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The ‘Johnny O’ Scandal

Gene Miles

Nationalist betrayed

Gene Miles

Johnny O’Halloran

By Kim Johnson

Perhaps it’s because he was the first spectacular example of bold-faced dishonesty, but Johnny O’Halloran has retained the mantle of corruption, notwithstanding United National Congress challenges to his pre-eminence.

He publicly boasted of his illegal gambling, and only slightly less openly of the women he’d raped.

Caught having taken bribes in a Tesoro deal, O’Halloran fled the country and died a millionaire in Canada.

Of his many crimes, however, the most infamous was one of the earliest, when he was People’s National Movement Minister of Petroleum and Mines.

It took place in the early 1960s, when the newly-independent T&T was moving away from rail transport and placing more emphasis on a car-driven economy.

Senior Factory Inspector Kenneth Tam was using his veto over the location of gas stations to encourage and profit from the fierce competition between gasoline retailers.

Whereas gas stations were supposed to be evenly dispersed throughout the country, Tam’s property speculation and bribery, with O’Halloran’s connivance, created the irrational situation we still live with today.

Three gas stations almost next to one another on Saddle Road, for instance, and two almost opposite each other on Richmond Street. None between Cumana and Matelot.

It became such a scandal that a Commission of Inquiry was set up in 1966.

Enter the Commission’s star witness, 36-year-old Gene Miles, a tall, glamorous, well-known beauty.

Miles came from a decent middle-class family.

Her brother was a minor Hollywood actor, her sister an economist, and her father an accountant with the Ministry of Works.

“She was very intelligent, flamboyant and attractive,” says one former civil servant who, disgusted by the bribery and insider trading, secretly passed detailed information in the dead of night to Miles about what was going on.

And thus, armed with irrefutable facts and statistics, Miles let the cat out of the bag.

Perhaps she was partly motivated, as her attackers claimed, by having been seduced and summarily dismissed by O’Halloran.

But it’s more likely that her probity was inherited from her civic-minded father, Ranny Miles.

In the late 1940s, when Miles was still a teen, Ranny Miles busted the biggest scam of those colonial days — the Caura Dam racket.

The Director of Hydraulics and several engineers in the Works Department, who, according to a Commission of Inquiry, had “systematically defrauded the Government”, were jailed.

That was during colonial times.

Now in the PNM reign, when Miles provided information about a similar bobol, the response was different.

That is the true scandal.

While she was still giving evidence, the “independent” Public Services Commission gave her a bad report and removed her annual increment. She was also transferred from her post in the Factory Inspectorate.

“It could not be seriously contended… that Mr Tam was not responsible for the action that was taken against Miss Miles,” observed Commissioner Karl de la Bastide.

The rot wasn’t so much the original bribery, but the brazen cover-up and victimisation of Miles.

The slander campaign against her intensified.

Her irrefutable documentation was dismissed as rantings of a mad whore.

While she was being hounded out of the public service, PNM leaders argued that one corrupt public servant did not make an entire government or its Ministers dishonest.

As journalist Trevor Millett’s BA thesis on Miles points out, however, Miles’ detractors “avoided making the necessary connections between the Factory Inspectorate… and the Ministry of Petroleum and Mines”.

This was the PNM that had come to power 10 years earlier, vowing to root out corruption.

Its Major Party Documents, reprinted in 1966, the same year the Gas Station Inquiry was held, promised: “Rigid maintenance of proper standards of honesty, integrity and incorruptibility in the Public Service, with the corollaries of:

(i) Denunciation, without fear or favour, of any deviation from these standards;

(ii) Elimination of nepotism, favouritism and discrimination in the appointments of the Public Service.”

Even Justice de la Bastide, in his report, had to “express surprise that Mr Tam’s mode of operation… has escaped the notice of the Ministry concerned for such a long time”.

Tam eventually lost his job.

But the gas station bought in his father-in-law’s name is still there on La Puerta Avenue in Diego Martin, a few hundred yards from the Four Roads gas station.

The businessmen who colluded with Tam are all multi-millionaires today.

Miles, on the other hand, found it impossible get another job.

Devastated by the outcome of the inquiry, she succumbed to chronic depression, and took heavily to drink.

This was no jilted lover whose revenge was foiled, it was a girl betrayed by her father’s ideals, a nationalist betrayed by her nation.

She neglected her appearance and fell out of, or was shunned by, society. She still had her father’s home in Glencoe, so she never became a vagrant, but was often seen wandering the city, bedraggled and drunk.

On December 9, 1972, Miles died of a heart attack. She was 42 years old.

Nearly two decades after, the axe-grinding National Alliance for Reconstruction government, as ever doing the right thing at the wrong time and for questionable reasons, thought to erect a statue to her with the paltry sums returned from Tesoro.

The public rejected the plan, Yasin Abu Bakr stormed Parliament shortly after, and Miles was forgotten by the subsequent PNM government.

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