• This story has been changed from its original version. It originally incorrectly stated the rental rate of the Town Centre Mall was $12 per square foot per month, however that was the annual rate.
By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
THE decision to lease the Town Centre Mall to house the General Post Office has come under renewed scrutiny after former Cabinet minister Brent Symonette revealed Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis called him personally to negotiate the deal last year.
Yesterday, the Office of the Prime Minister declined to confirm the date of that call, and further suggested the admission made by the former Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Immigration represented a breach of confidentiality.
“As a rule, the Prime Minister never breaches confidentiality when it comes to private discussions he has with Cabinet ministers, which he has on a daily basis,” read an OPM statement in response to questions put forward by The Tribune.
“The assertion that the Prime Minister would personally and unilaterally negotiate a proposal that has gone on over two administrations is nonsensical,” it added.
Mr Symonette, who has a 50 percent stake in the property and resigned from Cabinet last week, said he discussed “the whole question of conflict of interest” during that call, and was informed of the decision to table a resolution in Parliament.
His comments on ZNS radio show “The Conversation” with host Shenique Miller last week contradicted the statement he gave last year, when he told The Tribune he had no knowledge of the resolution.
The Official Opposition and the Democratic National Alliance have called for Dr Minnis to resign alongside a full disclosure on the matter.
Opposition Leader Philip Davis told The Tribune his parliamentary team was still considering its options; however, the next step could see a call for a vote of no confidence in Parliament.
Yesterday, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine - who voted against the resolution last year - said he would not go so far as to support a no confidence vote. However, Mr McAlpine said he felt vindicated in his stance against the deal and questioned whether the phone call between Mr Symonette and Dr Minnis took place ahead of a Cabinet decision on the matter.
Attorney General Carl Bethel declined comment on the matter.
The OPM statement read: “The post office relocation agreement was a collective decision by the Cabinet of The Bahamas and was debated on the floor of the House of Assembly for the entire public to witness. This process was carried out in a very transparent manner. The government fully vetted every possible option and the Town Centre Mall location was the best, as even the PLP admitted.”
On the ZNS show last week, Mr Symonette sought to quash claims of self-dealing and conflict of interest that have plagued his political tenure.
“I had no discussion with anyone about it,” Mr Symonette said, concerning the Minnis administration’s use of the building.
“I figured there’s no way they were going to rent from my brother or myself so I left it alone. The phone rang one morning… I was in Mexico. It was early in the morning, the PM and I get up early, and PM said to me we’re going to go ahead with the lease. I said, ‘PM I can deliver it by Christmas if it’s no Rolls Royce.’
Mr Symonette continued: “We got to reduce the size of the building. It can’t be 70,000 -80,000 sq ft. It has to be a Volkswagen not a Rolls Royce, we had that discussion. I said, ‘you have to deal with the whole question of conflict of interest.’ He said, ‘we’ll do a resolution in the House of Assembly,’ and he said, ‘what will the rent be?’ And I said, ‘$12 a sq.’
“And I came back,” he said, “my partners dealt with the Ministry of Works, everything else. We pretty (much) did the plan that was left in place by the PLP government except for the cafeteria upstairs and some other space and the building was opened after some massive changes in the plans, at the rent of $12 a sq ft for some 56,000 sq ft. At $12 as opposed to $25.”
According to those figures, the government is renting the building at $672,000 per year, and $3,360,000 over a five-year period. However, the lease agreement remains unsigned as the government is reportedly still deliberating over the square footage, particularly the lease of additional storage space.
Mr Symonette furthered the landlord outfitted the facility with “some $500,000 worth of extras” like furniture, which the government will pay back over 60 months at an interest rate of prime.
During last week’s show, the St Anne’s MP did not disclose why he was in Mexico at the time of the phone call with the prime minister. However, he traveled to Mexico with the Bahamas Financial Services Board to attend the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners LATAM Conference 2018. The conference was staged October 4-5, 2018.
The Tribune reported on the government’s plan to bring a resolution to Parliament concerning the lease of facilities at Town Centre Mall in an article published on October 17, 2018.
When contacted on October 16 for comment, Mr Symonette said he was in Miami, Florida and knew nothing about the proposed rental of the property.
“I’m not sure because I have been out of town so I wasn’t part of Cabinet today. I’m at a conference in Miami,” Mr Symonette told The Tribune at that time.
Mr Symonette added: “I wouldn’t have been part of any Cabinet discussions on that.”
At Parliament on October 17, Dr Minnis told reporters there was “complete transparency”.
“I think it’s complete transparency and I don’t want to get into any details because they are going to debate it,” Dr Minnis said, “but I think it’s complete transparency and if you have done due diligence, searched around, the Bahamian public have been without an adequate post office now in excess of three years the matter must be resolved.”
Mr Symonette declared his interest in Town Centre Mall to Parliament on October 24. “The mall is owned by my brother 50 percent and myself 50 percent,” he said on ZNS.
In a statement yesterday, the Office of the Prime Minister maintained the decision to relocate the General Post Office to the Town Centre Mall was best deal for the Bahamian people, adding the details of the agreement were a matter of public record.
“The proposal was 50 percent cheaper than the plan approved by the PLP for the same capability and at the same location,” the statement read.
“This administration worked quickly and diligently to make sure the more then 100 postal employees and the post office issue were resolved in a cost-effective manner.
“Something the opposition never did,” it added.
Yesterday, Mr Davis said Mr Symonette’s admission cast the government’s unprecedented resolution in a new light.
“The government has leased many buildings in the country,” Mr Davis said yesterday, “this is the first time in the history of Parliament, to my knowledge, that any lease was brought to Parliament to be approved by Parliament. What should have been brought was a resolution to excuse him from vacating his seat because the government was leasing from him…they eventually brought that.
“But it was extraordinary and now you understand why he wanted the resolution, to try and bolster his cause to say there was no conflict. A resolution of Parliament cannot solve that.”
“We’re reviewing all our options on it,” Mr Davis added, “we are calling for the prime minister to account and step aside.”