‘Handle this quietly’

“Hon Joan Yuille-Williams. Please handle this quietly,” Manning wrote on a letter dated November 14, 2004, according to the findings of an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) investigation which has laid bare the involvement of the Office of the Prime Minister–under Manning — in a $45 million-plus scholarship scandal.

The Commission has concluded that there is a prima facie case of discrimination against East Indians raised by the PNM Culture Ministry’s scholarship programme for the years 2003 to 2007. The body has further recommended a forensic audit “by the appropriate authority.”

The findings — dating back to July 19, 2011 — emerged yesterday after a Freedom of Information application was filed by Senator Devant Maharaj, the former Indo Trinbago Equality Council chairman, on October 4, 2011.

Further, the investigation has also exposed the fact that figures given by the PNM in Parliament and under the Freedom of Information Act in 2009, in relation to the scholarship scandal, do not match evidence that has been unearthed by the Commission in the course of its findings. The evidence unearthed suggests that the extent of the scholarship slush fund was at least 42 percent larger than previously disclosed.

As she blanked giving the names of scholarship recipients in 2009, former Minister of Culture Marlene McDonald told Parliament, and the Indo-Trinbago Equality Council under a 2009 Freedom of Information application, that the scholarships under her ministry’s supervision totaled $45 million. But vote books inspected by the Commission put the total at an estimated $64 million. The vote book records for the “scholarship programme” for the years 2003, 2006 and 2007 have no information about sums disbursed.

There were no records showing that the so-called Selection Committee — which Mc Donald told Parliament on December 4, 2009, was in charge of recommending candidates — ever deliberated.

“The Commission was informed that there are no copies of minutes of any meeting of the Selection Committee or any information regarding what would have taken place during the evaluation of applications,” the Commission noted.

The involvement of Manning in the scholarship scheme is revealed in an appendix to a written notification of the Commission’s findings which has been obtained by Newsday.

The former Prime Minister, on the evidence, appeared to be in the practise of writing his then Culture Minister, asking her to ignore the Ministry’s own rules.

“Denny A Pierre was awarded financial assistance covering the cost of tuition and living expenses to the total of $28,000,” the appendix detailed. “Attached to his application form was a note purporting to be from the then Prime Minister Patrick Manning on the Prime Minister’s official stationery with the words: ‘Hon Joan Yuille Williams. Please handle this quietly.’” The note appeared to include Manning’s signature, but it was unclear how the Grenadian national would have qualified for the scholarship.

“While the documentation examined revealed that Mr Pierre suffered severe financial hardship due to the passing of Hurricane Ivan in Grenada in September 2004, it is disconcerting that such financial assistance would be awarded through a programme that was initiated as a means for developing Trinidad and Tobago nationals,” the Commission notes. Further Pierre’s scholarship appears to have been kept secret, even from the Commission.

“What is even more troubling is that Mr Pierre’s name was not included on the Ministry’s list of persons who received grants that was supplied to the Commission; instead his name was found when the investigators visited the Ministry. It is therefore questionable whether the funds awarded to Mr Pierre have ever been recorded or accounted for.”

About a month earlier, Manning recommended that the daughter of Brigadier Peter Joseph be given a scholarship even though she did not qualify for a scholarship. Joseph was the then head of the spy agency known as the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT).

“Adanna Joseph received $25,600.00 to pursue a BA in Public Relations Cooperative Education Route Programme at Mount Saint Vincent University,” the Commission notes. “She is the daughter of Brigadier Peter Joseph. A note attached to the Interview sheet of the Ministry stated the following ‘Does not qualify under needy. However some assistance is recommended.’”

The Commission continues, “attached to his application form was a note from the then Prime Minister Patrick Manning on the Prime Minister’s official stationary with the words ‘Hon Joan Yuille-Williams. Please assist.”

The note also included what purports to be Mr Manning’s signature and the date 04.10.24.”

Mrs Hazel Manning, Education Minister in 2004, would forward requests for funding received by her.

“Miranda Harry received $2,765.00 to attend Open Bible High School to complete CXC subjects. Her application was forwarded to the Ministry of Community Development by the Minister of Education Hazel Manning,” the Commission notes.

In 2005, “Jamilah Belgrave received ($18,900) for “miscellaneous expenses” to pursue a MBBS programme at St George’s University in Grenada. Attached to her application was a forwarding letter from Hazel Manning, Minister of Education.”

Generally, the Commission discovered “suspicious” scholarships which raised the prospect of political favouritism.

