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THE LOBBYIST GAMBLE

Published: 
Sunday, March 12, 2017

Last week, the Sunday Guardian revealed the existence of a contract between an entity called The Group DC led by Arthur Collins and based in Washington, DC, and the Ministry of Finance that was signed on October 31, last year by Ms Suzette Taylor-Lee Chee, Ag Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

There was never any public revelation of this decision by the Government to commit US$2.4 million of taxpayer funds to pursue lobbying activities for the Government until the Sunday Guardian broke the story last week.

However, it seems as though there was a gamble, not only in the decision to hire a lobbyist, but also in the identity of the lobbyist chosen. According to an article in The Hill published on June 30, 2009, by Kevin Bogardus, the following was said about Arthur Collins:

“Besides serving as a strategist for Obama during the then-Illinois senator’s presidential run last year, Collins also served as a public liaison for the administration’s transition team. Additionally, Collins was a senior adviser to Sen John Kerry (D-Mass) during his 2004 White House run, and serves as treasurer for the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute.”

With these credentials, it will be difficult for Arthur Collins and The Group DC to exert the kind of influence in Washington today that they might have been able to exert before January 20, this year. It seems that the Government gambled on signing a contract with Arthur Collins’ group before the November 8 election last year because they believed that Hillary Clinton was most likely going to the win the election.

What was the reason for Suzette Taylor-Lee Chee signing the contract on October 31 instead of being told to wait until after November 8? With Donald Trump winning the election, this country is now saddled with a lobbyist who does not have the political clout in Washington that he might otherwise have had if Clinton had emerged victorious. In the meantime, the country is now obligated to pay Arthur Collins and his group US$300,000 every quarter until the expiration of the contract in 2018.

We know from Dr Rowley that Arthur Collins and his group were not responsible for the phone call between President Trump and the Prime Minister. According to Dr Rowley in the House of Representatives on Thursday February 23:

“Madam Speaker, these are—I do not think it is funny, but it is not funny, and then there are demands that I tell you what the conversation is with Donald Trump, Madam Speaker, I was home on a weekend when I was informed that the President of the United States would like to speak with me. It had nothing to do with our lobbyist and it did not cost Trinidad and Tobago a cent.” (Hansard, February 23, 2017, p 99).

It would have been difficult for Arthur Collins and his group to arrange such a phone call because they simply do not have the kind of influence with the Trump administration that they would have had with the Obama administration or possibly a Clinton administration. This is a primary source of difficulty for the country now because our lobbyist simply does not have the kind of political weight that he could have had if the political outcome last November had gone the other way.

Indeed, in a 21-page letter of proposal for the provision of lobbying services for the Government addressed to the chairman of the Central Tenders Board dated October 3, 2016, the following proposition was advanced on page 5 of the letter:

“On January 3, 2017, the US legislative branch will convene for the 115th Congress. In addition to new Members of Congress being sworn in and changes in seniority, there is a high probability of a shift in majority party control in the US Senate….”

This projection did not come to pass for the Senate, while candidate Trump dropped in the polls in October following the release of the Billy Bush tapes and on October 28, Newsweek was reporting that Nate Silver and the FiveThirtyEight group were projecting that Clinton had an 81.2 per cent chance of winning the election and Trump had an 18.7 per cent chance of winning the election. After the third and final debate in October, Clinton had opened up a 12-point lead in the ABC News tracking poll.

Based on these sources, the Government may have gambled that Clinton was going to win the election so they signed a contract with a lobbying firm that had such solid Democratic Party credentials. On October 31, the Ministry of Finance signed a contract with Arthur Collins and The Group DC and on November 8, Donald Trump was elected President. Additionally, for the first time since the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928, the Republicans now controlled the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Could the Government have waited just nine more days for the election, or was there some other factor that led the Government to instruct Suzette Taylor-Lee Chee to sign the contract before the election?

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