Government Refused to Answer Questions on the Gaston Browne III Rental Deal in Violation of the Law

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room

On the 2nd of April, I wrote letters under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2004 to the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Housing, Lands and Urban Renewal, the Ministry of Works, and West Indies Oil Company (WIOC), formally requesting answers and documentation on Government’s rental deal with the Prime Minister’s son, in the public’s interest.

The 20-working-day period within which I should have received the information requested, as stipulated in Section 18 Subsection (1) of the FOIA, ended on Tuesday 30th April, with no answers to the questions.

I have also received no notices advising of the extension of the period for furnishing the requested information to the 40-working-day maximum, as provided for under certain strict conditions in Section 18 Subsection (3) of the FOIA. Any such notice should have been provided within the initial 20-working-day period, as stipulated within the same section.  The government therefore has no intention to provide the information requested, and no commitment to transparency and accountability.

I have therefore written to the Information Commissioner to ask for urgent interventions to ensure compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. 

I also call on Prime Minister Browne, once again, to come clean on the rental deal, and to ensure that government ministries provide the information requested, in compliance with the laws of Antigua and Barbuda.

My freedom of information requests asked for easily obtainable information and answers to very simple questions.  The requests asked for records on the manner of WIOC’s sale of the property, records of all rent payments, and expenditures to repair and upgrade the property, the re-negotiated lease terms (agreed to after the expiration of the initial 18-month term), the tendering process, and correspondence between the property owner, the ministries and WIOC.

Refusing to provide such basic and easily obtainable information is an admission of guilt, and obviously driven by the desire to keep the public in the dark.  This is the clearest indication to-date that the rental deal was improper.

Additionally, I call on Mr. Gregory Georges, the CEO of WIOC, to reconsider his refusal to cooperate with the freedom of information request.  Mr. Georges asserted in a letter of response that WIOC does not fall within the scope of the FOIA.

This is an unreasonable position for two reasons: 

(i) The Government of Antigua and Barbuda (GOAB) appoints 4 of the 8 members who sit on the WIOC board, therefore exerting substantial control.

(ii) The Government and people of Antigua and Barbuda collectively hold a majority of the shares, after the targeted 10% divestment in 2021, with GOAB still retaining 45.9% of shares, which is the single largest shareholding. GOAB therefore, once again, exerts substantial control.  Further, the people of Antigua and Barbuda have a moral entitlement to have their questions answered, based on the majority shares that they and GOAB hold collectively.

The Gaston Browne-led administration continues to run from accountability and transparency. It has clearly refused to facilitate, or deliberately frustrated, the provision of credible answers to the public’s questions on the government’s rental of Gaston Browne III‘s Friars Hill Road property.

I will relentlessly continue to pressure the Gaston-led government to tell our people the truth. The public has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  And they are particularly concerned right now, while they are suffering under Gaston Browne’s high cost of living, with no meaningful relief. 

We all have a responsibility to demand Government’s transparency and accountability, in keeping with the principles of good governance. I urge all members of our society to stand against all attempts to hide information on how the government is being run, and how their tax-dollars are being spent.

Richard S. Lewis MP

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