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A departure from the norm

Friday, October 27, 2017

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This Editorial was published by the Antigua Observer on October 25.

Outside of the devastating hurricanes of 2017, there has been no other news item that has gripped the public's attention as much as the detention of former Minister of Tourism Asot Michael in the United Kingdom…that's right, former minister.

When the news started to circulate, there was a general feeling that it was “fake news” — a term we hate but which has become part of the vernacular nonetheless. Something is either verified news or it is fiction. Sorry, we digress … back to the topic.

No sooner did the news start to circulate, we received word that Prime Minister Gaston Browne had taken immediate steps to strip MP Michael of his Cabinet position and his various ministerial portfolios. He took the action while on the road, travelling back from Montenegro. It apparently couldn't wait. We are left to wonder why he didn't leave this up to the acting prime minister, Steadroy “Cutie” Benjamin.

The statement released to the press stated that the PM had written to the governor general to “revoke immediately” MP Michael's appointment to the Cabinet and his ministerial portfolios “pending the outcome of his arrest Monday morning by the Metropolitan Police in London”. For the record, our information is that he was detained for questioning and not arrested as the PM said, but details are sketchy.

The decision was taken even though the PM admitted that he had “no firm details of reasons for Mr Michael's arrest.” He said “the arrest itself is sufficient for me to revoke immediately his appointment as a Cabinet member and to relieve him of all ministerial portfolios until this matter is resolved”.

It was a marked departure from the slow-moving response to previous allegations of wrongdoing by other officials. Remember when Casroy James was named in the Meinl Bank/Odebrecht scandal? The prime minister had his back, stating emphatically that “there was no conflict of interest” when James was contracted by an affiliate of Meinl Bank. As we all know, James promised to pay back the millions received and eventually “resigned” as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

Then there was the incident where an unnamed minister was accused of fondling a young woman. Cabinet took a stand that it would await the outcome of the police investigation into the alleged sexual assault. We were told by Minister of Information Melford Nicholas that the results of the investigation would allow Cabinet “to make a determination one way or the other as to the veracity of the accusations”.

He added: “I think at that particular point in time [at the conclusion of the investigation] it would be prudent for the Cabinet or even the Government to address its mind to whatever responses may become necessary.”

Peter Virdee, who was also arrested in the United Kingdom, simply provided an excuse through his lawyers, which was sufficiently weighty enough that the ABLP Administration was confident that Virdee's projects were not in jeopardy and no further actions were necessary. There was no cutting of ties or any such thing. The list goes on.

The current attorney general was before the court on charges related to passport fraud at the time he was appointed. Then there was John Ashe and the delayed response to the request to revoke diplomatic immunity was one of the many examples of waiting for the investigation to conclude, or at least advance, before taking action.

This time, however, there is something different, and while we support the action we wonder aloud, what has changed? In this case, MP Michael has only been detained for questioning but has been unceremoniously stripped of his Cabinet position and his ministerial portfolios.

If our information is correct, he has not even been arrested or charged with an offence, but swift action has already been taken. What makes this case so different than that of the attorney general whose matter was actually before the court?

We certainly believe in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”, but we also believe in transparency and the need for this type of action to preserve the integrity of office and our international reputation. That is why we have no issues with the response; we just wonder why it has only been applied in the case of MP Michael?

Of course, the conspiracy theorists have a bag full of conspiracies. The most interesting is the one that states that the push under the bus was reprisal for a coup attempt in the halls of ABLP power. There is no evidence, that we have seen, to back up such a crazy theory, but it is interesting nonetheless.

There is also the theory that the PM is seizing on the opportunity to rid himself of some baggage. For evidence of that, they point to the comment by Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst, when he said that the decision to revoke MP Michael's portfolios “will not be rescinded any time soon”. We must admit that based on that comment alone, it does not look good for the Member of Parliament.

Then there is the theory that this is all for show, orchestrated to make the prime minister look good at Michael's expense, and that MP Michael will return to the fold with a rabbit's foot in his hand and a pat on the back. Another interesting theory, but that would come at a heavy cost to MP Michael and we just do not see that level of sacrifice for no payback. Then again, these are all just conspiracy theories and we need to stick to the facts.

The only facts we have right now is that the PM has drifted from the norm to dispense swift repercussions for being detained and questioned by law enforcement. This puzzles us, but we are willing to concede that the PM likely knows way more than he is letting on.

We only hope to get filled in soon. This plot twist is killing us with anticipation of the next episode.

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