PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Tuesday August 13, 2019 – Former Public Administration Minister Marlene McDonald was late yesterday granted bail on charges related to conspiracy to defraud government and money laundering, after being hospitalized ahead of a court appearance and after being fired for the third time from Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s Cabinet.
And the man who was announced as her replacement not only was not sworn in as expected yesterday, but he ended up resigning his post in the Senate over a five-year-old driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) conviction in the United States.
Such was the eventful day for the People’s National Movement (PNM) administration; and the Prime Minister ended up filling the void in the Cabinet himself, taking control of the ministerial portfolio that McDonald held.
After being arrested last Thursday along with her 74-year-old common-law husband Michael Carew when a search warrant was executed at their home, McDonald, 61, was slapped with several charges dating back to 2007. Carew; former head of the National Commission for Self Help, Edgar Zephyrine, 75; 66-year-old contractor Wayne Anthony; and contractor Victor McEachrane, 65 were also charged. The five face a total of 49 indictable charges.
It is alleged that while serving as a minister, McDonald approved millions of dollars in funds for organizations linked to at least two of the accused; and that all of the accused received the funds knowing or having reasonable grounds to the effect that it was criminal property and constituted criminal conduct in the form of conspiracy to defraud the government. McDonald was also charged with misbehaviour in public office.
The accused were initially scheduled to appear in court this morning, but McDonald complained of feeling unwell and was taken to the privately-owned St Clair Medical Centre.
Chief Magistrate Maria Busby Earl Caddle late Monday read the charges in the Port of Spain Magistrates’ Court, in McDonald’s absence, and granted her TT$2 million (US$295,980) bail. Bail was set for Carew at TT$500,000 (US$73,995), Zephyrine at TT$1 million (US$148,048), Anthony at TT$100, 000 (US$14,804), and McEachrane at TT$400,000 (US$59,206). They are all expected to appear in court on September 9.
In addition to facing criminal charges, McDonald, who is also the Member of Parliament for Port of Spain South, lost her position in the Cabinet yesterday. She was previously fired twice under controversial circumstances. The first was in 2016 when she was Housing Minister, after her alleged recommendation of public housing for Carew. She returned to the Cabinet a year later as Minister in the Ministry of Public Utilities. But less than 48 hours after, she was fired again, on the heels of a controversy caused by the presence of a reputed community leader at her swearing-in ceremony. She was appointed Minister of Public Administration last year.
In a statement issued yesterday morning ahead of her scheduled court appearance, the government said it had been reliably informed that based on the advice of Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard, McDonald and others would be charged with several offences, and in light of that development, Prime Minister Rowley would be advising President Paula-Mae Weekes to revoke McDonald’s appointment as Minister of Public Administration.
It said her replacement would be announced – and it was, shortly after. Attorney-at-law Senator Garvin Simonette was to be sworn in as the new Minister of Public Administration at 2 p.m.
But then came a new announcement that the swearing-in was cancelled as a result of “new information” that had come to light. The nature of that information was never disclosed by the government, but it turned out to be Simonette’s 2014 DUI conviction. Simonette later in the day resigned as a Government Senator.
A statement issued by Demming Communications confirmed Simonette’s conviction for the misdemeanour and his decision to decline the appointment as Minister of Public Administration and offer his resignation with immediate effect.
“The decision comes following the release of records indicating an arrest due to driving under the influence in the United States. I have advised the Prime Minister that in light of adverse media coverage regarding my culpability for driving under the influence, it would be inappropriate for me to accept his appointment to the Cabinet. I’ve also advised him of my resignation from the Senate with immediate effect,” Simonette stated.
“The decision to withdraw and resign is driven by my desire to relieve the Prime Minister and the PNM from the distracting burdens of having to navigate any adverse commentary about a key team member. I sincerely apologize for any embarrassment caused because of my past infraction. The last 16 months as a senator provides ample evidence of my commitment to serving my country in the best possible way,” he added.
Prime Minister Rowley has announced he will assume the Public Administration portfolio.
In a statement issued after McDonald was charged, the PNM of which she is deputy political leader, said it was saddened by the turn of events, but reaffirmed that it was committed to “the independence of the major stakeholders in this ongoing situation.”
The party said it has long stood on the side of the law, and particularly under the stewardship of Dr Rowley.
It also thanked Mcdonald for the “yeoman service” she provided for the past 12 years.