“SHUT mouth catch no flies,” the old folks used to advise. However, on Tuesday after much pressure from the press, Mayaguana Administrator Zephabia Newbold, ignored the advice and opened his mouth in his own defence. In doing so, he caught more than a fly. It would seem he has unwittingly jeopardised his job.
Lawyer Wayne Munroe wants him fired because, according to Mr Munroe, the administrator, acting in his capacity as a magistrate, publicly revealed what took place in the release of a man who he had earlier convicted, and sentenced to three months in prison in Nassau. By comparison to the crimes being committed in The Bahamas today, the 19-year-old’s offences were minor – unruly behaviour, resisting arrest and foul language.
However, before the young man could board the plane for Nassau, Administrator Newbold received a call from MICAL MP V Alfred Gray, who is also the Minister responsible for Local Government. Mr Gray wanted to discuss the young man’s case. Mr Gray admits to speaking with the magistrate about his constituent, but he was unclear as to whether he called the magistrate or whether it was the magistrate who called him. However, Mr Gray admits to advising the magistrate that the man could be released on bail while his appeal was pending. Mr Gray denies that his advice was an order and that he was in fact interfering with the administration of justice.
However, it is understood that Administrator Newbold has told authorities he received two phone calls from Minister Gray about the case. He is supposed to have said that after Mr Gray’s second phone call he released the prisoner. The accused was released — not on bail pending an appeal as Mr Gray had said — but all charges against him had been dropped. There was to be no punishment for the wrongdoing for which he had been convicted.
The FNM protested, accusing Mr Gray of abusing his power and interfering with the course of justice. In our Westminster system of government, there are strict rules separating the executive from the judiciary. The Opposition has claimed that Mr Gray seriously breached those rules.
In the House of Assembly yesterday morning, Prime Minister Perry Christie announced that as a result of the controversy, Minister Gray “has invited” Mr Christie to “relieve him of his ministerial responsibility for local government pending the outcome of the police investigation”. Mr Christie commended Mr Gray “for his responsible approach to this matter”.
However, the Opposition does not agree. In the Opposition’s opinion, Mr Christie is the one who should have done the firing, stripping Mr Gray, not only of his local government position, but also of his position as minister of agriculture. In other words, Mr Gray, stripped of one portfolio, will continue to sit around the cabinet table with his second portfolio.
No sooner had this announcement been made than the troops started to gather behind the scenes to deflect attention from Mr Gray, and focus on the Mayaguana administrator. Mr Zephania Newbold had to be fired because he had had the temerity to defend himself. Mr Gray seemed confused about the facts, and this seeming confusion was putting the administrator under the bus. The administrator, under questioning, told the truth as he saw it. And because he dared contradict the arrogant little minister, he was to be fired.
Of course, this is not the words in which lawyer Wayne Munroe couched his mission. Mr Munroe did not understand why the backlash was directed at Mr Gray when it was Mr Newbold who should be held accountable. According to Mr Munroe, Bahamians should question why an island administrator was allowed to try a case that would warrant bail or imprisonment.
What total rubbish. From as far back as we can remember, administrators — in those days they were called Commissioners — tried cases and sent persons to prison. We recall when the Commissioners would have their annual meetings in Nassau, and as a reporter we covered those sessions. Among their instructions were their duties when acting in the capacity as magistrates. And we know from our reports that those Commissioners when acting as magistrate’s granted bail and/or imprisoned offenders.
It is true as time went on circuit magistrates paid weekly visits to the islands nearer to New Providence, such as Abaco and Eleuthera, to hear cases, but the far flung islands of Inagua and Mayaguana still had their commissioners/administrators. And it was the function of these men to fill any administrative role that Nassau would have, but for which there was no official stationed in their islands.
To confirm our memory, we spoke with former Senator Johnley Ferguson, who for more than four years served as an administrator in Eleuthera, covering all of that island’s five districts. He confirmed that acting in his capacity as a magistrate on that island it was not unusual for him to try an accused person and sentence him to two to three months in prison.
So we would advise Mr Munroe to stick to the issues. And determine whether in this case Mr Gray, as a member of the executive, exceeded his authority by trespassing on the territory of the judiciary. If so then he should be fired from the Cabinet table. As for the island administrator, he did the job for which he was appointed. It would be unconscionable for him to be made the fall guy in this matter.
We want to commend House Speaker Dr Kendal Major for holding his ground yesterday against the bullying of the government in its attempt to deny the Opposition the right to make a statement on the Gray issue.
Said the Speaker: “After listening to both sides, if there is one thing that is critical to me as I serve in this chair is that the overriding principle that keeps me here in this chair is that I must always scrupulously guard the rights of the minority. This is not a vote, this is not a debate.
“The chair has made a ruling that has allowed members on both sides to make statements followed by responses and that is the end of the matter. The chair didn’t tell the member that he is moving a motion for debate, the member is making a statement. I have the statement.
“The members on the governing side will have a chance to respond to that statement and that becomes the end of the matter. That was the intention. This is the position I hold. I am a creature of the rules, but more importantly I am a servant of this House… If I am going to do right by the Bahamian people, it has to appear that I am being fair to members on both sides to speak to an issue that has been topical, important and critical.”
And so Opposition Leader Dr Hubert Minnis put his party’s position clearly: “The government must require the immediate resignation of the member for MICAL, Mr Alfred Gray, from Cabinet forthwith. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will suffice.”
The tragedy of the Christie government is — like the defeated Pindling government — it does not seem to understand how angry Bahamians are with their abuse of power.
Remember the pathetic words of Sir Lynden at his government’s defeat in 1992: “We knew people were hurting,” he told a reporter, “but we didn‘t think that this would have affected them so dramatically in determining what they would do during an election.”
But the people did just what they threatened. They “threw the rascals out!”