young into BPL that unearthed glaring infractions of the tender process, showing BCL was awarded a contract for brokerage work in the absence of participating in the tender process. The electricity provider spent $2,626,001 with BCL since 2012.
It was done against a recommendation that Pinder’s Customs Brokerage, a company with the best bid, should be awarded the contract.
Mr Fitzgerald was minister of education in the last Christie administration.
“I understand that the minister of works, the Honourable Desmond Bannister, made certain comments about one of my father’s companies and its relationship with BPL in the House of Assembly, gratuitously interposing my name in his statement,” Mr Fitzgerald said yesterday in a press statement.
“I have made it unequivocally clear both inside and outside the House of Assembly on numerous occasions, that I do not own any shares in any of my father’s companies and this most recent assertion, in light of all that has been previously communicated, is defamatory and is not protected by the privileges of the House of Assembly.
“I am not a beneficiary of any of the proceeds of any such contract, if indeed there was one.
“I am advised that Bahamas Cargo and Logistics, formerly Global Custom Brokers of which my father is the beneficial owner, has maintained a longstanding commercial relationship with BEC/BPL which dates as far back as the late 1980s. The inference that the familial connection with me was the reason for the contract or that I influenced or benefitted from the contract are both false and defamatory.”
Earlier in his statement he said: “I wish to advise the public that upon review of the headlines of the local dailies, September 21, 2017, and the egregious and skillfully misleading information contained therein, I have consulted my attorneys, with the clear objective of bringing a legal action for defamation.”
The audit, Mr Bannister said Wednesday, identified numerous irregularities in the manner in which the contracts were awarded since 2012, when the PLP took office. The document is dated August 15, 2017 but has not been tabled in Parliament as a police investigation into its findings are ongoing.
“First the report identified numerous instances where the tender process was not followed,” the Carmichael MP told parliamentarians. “Many contracts were awarded in excess of $100,000 for which no formal tender had been performed. In other instances, there was no evidence of any procurement analysis or of other quotations being obtained.
“There were also instances where contracts were awarded to vendors who had not been selected in the tendering process, thereby rejecting the companies that had actually submitted better bids and in one egregious case, a company that did not even bid was awarded a contract over the company that had followed the process and to whom the tenders committee had approved the award of a contract,” he said.
It is ironic the former MP has argued he was defamed and the comments read into the record of the House of Assembly by Mr Bannister were not protected by Parliamentary privilege.
In a landmark ruling last August, Supreme Court Justice Indra Charles declared that Mr Fitzgerald was not legally justified when he tabled the private emails of environmental action group Save The Bays (STB) in Parliament, and therefore could not be protected by parliamentary privilege.
Justice Charles, who presided over an historic constitutional motion, ruled that the former MP’s actions were an infringement of the constitutional rights of the applicants and ordered Mr Fitzgerald to pay $150,000 in damages for the breach.
Mr Fitzgerald was permanently banned from disclosure and publication of any further material belonging to Save The Bays and was ordered to delete all electronic and hard copy material within 14 days.
The Office of the Attorney General, under the former Christie administration, said it would appeal the ruling and was granted a stay pending the appeal.
It stemmed from Mr Fitzgerald’s accusation that STB was a political organisation seeking to “overthrow” the Progressive Liberal Party government under the guise of an environmental group. In the House of Assembly in March 2016, Mr Fitzgerald read private emails from STB members and others, which he said bolstered his claims.
However, in July of this year the parliamentary privilege appeal lodged by the Crown under the former government was formally withdrawn and dismissed in the Court of Appeal.