By Caribbean News Now contributor
PROVIDENCIALES, TCI — Opposition member of parliament in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), George Lightbourne of the Progressive National Party (PNP), has become the lone voice in local politics by condemning the tax amnesty for Sandals’ Beaches resort and other all-inclusive resorts proposed by the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) led by Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson.
Lightbourne stated that, in the case of the primary recipient of the amnesty, Beaches TCI: “I honestly view this as a miscarriage of justice simply because it sets a dangerous precedent. That precedent is one which sends the impression that big companies can enter a country, conduct business, violate its laws and be rewarded by doing so.”
Lightbourne stated that if one were to agree that collecting taxes on behalf of the government and not paying it to the treasury is a criminal offence, then one must also accept that issuing an amnesty to exempt such payment is equivalent to “providing a pardon to those culprits who are guilty of stealing from the crown.”
Lightbourne further stated, “It also makes the [PDM] government look weak, particularly because they disrespected their audit report which revealed that taxes were indeed collected [by Beaches] and not remitted.”
The two-time elected member for Grand Turk North constituency believes that the proposed amnesty on tax payment and the write-off of penalties for the Beaches resort is a massive miscarriage of justice to the TCI.
He stated that his greatest anxiety is the fact that this tax amnesty was passed in cabinet without any consideration for equality as it relates to local businesses which owe the crown substantially, perhaps not for accommodation taxes but in other areas.
“The question then becomes: Has cabinet turned a blind eye to a criminal act? Why were these particular companies chosen? What made them special? Why were they not prosecuted?”
He noted that public outrage is not only understandable but also valid: “What is good for the goose should also be good for the gander.”
He continued that, while he welcomes development and investment into the territory, he is equally cognisant that investors must abide by the law and there ought to be a level playing field for all.
“Gone should be the days when investors view us as stupid, incompetent and weak. We should not allow anyone to intimidate us or manipulate us into submission,” he said.
He added that this is no similarity to what was done concerning the exemption for telecommunications company LIME (now rebranded as FLOW) during the PNP administration, simply because LIME never collected the tax.
When the matter was brought to their [LIME] attention, they were willing to impose the charges onto their customers to collect it, Lightbourne stated.
“However, we [PNP government] intervened and relieved the burden on our people by exempting LIME from paying the penalties but paying the principal.
“If LIME had collected the tax and not remitted it, I would have never supported the exemption just like I do not support this current amnesty,” Lightbourne noted.
Lightbourne is the only politician of the two well established political parties in TCI politics to condemn the tax amnesty for Beaches.
Sandals, headed by Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, continues to be a lightning rod for controversy in the TCI. In 2011, the United States Department of Homeland Security investigated whether Sandals Resorts International or its chairman, Stewart, made political contributions to the benefit of disgraced former Turks and Caicos premier, Michael Misick.
The US probed Sandals’ operation in the TCI, where it was alleged that US$1.65 million of the resort chain’s funds was improperly transferred through THE Bahamas to Misick.
Details of the US investigation were revealed in a legal action filed in THE Bahamas Supreme Court on behalf of Bahamas-domiciled Sandals Resorts International 2000, a company that acts as the parent for numerous entities that own Sandals hotels throughout the Caribbean.
The following year, Sandals agreed to pay a US$12 million penalty to the TCI government in relation to unspecified wrongdoing and in exchange for immunity from any additional criminal and civil penalties and without admitting liability
Over the years the resort chain has been in multiple disputes over paying the appropriate tax to governments in several countries. The tax amnesty by the present TCI government has the country in an uproar and there have been few to no answers in response to media inquiries.
Not only is there a potential criminal component of the new Amnesty Bill as articulated by Lightbourne, issues also arise as to the constitutionality and /or morality of a Validation Bill 2019 that purports to validate the unlawful collection of taxes on guests at Beaches12 years old and younger from August 1, 1985, to date.
Clearly, there is a limited class of persons that will be adversely and exclusively affected by the law.
First, the new law arguably offends the guarantee of equality under the law and non-discrimination under the TCI constitution in relation to this limited class, notwithstanding that the bill may be considered a revenue measure and/or an appropriation of public funds. It is difficult to see how illegally acquired funds could be considered genuine “revenue” and capable of lawful appropriation.
Secondly, the morality of the new law must be questioned given that there is a viable alternative solution, namely, for the government to repay the taxes illegally collected and refund them to the guests in question.
In any large class action lawsuit in the US, steps must be taken by attorneys to identify and locate what could be thousands of victims and, if the claim is successful, a great many checks, some as small as a few dollars, have to be prepared and mailed.
Instead, the TCI government is in effect saying to its “valued guests”: “We can’t be bothered to make the effort to refund the illegally charged taxes; we are just going to keep most of your money for ourselves and let resort owners keep the rest of it.”
Caribbean News Now sought comment from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in relation to these issues, since it is the TCI governor’s prerogative in consultation with the secretary of state to approve or disapprove new legislation in the British territory.
However, the FCO press office predictably declined to address the matter, opting instead to state: “The Governor’s office would be best placed to assist you with this – I recommend trying them directly for a comment.”
Equally predictably, Governor John Freeman also declined to comment saying, “I would suggest you write to the premier as the sponsoring minister of the legislation approved by the house of assembly.”
No response has yet been received from Premier Cartwright-Robinson to a similar request for comment.
Freeman was equally unhelpful in response to an attempt to ascertain if all the relevant ordinances have now been assented to, especially the Amnesty and Validation bills.
He responded, “Such information is gazetted and therefore available as a matter of public record.”
However, the TCI Gazette is only made available to the public at large at the TCI library but a staff member there said that the library has been unable to access the gazette for more than three years.
There is an option to pay US $200 annually to subscribe to the Gazette; however, it was discovered that the head of the TCI printing department is on leave and “out of the country.” A civil servant at the printing department said that we would have to “check back.”
Caribbean News Now has been making every effort to get our hands on a TCI Gazette but it seems the publication, which should be readily available to the public, is simply not. We spoke to a civil servant in the island of Grand Turk who requested to remain anonymous but felt compelled to inform us that:
“It seems to be intentional. The TCI government has a serious problem with making public records public. Concealing information on the scale that the TCI government does only opens the door to corruption. The TCI Gazette should not be only for law firms and the occasional independent lawyer that can afford two hundred dollars annually. What is the TCI government hiding? What happened to the premier’s pledge of freedom of information?”