By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
DEPUTY Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said he will talk to Acting Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson about his social media posts that stir controversy, although he suggested critics are making a big deal about nothing.
His statement came in the House of Assembly yesterday after Official Opposition Leader Philip "Brave" Davis criticised Mr Johnson for making politically charged statements, possibly in contravention of civil service rules.
"For the acting financial secretary to be engaged in political rhetoric surrounding this exercise is contrary to the rules of the public service," Mr Davis said during the budget debate.
"He either ought to give up the post and get into the political arena with us to discuss this or stay quiet. I am going to call on the minister of finance, and I'll present him with the information I have, and to the minister of public service to determine what should happen to him in the circumstance."
Mr Turnquest said in response: "I will have a conversation with the financial secretary about his private posts because again obviously people are looking into and trying to make things out of personal posts but with respect to official posts and official engagements where you're speaking to the public it is in his capacity as financial secretary (to speak)."
Mr Turnquest said the willingness of politicians and technocrats to engage the public on the budget is part of what makes this year's budget process a "landmark." Depending on what officials are asked, he said, unflattering comments about previous administrations may be made to provide context for what the current administration is doing.
"I think it's interesting you would go to someone's Facebook page to talk about what they might have said in the private confines of whatever sphere they are in," he said. "We have to be careful of that because all of us have a right and this is where you get into data protection and these kinds of things."
Mr Davis pointed out that Mr Johnson makes Facebook posts that are visible even to users who are not his Facebook friends.
"I am not taking any issue with the government seeking to inform and educate the Bahamian people on what they are doing and intend to do," Mr Davis said. "The issue is when that exercise crosses the line."
Amid the back and forth, House of Assembly Speaker Halson Moultrie said Parliament is not the forum to resolve such matters. "If indeed a civil servant is engaging in political matters I understand that point and that can perhaps be addressed in a different forum," he said.
Mr Johnson's initial appointment as acting financial secretary was not without controversy. Critics note that while the role is not historically given to political appointees, he was not selected from within the ranks of the Ministry of Finance and the Minnis administration never advertised a vacancy before appointing him to the position.
He had served as chief sales marketing officer for a Belizean telecommunications company, Belize Telemedia Ltd, before his appointment. He had worked in the Ministry of Finance years ago but left to work in the business community. The Tribune understands that when he was in the service, he was considered a peer and equal of Simon Wilson, the former financial secretary who he replaced last year.
Mr Johnson attracted the ire of his critics when, in a recent Facebook post, he responded to a user who suggested the Free National Movement won the election based on misinformation by criticising the PLP.
He wrote: "Misinformation? It has nothing to do with the actual performance of the previous administration? The four downgrades? The massive run up of debt after VAT? The inability to get Baha Mar open? The persistent scandals? In your view it was misinformation that caused the defeat of the former administration? Interesting."
After another recent controversy, Mr Johnson apologised for comments he made on ILTV's programme "Beyond the Headlines" with Clint Watson.
Asked if the government is concerned about possible job losses in the gaming sector because of a planned tax increase, he said job opportunities are available at places like Baha Mar which is "still looking for housekeepers" at a time when the economy is growing.
He responded to the backlash on Facebook, saying: "I apologise if it came across that I was suggesting the persons losing a job in the industry should become housekeepers. That was not my intent. It was a point I was attempting to make about the broader economy in summary form during a fluid interview. I understand though, the inference it could reasonably lead to. Hence, I do apologise to those I may have offended due to my own lack of clarity on the matter."
Yesterday, the PLP circulated excerpts from General Orders, a collection of rules for public officers, which show impartiality from those in the civil service is demanded.
One rule says: "In joining the public service, a public officer voluntarily enters a profession in which his service to the public will take a nonpolitical form; and whatever may be his political inclination his impartiality in the performance of his duty must be beyond suspicion. It follows therefore that a public officer should not normally take any active part in matters of public or political controversy and particularly if the matter is one with which he is officially concerned."