A worrying affair
Billionaire’s relationship with govt creates unwelcomed perceptions
By Candia Dames
Guardian News Editor
In the world of politics, the power of perceptions can never be overstated or overestimated.
The government went into overdrive in Parliament last week, defending its dealings with the controversial Finnish-born, billionaire fashion designer Peter Nygard, who is a permanent resident of The Bahamas residing at Lyford Cay.
But it was trailing behind the bad public relations it had already received on the matter.
The perceptions created by Nygard’s “Take back The Bahamas” video, his flamboyant frolicking with government ministers and his hero’s welcome in Grand Bahama on Thursday renewed debate on money in politics.
The controversial video was one of several that made the rounds in social media last week.
That video showed Nygard celebrating the Progressive Liberal Party’s 2012 general election win while watching Prime Minister Perry Christie’s victory rally address.
Nygard proclaimed as he watched, “Yes. We got our country back.”
Later in the eight-minute video, a group of new Cabinet ministers is shown at Nygard Cay for a meeting with Nygard.
Some of the ministers involved have branded the visit as casual and blasted the Free National Movement’s claim that it proved that the government is too compromised to govern.
Although at the time the spark failed to erupt into anything significant, the firestorm over Nygard has its genesis in a claim made by Opposition Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis more than two weeks ago, that the government was bringing a stem cell bill merely to appease Nygard.
Strangely enough, Prime Minister Perry Christie responded to that accusation when he raised the issue at Jones Communications Network’s “40 under 40” awards luncheon on July 12.
Nygard was present as he received an award for his contribution to youth development in The Bahamas and later told the crowd that Christie was a great prime minister who deserved full support for his programs.
In comments that seemed misplaced for the event, Christie explained that Nygard had approached him while he was leader of the opposition and explained that he would attract experts in stem cell therapy and research to The Bahamas if legislation is passed.
A newspaper supplement from the Junkanoo Corporation of New Providence last week that featured Nygard, said he gets anti-aging stem cell therapy four times a year.
The video that made the rounds last week shows him injecting himself with something, but it was unclear what it was.
Another video that went viral shows Nygard walking the streets of Bain Town a few weeks ago.
He was accompanied by prominent pastors Bishop Simeon Hall and Rev. Dr. Philip McPhee and others.
The group stopped outside the church of Rev. C. B. Moss, who has been promoting his Save Clifton message for well over a decade. Clifton is a stone’s throw away from Nygard’s compound, Nygard Cay.
Moss is urging the government to reject what he said is an application from Nygard to lease newly created land in the area.
In that video, Nygard bizarrely proclaims: “I have been dedicated to this country more than any single person in this whole country. There’s testimonial after testimonial.”
With the controversy over Nygard raging, Minister V. Alfred Gray, one of the ministers in the “Nygard Takes Back The Bahamas” video, declared to reporters last Tuesday, “Mr. Nygard is a Bahamian.
“He is a philanthropist, and I think he has given more to this country than many other Bahamians, including those who criticize him.”
In the House of Assembly the following day, government officials corrected that statement, saying Nygard is a permanent resident.
This came amid debate on the stem cell bill. For hours on Wednesday, the Nygard matter distracted from the substance of the debate as minister after minister flew on the defensive.
There is no doubting that Peter Nygard has made substantial contributions over the years to sports and youth development.
He has also acknowledged he financially helped both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement.
In an affidavit last year, he said he was a “major backer” of Perry Christie and the PLP.
Christie has said that because donors expect anonymity, it is not for him to say who donated to his campaign and how much.
Legally, he has no obligation to make such disclosures.
Montagu MP Richard Lightbourn’s “word on the street” claim that Nygard pumped $5 million into the PLP’s campaign was just that — hearsay.
But there is a certain uneasiness, an unsettling element to Nygard’s cozy relationship with the Christie administration.
The government it seems will not take the approach and move the Nygard matter under the radar.
On Thursday, Nygard landed in Grand Bahama to great fanfare. He was greeted at the airport by Minister for Grand Bahama Dr. Michael Darville and other officials.
Miss Grand Bahama was also on hand, and there was a Junkanoo rush-out with a banner proclaiming, “Grand Bahama welcomes Peter Nygard”.
