The acting attorney general tried to withdraw out of time election challenges against five sitting members of the TCI House of Assembly: (L-R) George Lightbourne (PNP); Edwin Astwood (PDM); Derek Taylor (PDM); Josephine Connolly (PDM); and Delroy Williams (PDM)
By Caribbean News Now contributor
PROVIDENCIALES, Turks and Caicos Islands -- Acting Attorney General Rhondalee Braithwaite-Knowles has come in for even more criticism following her unexpected decision on Saturday to attempt to withdraw her election challenges to five sitting members of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) House of Assembly.
On Friday, March 9, Braithwaite-Knowles had filed a total of six challenges based on late or inadequate filing of notices with the Integrity Commission of interests in government contracts. Only one of such challenges was brought within the statutory five-day time limit – that against Amanda Misick, Progressive National Party (PNP) candidate in the Cheshire Hall/Richmond Hill by-election.
On Thursday and Friday, Braithwaite-Knowles argued before Chief Justice Edwin Goldsbrough in the Supreme Court in Grand Turk that Misick was disqualified from election as a result of her late filing of a required declaration of interests in government contracts.
However, the chief justice ruled against the acting attorney general in the Misick matter on Friday, thus allowing the by-election to go ahead as planned.
Out of time challenges by the acting attorney general against five sitting members of the House of Assembly: George Lightbourne (PNP); Edwin Astwood (PDM); Derek Taylor (PDM); Josephine Connolly (PDM); and Delroy Williams (PDM) for their alleged failure to disclose government contracts prior to the general elections in November last year were heard on Saturday, at which point Braithwaite-Knowles attempted to withdraw her applications.
However, in denying this request, the chief justice indicated that there were serious issues of law to be determined, which he needed to study in depth, and accordingly adjourned the case until April 9.
Braithwaite-Knowles’ overall conduct of the matter and the ongoing leakage of what should have been confidential information from the Attorney General’s Chambers prior to her filing the relevant applications with the court had already resulted in allegations of partisanship and of intentionally destabilising the TCI.
Braithwaite-Knowles is well known for her support of the PNP and a personal friendship with Premier Rufus Ewing, and her actions against predominantly Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM) members of the Assembly fuelled this controversy.
Following the acting attorney general’s surprise decision on Saturday, a local weblog known to support the PNP has accused the Attorney General’s Chambers of “causing public alarm and attempting to destabilise the Turks and Caicos Islands.”
The cases in question stem from what seems to be varying interpretations of the exact nature of conditional Crown land leases and the resulting freehold title – whether they are an open contract with the government or a simple asset – something that was not made clear in instructions to the political parties by the Integrity Commission.
However, such Crown land leases appear never to have been treated as a binding contract by the government. In many reported cases, the agreed pricing contained in the lease was thrown out by the former PNP administration and local leaseholders were forced to pay a much higher price for the land than that specified. In some cases, leaseholders abandoned the leases and gave up the monies already paid down on the conditional lease. Many in the TCI therefore believe the leases are agreements subject to change by the government and are not binding contracts.
The new reporting requirement, albeit arguable in scope, resulted from the manipulation of the sale of Crown land by members and supporters of the PNP prior to the August 2009 imposition of direct rule by Britain. In what were called “land flips”, the PNP government ministers, relatives and supporters were alleged to have had parcels of Crown land appraised at a low value, then purchased the land for belonger discounts of as much as 75 percent and then within days resold the land for much higher prices to pre-arranged buyers.
A number of criminal charges of fraud and corruption laid against 12 former PNP ministers, their family members and others relate to this practice of land flipping.
However, according to Premier Ewing, the prosecutions, which are due to go to trial next month, are “a farce.”