“From the period 2002-2005, there appears to have been no standardized application form utilised by applicants,” the Commission notes. “Based on a review of the applications of persons requesting grants for the year 2002-2007, several claims of financial need and subsequent awards of financial assistance were identified as suspicious.

This was for the following reasons: The applicants examined reveal several instances where they were granted financial assistance based on recommendations made from Government Ministers or Members of Parliament.”

“Records also indicate that the vast majority of applicants who were granted financial assistance by the Ministry lived in constituencies ruled by the People’s National Movement,” the Commission concludes.

The awards were also too high and appeared to be in breach of the guidelines set up for the programme.

“The amounts granted to recipients of financial assistance provided by the Ministry shows that over 400 recipients for the period 2003-2007 received more than the amount specified in the Guidelines,” the Commission found. “An analysis of the list of recipients of financial assistance provided by the Ministry shows that over 400 persons received more than $31,000 TT dollars. There were also hundreds of persons receiving funding amounting to $100,000 TT dollars or more.” While preference was supposed to be given to local educational institutions, 415 persons were granted awards for foreign studies while only 191 persons were granted awards for local studies.

There was no method to monitor successful applicants; no link to NGOs (as mandated). While the Parliament was denied a full list of names on the basis of individual right to privacy, especially given the assumption that applicants came from poor families, many awards were not based on financial need.

“While the majority of the applicants were in some sort of financial difficulty, we were able to confirm that there were several instances where applicants were awarded grants not based on financial need but based on recommendations from then Ministers of Government and even from the Prime Minister himself. This was especially during the period in question. The investigators question the appropriateness of these transactions as well as the fact that in some instances, those particular applicants were not included in the list provided to the Commission.”

Examples include one scholarship pushed through by the late PNM Trade and Industry Minister Kenneth Valley.

“Annmicha Blugh was awarded financial assistance of $63,000. Her application letter stated that she had been ‘informed by the Honourable Kenneth Valley of offers of university scholarships, which the Government of Trinidad and Tobago has committed itself to bestow upon selected applicants.

This application was also accompanied by a recommendation from the said Minister Valley, the then Member of Parliament for Diego Martin Central,” the Commission notes. Further, former Health Minister Jerry Narace, onetime PNM Public Relations Officer, also recommended scholarships.

“Asha Charles received $59,250 in 2004 and $24,885 in 2005 to pursue a Masters Degree in International Business Administration at the London School of Commerce. Her application was forwarded to the Ministry of Community Development from Ambassador Jerry Narace,” the Commission noted.

Another example included: Kariym McHoney who was awarded $50,400 in 2005 and $63,200 in 2006. The remarks/recommendations column of the interview sheet stated the following: “Family is not really financially stressed; Father is Commissioner of Prisons, mother – teacher. Does NOT qualify under needy. However, some assistance is recommended.” It is unclear who made the recommendation.

The scholarships were never advertised, as claimed by the then PNM Government.

“Additionally based on the review of the documents completed, none of the applicants requesting funding mentioned seeing a brochure or an advertisement relating to the availability of grants at the Ministry,” the Commission found.

“On the contrary, as previously stated, several of the applicants seemed to have been referred either by a Member of Parliament or a Government Minister. The remaining applicants appear to have been trying to gain financial assistance without actually being aware whether such assistance was available.”

“It has not been satisfactorily proven by the Ministry that the entire process of awarding financial assistance was done fairly, legitimately and with the intention to allow all persons an equal opportunity to apply for the financial assistance available.”

“On the facts, the Ministry proceeded to award scholarships, without advertising to the public at large or without having a standardised application form,” the Commission concluded. “On an analysis of the information obtained it was found that the Ministry by granting scholarships in the format that existed acted in breach of their own criteria.”

The Commission noted that only seven per cent of the persons who got scholarships were East Indian. All of the scholarship recipients lived at: San Fernando (16.9 percent); Port-of-Spain North/ St Ann’s West (11.4 percent); Diego Martin West (11 percent); Arima (8.6 percent); Laventille East/Morvant (5.9 percent).

“The Commission considers that the complainant in this matter did provide enough evidence for an inference of discrimination to be made out against the Ministry. The complainant in this case has therefore made out at least a prima facie case,” the Commission found. “Though the complainant (Maharaj) is one person in a class of persons who are of East Indian ethnicity the effect of the Ministry not advertising the existence of a scholarship fund but allowing persons of other ethnicity did in impose a disadvantage upon a significant proportion of the population inclusive of the complainant.”


"‘Handle this quietly’"

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