Darville said Nygard was there to attend a youth conference he sponsored and was also a guest of the Grand Bahama Port Authority. He said Nygard was in town to discuss business opportunities.
The laying out of the red carpet and Junkanoo greeting received by Nygard appeared excessive and unnecessary and fanned the flames of a still brewing controversy.
When was the last time the prime minister received such a grand welcome to Grand Bahama, or has he ever?
Christie and his ministers broke no law in their dealings with Peter Nygard, but the prime minister ought to be worried about the kinds of perceptions the whole affair is creating.
Pointing to Ingraham administration dealings with investors and raising criticisms in this regard is not enough.
No, it is not enough to point out what the government said is a double standard in how it is treated compared to the treatment received by the former administration on these matters.
Ingraham and the FNM were sent packing last year.
The Nygard issue is yet another distraction for Christie, and it hints at the nasty Mohammed Harajchi scandal, which erupted under his first term in government.
In diplomatic cables reported on by The Nassau Guardian two years ago, the Americans either had a fascination with The Bahamas’ lack of campaign finance laws, or deep concerns about this, because they widely discussed the issue of money in politics in their cables to Washington, DC.
They noted in a 2004 cable: “Both of The Bahamas' two major political parties live in glass houses when it comes to campaign contributions.”
The cable traced the Mohammed Harajchi controversy — a situation in which political contributions backfired in a very nasty and public way.
The Iranian businessman claimed that he had been approached, either directly or via intermediaries, by “90 percent of the (Christie) Cabinet” for campaign contributions, had helped to refurbish PLP headquarters, and had underwritten several PLP political rallies, among other things.
Harajchi denied that his contributions (allegedly $10 million) were designed to gain reinstatement of his bank's operating license, which had been revoked in 2001.
At a press conference, the PLP emphasized that it is neither illegal nor improper for political parties in The Bahamas to accept donations from individuals, and highlighted attention on Harajchi's confirmation that he had received no favor or promise in exchange for his financial donation.
Christie promised a full accounting of Harajchi’s contributions to the PLP, but never provided any information in this regard.
In a 2006 cable, still on the subject of money in politics, an American diplomat wrote that it is “widely accepted” that the government’s extradition of convicted drug dealer Samuel ‘Ninety’ Knowles would lead to “withdrawal of an important source of election funding”.
“As one Cabinet minister observed, there are no controls or limits other than the conscience of the politician,” the diplomat wrote. “In addition, money can come from any source, including international donors.”
The cable said millions of dollars were allegedly obtained from “questionable sources” in the 2002 campaign.
The need for a law to govern campaign financing is something many politicians have discussed over the years.
In 1980, a comprehensive proposed act “to make provision for the registration of political parties; for the regulation and control of political contributions; for the public funding of elections and for other purposes incidental thereto and connected therewith” never made it to the halls of Parliament.
Perhaps it’s because there was no political will to do so.
More than 30 years after the campaign finance bill was drafted, there are still calls from some politicians — and from other Bahamians — for a law to govern money in politics.
Last week, Christie said it is something he is willing to address, but he has said that in the past many times.
While he was prime minister, Hubert Ingraham said he did not believe that campaign financing laws are necessary, adding that the government cannot “legislate honesty”.
However, Ingraham said he would have no difficulty whatsoever disclosing the sources of his political financing.
Ingraham invited a team of officials from the Organization of American States to observe last year’s general election.
That team has recommended “the adoption of a legal framework on the financing of political parties and campaigns in order to enhance the accountability, transparency and equity of the democratic process”.
Whether the current administration will adopt this recommendation, remains to be seen.
No matter how hard the current government pushes back on the Nygard affair, it is leaving a bitter taste in many mouths.
Nygard it appears has been given the keys to the country, but the government has stressed repeatedly that it is not for sale.
It is now for the prime minister to strike the right balance between welcoming him as a prospective investor while fighting against any perception that he is wielding undue influence because of his contributions to the PLP and various national causes.
Even if it is only a perception that he is wielding influence, that perception could be damaging for Christie and his government.
Christie ought not let arrogance on the part of his ministers cause this controversy to get any more out of hand.
July 22, 2013