By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Perry Christie and his Cabinet approved the award and financial terms of a web shop boss’s controversial $1.46m computer supply deal with the Ministry of Finance, court documents allege.
Simon Wilson, the ministry’s financial secretary, says the contract was awarded to Xua Company Ltd, an entity owned by Pete Deveaux, chief executive of the Island Game, upon Cabinet approval “and the directions of the former minister of finance” - who was Mr Christie.
The top official, who remains on leave, also claimed that the financial terms of the “lease-to-own” deal struck with Mr Deveaux and Xua for the computer equipment were approved by both Mr Christie and Michael Halkitis, then minister of state for finance.
The revelations came in Mr Wilson’s lawsuit against the Government, which alleges it denied him due process, “procedural fairness and fundamental justice” in engineering his departure as financial secretary and replacement by Marlon Johnson. He wants the Supreme Court to restore him to that position, together with the salary and benefits due to such a position.
Replying to a July 30, 2018, “show cause” memorandum written by Camille Johnson, the Cabinet secretary, which sought to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him, Mr Wilson defended himself against allegations relating to both the Ministry of Finance’s dealings with Xua and the Atillio Holdings apartment rentals - the subjects of the two reports tabled in the House of Assembly by the Government last week.
Arguing that the Auditor General had yet to produce its conclusions on the computer supply deal, Mr Wilson said in his August 14, 2018, reply to Ms Johnson: “The Cabinet of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas had previously provided the Ministry of Finance with the authority to engage in bulk purchases of personal computers as a cost-saving mechanism.
“Pursuant to the Cabinet approval and the directions of the minister of finance, the contract was awarded to Xua. Financing arrangements are not subject to Tenders Board and Cabinet approval. The financial arrangement with Xua was approved by both the former prime minister and minister of finance, Perry Christie, and the former minister of state for finance, Michael Halkitis.”
Mr Wilson, in his August 14, 2018, reply to Ms Johnson said the computer equipment supply deal was struck after the Christie Cabinet gave the go-ahead for the Ministry of Finance to proceed with the Electronic Single Window (ESW) project to modernise Bahamas Customs.
This, he added, “included the replacement of a minimum of 400-600 hundred computers within the Customs Department” as part of efforts to digitise and streamline its operations, and reduce the cost and time involved with clearing goods to speed up cross-border commerce.
There is nothing to suggest that Mr Christie or Mr Halkitis did anything wrong in relation to the Xua contract, nor that either man is the “senior elected official” referenced in the reports tabled in the House of Assembly.
FTI Consulting, in its investigation of the Ministry of Finance’s procurement processes and contract award procedures, said the computer supply deal appeared to originate at a meeting attended by Mr Wilson, Mr Deveaux and the official - who held ministerial rank - some three months before the deal’s April 2017 signing.
Mr Wilson’s account, though, contradicts the FTI Consulting report over the issue of whether the award had Cabinet approval. The report quoted a September 25, 2017, “minute paper” written by his replacement, Mr Johnson, which said the Ministry had “not been able to locate the paperwork to support the authorisation of” the agreement with Mr Deveaux.
Mr Johnson’s report added that there was not evidence of “ministerial or Cabinet involvement, nor any quotes or tender documentation”. He then suggested that this might be “a material breach of the [Financial Administration and Audit Act] in respect of the procurement of goods and services”.
The FTI Consulting report also challenged the “lease-to-own” terms, which appears to be the “financial arrangement” approved by Messrs Christie and Halkitis referenced in Mr Wilson’s legal “statement of claim”.
“It is unclear why the agreement was structured as a lease-to-own contract and why the Ministry of Finance did not simply purchase the equipment outright,” the report said. It added that Mr Wilson revealed it was due to the Ministry’s budget constraints, which had left $200,000-$400,000 available to fund the deal, coupled with Mr Deveaux’s ability to provide financing.
Still, the timing of the FTI Consultants’ reports release through their tabling in the House of Assembly, coming exactly two weeks’ after Mr Wilson filed his legal action with the Supreme Court, suggests the Government’s action was motivated by the financial secretary’s move.
It appears to have wanted to justify its reasons for replacing Mr Wilson, and strike first over the dispute, possibly anticipating that the matter would become public and cause further controversy.
For both the Xua and Atillio deals were central to the alleged “breaches” by Ms Johnson in her letter to Mr Wilson. FTI Consulting, which was acting on the Auditor General’s behalf, said neither deal was put out to competitive bidding with the Government’s Tenders Board is routinely bypassed in the awarding of contracts that should go before it.
Mr Wilson, in reply, reiterated that the Auditor General had to release his findings on both matters, and added “that there is no precedent for Tenders Board or Cabinet approving a residential lease agreement” as in the case of Atillio.
As for the other two matters cited by the Cabinet secretary, Mr Wilson said he was not holding the post of financial secretary when Walcott Industries was awarded a contract to provide LED lighting at the prison and University of The Bahamas.
And he denied acting as an attorney, and writing legal opinions, as was alleged over a letter sent to Etienne Dupuch Jr Publications “on the legality of an alleged contractual arrangement” between that company and Obie Wilchcombe, the former minister of tourism.
“In doing so you purported, based on your past conduct in office, to acknowledge the existence of a contractual liability of more than $2m in circumstances where, to your knowledge, the Government, for several years, refused or failed to sign a written contract proffered by Dupuch Publications,” Ms Johnson claimed.
Mr Wilson alleged that the timing of the Cabinet secretary’s letter, sent some 11 months after he began a 54-week “directed leave”, was deliberately intended to prevent his return to work as financial secretary and keep Mr Johnson - the preference of Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis - in the job.
He added that he had gone on leave “in good faith”, believing that he had reached agreement with Dr Minnis that he would be transferred to the Central Bank of The Bahamas as its economic adviser.
Mr Wilson said his discussions with the Prime Minister had given him a “legitimate expectation” this would happen, as Dr Minnis had - just over three months after the May 2017 general election - initially offered to hire him as a consultant in his office due to his “known and generally accepted high level of competency on public financial matters”.
It was Mr Wilson who ultimately suggested the Central Bank post to enable him to make way for Mr Johnson to become acting financial secretary. But, after vacating his offices, Mr Wilson alleged he was “immediately denied” the benefits associated with being financial secretary, and had his e-mail access temporarily blocked.
Once this was restored, Mr Johnson “was given full access to the entire e-mail file” of Mr Wilson, who was “denied access to all of his working documents and files” in contravention of his “operational oversight authority as the substantive financial secretary”.
Mr Wilson’s statement of claim said he had worked with four ministers of finance and three ministers of state for finance, and “never ever been accused of any act of negligence or malfeasance”.