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Sunday, July 9, 2017

“Had I known that the swearing-in would become an issue—if I had a crystal ball to look into it and ask if I appointed her, the swearing-in would have resulted in this—clearly I wouldn’t have.” These were the words of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley at a press conference last Monday to discuss his recommendations to the President to first appoint and secondly to revoke the appointment of Marlene McDonald as Minister of Public Utilities.

It was a dramatic turn of events that seemed to have been driven by one guest whom McDonald brought into the room for the swearing-in ceremony that was supposed to mark her triumphant return to the Cabinet. It was because of that guest that the Prime Minister said that he removed McDonald from his Cabinet.

According to Gail Alexander writing in last Monday’s Guardian, Rowley, she said, “wouldn’t be taking issue with POS South’s selection of her as MP. On her deputy leadership, he said the PNM deals with its deputies at convention and noted that deputies assist the leader.”

So is it that it is not okay for Marlene McDonald to be in the Cabinet because of her guest at the swearing-in ceremony, but it is okay for her to continue to serve the PNM as a deputy political leader for legislative matters? In other words, is she desirable or undesirable ?

The alarm that has been created around McDonald’s association with her guest was so diabolical that it cost McDonald her job as Minister of Public Utilities almost as soon as she got it. The Prime Minister obviously had not been briefed about the relationship which was so troubling to him, because he only reacted afterwards when he had, presumably, been briefed.

There seemed to have been no vetting before recommending the appointment as the only concern that he had on his radar was whether anything may come up at a future date regarding the incomplete Integrity Commission probe involving McDonald. He factored in a possible dismissal at a future date as he told the post-Cabinet media briefing two Thursdays ago that he would act should there be anything adverse against her as regards that matter.

In many respects the Prime Minister was blindsided. What would have happened if her guest had not been permitted to go into the President’s Office for the swearing-in ceremony? McDonald would have been Minister of Public Utilities today and would still have been associated with her guest.

This episode turns on the issue of security vetting and background checks because it is far too simplistic to say that because of what happened at the swearing-in ceremony that McDonald lost her job just like that.

She may have had challenges in her screening exercises to become a candidate for the PNM in 2015 and she may have had further challenges when the pressure group Fixin T&T dredged up those same issues that were used at her candidate screening in 2015 to put pressure on the Prime Minister in 2016 to remove her from the Cabinet.

There was nothing new where those matters were concerned. What has been placed before the national community now is something completely different. It has to do with personal associations and not personal actions.

The Prime Minister was very specific that she lost her job because of her association with her guest. Somebody failed the Prime Minister in not briefing him about her association with her guest as he confessed to not having “a crystal ball” to see who would be coming to the swearing-in ceremony. So I ask the question again—if the uninvited guest had been kept at bay in the waiting area, would Marlene McDonald still be the Minister of Public Utilities of T&T today?

The answer is probably yes, because the guest would have been out of sight and therefore out of the Prime Minister’s mind. Will the Prime Minister take action at the next annual convention of the PNM to remove McDonald as a deputy political leader or will he retain her services?

The extent to which the Government was blindsided by this episode was revealed in the Senate last Thursday when opposition senator Wade Mark asked Minister of National Security Edmund Dillon about the breach of security at President’s House. His response was that he could not say whether there was a breach of security because both the President’s Aide-de-camp and the Commissioner of Police were investigating the matter. In other words, after six days the Government was still officially clueless about what happened, but yet McDonald lost her job because of the presence of one of her guests.

As chairman of the National Security Council, the Prime Minister has access to classified intelligence information that others will not have. Obviously none of that information was used by him or was made available to him to vet the re-appointment of Marlene McDonald to the Cabinet.

This lapse is far more serious than we think.


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