Justice Frank Seepersad advocates for campaign finance reform

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Justice Frank Seepersad, left, presents an award to Vallence Rambharat of the Hunters Search and Rescue team during an award function by the San Fernando Business Association at San Fernando City Hall on Saturday. – Photo by Yvonne Webb

POINTING out that the absence of campaign financing regulations has led to a culture of kickbacks and corruption, Justice Frank Seepersad called on the business sector to become vocal advocates for campaign finance reform.

Addressing the San Fernando Business Association (SFBA) dinner and awards function at the City Auditorium on Saturday, Seepersad said a limit must be placed on the influence of moneyed interest in the nation’s politics and a cap on the award of contractors to financiers, as the resources of the State and taxpayers money do not belong to any political party.

He said there was some progress with the enactment of procurement legislation and appointment of the procurement board but proper regulatory framework must be prioritised, and election campaign finance reform effected as a matter of urgency.

“In this society, many continue to abandon principled positions to achieve their desired objective, and far too often, well-intentioned, and upstanding citizens are torn between the pursuit of a principled path or one which requires them to do that which is expedient but wrong.

“The time has come for us to effect meaningful change, we must no longer facilitate or tolerate the paying of an incentive to a customs official to expedite the clearance of a container or to a planning division, city or regional corporation member to approve a building plan.

“The unjustified inflation of contract prices to cater for kickbacks must cease, and contributions to electoral campaigns which are premised upon the clear understanding that the support comes with the expectation of favourable treatment, cannot be condoned.”

He said every small, medium, or large business owner should adopt a firm no-tolerance approach to unlawful conduct and corruption in all its manifestations. He advanced that everyone must be prepared to report and assist in prosecuting wrongdoers at every level.

He shared with SFBA president Daphne Bartlett and guest, San Fernando mayor Robert Parris, the summary of a matter which the Board of the Privy Council recently determined, in the matter of Real Time Systems Limited vs Renraw Investments Limited and others.

As the trial judge, Seepersad said he held that the sum of $1. 5 million, which the claimant paid to the defendant to assist in financing an electoral campaign, was a loan and not a gift.

He explained in that matter, that the defendant, through its principal agent, “boldly and brazenly advanced that the money was paid on the premise that if the election was won, valuable contracts would be awarded to the claimant as a form of gratitude.”

“The defendant further asserted that after his party’s success at the polls, the claimant was handsomely rewarded and received multi-million-dollar contracts from the State.

“I found that this articulated arrangement was intolerable and offensive,” Seepersad said, recalling his statement then that money advanced to fund elections has for far too long played a central and dominant role in this Republic’s politics.

He said that the veil of secrecy and anonymity must be removed and there should be full disclosure as to the identity of financial contributors, with caps placed on the amounts which can be received by a political party from individuals, companies, or institutions.

To further illustrate his point, Seepersad used the unavailability of foreign exchange in the retail sector.

“I am sure that many of you have had to engage in fiscal restructuring brought about by an unavailability of forex and a decline in the retail sector.

“Your profit margins have suffered, and you are struggling to keep your businesses afloat, yet there are some businesses, financial institutions and conglomerates which seem to be immune from the financial constraints which grapple most of the country. In fact, their profit margins increase annually.

“Is this coincidental or by design?” he asked, telling the business sector to take a firm stand and make a loud call to those holding executive and legislative authority that the taxpayer’s best interest is of paramount importance and that no political financier should be given preferential treatment.

“Your integrity can shield and empower you.”

The SFBA also awarded three individuals on behalf of their organisations for their humanitarian efforts: Dr Rebecca Gookool from the Sure Foundation, Rammkishore Maharaj of SWAHA, who took on the task of providing 250 meals daily to the homeless and stray animals during the pandemic, and Vallence Rambharat of Hunters Search and Rescue.