KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, March 27, IWN — Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves told Ashford Peters on Monday “it is amazing the extent of amnesia you have as a journalist” and that he and The News newspaper, for which he works, must “stop the lies”.
The comments came during an exchange between the Prime Minister and the journalist during the question and answer period of a press conference.
Peters, a freelance journalist with over 10 years’ experience in the field, said that while the decline of some financial institutions here was because of the global financial meltdown, there were also “allegations of corruption”.
He said that Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party administration, which came to office in 2001, had accused the New Democratic Party government of being corrupt.
“What do you have to say about all these allegations of corruption?” Peters asked the prime minister, adding that there were also talks of corruption at the Inland Revenue Department.
One public servant at that department has been charged with over 100 counts of fraud.
Gonsalves said that a government report in 2009 on the financially troubled Building & Loan Association (BLA) found evidence of a “serious management issues”.
The BLA came under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance in 2009 and the Financial Services Authority (FSA) — a State agency — took over its management and control in February.
“The report didn’t speak to corruption in the Building & Loan,” Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance, said of the 2009 findings. “I am very slow to make that allegation against anybody but it is clear that there was a lot of neglect,” he further said.
He further said he doesn’t see how practices contrary to the rules or prudent financial management could be “laid at the door of the Government.
“It is a peculiar twist. It is the first time I hear it being done, or attempted to be done,” he said in response to Peters’ question.
But the journalist interjected that it is not blame being laid at the foot of the Government but that “at a particular time” the BLA was under Gonsalves’ oversight.
But Gonsalves responded that that period was the first time anybody was seeking to put anything in place to maintain oversight of the 72-year-old building society.
“Individuals have their responsibilities as board members and managers and the like. If they acted in a manner which is contrary to the best prudential guidelines, we will have to await to see what the FSA or any shareholder in Building & Loan will do in relation to that,” the Prime Minister said.
He said that contrary to comments that the Government was entering Buildign & Loan to access its money, the State has had to borrow money to shore up the financial institution.
“So, we are trying to save it, when others and their friend, clearly didn’t run it properly,” he said.
“In relation to the Bank of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, it is amazing the extent of amnesia you have as a journalist — and this is not a personal attack,” the Prime Minister said in reference to the former National Commercial Bank, another of the institutions where Peters said there were “allegations of corruption”.
“I have repeatedly stated, and you seem not to get it, that the last three years of the NDP rule, which included the two and a half years that Arnhim Eustace was minister of finance, the independent auditors of the National Commercial Bank gave a qualified audit,” he said.
“… When I came to office, and I saw the state of the National Commercial Bank, what were among the things? In the first few months — and I want to lay it out and you and Shelly must write it in The News and stop the lies,” Gonsalves said, referring to Shelly Clare, editor of The News, the most widely circulated paper here.
“Prime Minister, you are accusing me of lying?” Peters interjected.
“Wait, no, no, no, no,” the Prime Minister said.
“You are accusing me of lying in any article?” Peters further contended.
“I am not accusing you of lying,” the Prime Minister said.
“Well, that is what you have said,” Peters responded.
“I’m saying and stop the lies about what happened under the watch of Ralph Gonsalves with the National Commercial Bank,” the Prime Minister said.
He further stated that shortly after the ULP came to office in 2001, a bank in Trinidad offered to pay EC$500,000 for the NCB.
“Go and look at the figure. I have spoken these over and over. But, some people don’t want to hear them. The extent of Government’s equity in the bank was a number approaching zero,” the Prime Minister further said.
“When we sold 51 per cent [in 2010], Government’s equity was $84 million. The bank had grown in value, in wealth,” Gonsalves further stated.