Sunday 1st May, 2005

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Mark surprised...really?

Like lawyers, opposition MPs don’t ask a question unless they think they know the answer, but the whole Senate was surprised by a response on Tuesday afternoon.

Opposition leader in the Senate Wade Mark had asked how much government ministries and state enterprises had spent on advertising from May 2002 to the end of 2004.

In reply, junior Finance Minister Conrad Enill read a long and mostly tedious list.

The Opposition didn’t care about the $115,000 that First Citizens Bank spent on a Scrabble tournament, the $857,000 on horseracing, or even $989,000 on cocktails in North, South and Tobago.

Instead, Mr Mark and his colleague Robin Montano zeroed in on the amount the National Lotteries Control Board had spent on advertising on two radio stations, I92.5 and its successor, I95.5: $72,613.86 and $545,847.69 respectively. The closest any other station came to making this much money from the NLCB was 103, which was paid $395,499.50.

Mr Mark asked Mr Enill to explain this disproportionate amount, bearing in mind that the chairman of the NLCB is also the chairman of I95. (Mr Mark didn’t name him, but the big cheese in question is Louis Lee Sing.) Had a declaration of interest been entered, he wanted to know.

A plainly embarrassed Mr Enill said he had had cause to look at the matter. The chairman and board of the NLCB approved the general project, but “the advertising and public relations officer responsible is, I think,” he muttered, as he dropped his bombshell, “somebody called Devant Maharaj.

“I have difficulty when I see results like this,” he added hastily. “I did investigate.”

Mr Enill had good reason to look abashed, and it was no wonder his claim was greeted with incredulous laughter.

“You believe that?” asked Mr Mark.

Mr Enill said he was just there to answer the question.

“Just to get this comedy in perspective,” asked Mr Montano, “is the minister asking us to believe the chairman of NLCB had absolutely nothing to do with $800,000 (sic) going to his company—he just closed his eyes and let Devant Maharaj do it?”

No further light

“I’m not asking anyone to believe anything,” Mr Enill said sheepishly. “I’m just providing the information.”

Now whereas Mr Lee Sing is well known as a friend of the Government, Mr Maharaj came to prominence last year when he took the Government to court, and won, over the Prime Minister’s veto of his promotion at the NLCB. Since then he has had even less reason to be kindly disposed to Mr Lee Sing or the PNM, as he has been refused leave of absence from the NLCB to take up a job in the office of the leader of the Opposition.

To sum up, then, Mr Maharaj is the last person on the planet who would be inclined to funnel revenue in the direction of Mr Lee Sing’s radio station.

But no further light was shed on this mystery, as question time ended before Mr Montano got to ask the supplemental questions he was bursting to put to Mr Enill.

But government spending on advertising remained the theme as the Senate debated Mr Montano’s motion criticising the government media campaign that promoted the police bills last year.

Mr Mark adjudged the advertising agencies the winners in this matter. The agencies used were CMB, Ample and the Resource Factory, he said, and he noted that “the chap who owns Ample” is Mr Alfred Aguiton, who is also, to the tune of $20,000 a month plus perks, the Prime Minister’s communications adviser.

As for the Resource Factory, Mr Mark thought its owners included PNM PRO and ambassador plenipotentiary Jerry Narace, and, once again, Louis Lee Sing. (However, Mr Lee Sing has since denied any involvement and the Resource Factory issued a press release saying Mr Narace was not a shareholder.)

Mr Mark also dug up figures suggesting more might have been spent on the police reform bills media blitz than the $1.9 million the Government had admitted to.

He had noticed that among the funds allocated to the office of the Prime Minister, there had been transferred from one sub-head to another $2.5 million for “promotions, publicity and printing.”

Mr Mark purported to find it incredible that the country could be given one figure when the true figure was $.6 million more.

But that’s all too easy to credit. He may have been caught off guard earlier in the afternoon, but it’s harder to believe that an old hand like Mr Mark was actually surprised at what he found.

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