Burgess labels tribunal ‘lynch mob’

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  • Commission of Inquiry: Derrick Burgess (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

    Commission of Inquiry: Derrick Burgess (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

  • Derrick Burgess, the former public works minister, speaking at the Commission of Inquiry today (Photograph by Simon Jones)

    Derrick Burgess, the former public works minister, speaking at the Commission of Inquiry today (Photograph by Simon Jones)


Burgess quizzed on projects

Derrick Burgess was questioned at the Commission of Inquiry yesterday about a number of government projects he was involved with when Minister of Works and Engineering. The projects were highlighted by the Auditor-General in her report on the financial years ending March 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Renovations at the Department of Human Resources

Auditor-General Heather Jacobs Matthews found that the project “did not receive Cabinet’s prior approval nor was it put out to tender”. Commission lawyer Narinder Hargun suggested to Mr Burgess that the contract was not put out to tender because he didn’t want it to be, prompting the former minister to say: “Mr Hargun, you are incorrect.” He was asked about a memorandum between civil servants which quoted the Minister as saying the tender process could be bypassed if it meant the work could be done faster. Mr Burgess insisted he had no involvement with the project. Their exchange on the project led Mr Burgess to tell the lawyer: “You are not going to re-enact torture and slavery here with me”. Mr Hargun referred to evidence from former Works permanent secretary Robert Horton, who admitted the project did not get Cabinet approval and he regretted that. Mr Burgess said the fact that it didn’t was an “oversight by the technical officers”. The Auditor found that though the original contract sum was for $257,000, the final cost to the public was $958,000.

Dame Lois Browne-Evans police and court building

The Auditor found a “high level of unsupported payments as well as an override of controls at the highest level of management in the construction of the Magistrates’ Court building and the Hamilton police station”. The $70 million contract for the building was signed when Dennis Lister was works minister and a second contract was signed the following year, once Mr Burgess had taken over the works brief. Mr Hargun asked him whether the second contract with contractor LLC, which rendered the first contract null and void, got Cabinet approval. “I can’t recall,” said Mr Burgess. “I would imagine so.” Mr Hargun asked: “Did you ever take it to the Cabinet?” Mr Burgess said: “I don’t know if it was required because it was an ongoing process.” Asked about the original contract, he said he didn’t know what was in it. “That’s your job as lawyers, not mine.” And asked about a performance bond for the project, Mr Burgess said: “You are asking me something out of my league.” He was questioned extensively about the individuals who owned LLC and whether he knew about the “financial bind” they were in. “Mr Hargun, don’t ask if I know stuff that I’m not sure about,” replied the former minister. He was asked about Winters Burgess, who had a 22 percent equity stake in LLC, and Vincent Hollinsid, who had a 20 percent stake. Explaining that he called Mr Burgess “uncle” in deference to his age, Mr Burgess said: “I call everybody cousins because I was brought up that way. You probably don’t understand that.”

Commerical Courts project

The Auditor found that the “awarding of this contract did not meet critical requirements of financial instructions”. Mr Hargun earlier told the tribunal that the Commercial Court project went out to tender towards the end of 2008, resulting in technical officers recommending the bid of DeCosta Construction, which was “both complete and the lowest”. A smaller firm, Bermuda Drywall and Ceilings, was disqualified from the process because its bid was incomplete. But it was later allowed to re-bid, despite concerns raised by the Ministry of Finance, and was awarded the contract. Mr Hargun asked Mr Burgess if he had taken architectural drawings from the Ministry to another architect to try to trim costs in relation to the project, an action Mr Horton earlier told the tribunal he “deplored”. “That’s just something I would never, ever do,” Mr Burgess said.

Central laboratory

The Auditor found that the original contract sum for the Central Laboratory Building project was about $46,000. She wrote: “In 2010, the contract did not receive prior Cabinet approval. Additionally, W&E noted that the services were not tendered but were negotiated with the knowledge of the PS. Additional services of $856,000 resulted in a final contract amount of $902,000.” Earlier, the commission heard claims that a “misleading document” submitted by Mr Burgess to Cabinet formed the basis of the contract being awarded to local firm Concorde Construction. Mr Burgess, having explained how he tried to give black businesses the opportunity to win government contracts, said: “Concorde was one of those minorities, in a majority black country. [It was] the first job they ever got with government.” He said technical officers made disaparaging remarks about Concorde and he had those removed from the paper he presented to Cabinet.

Former Deputy Premier Derrick Burgess launched a stinging attack on the Commission of Inquiry and its lawyer yesterday, repeatedly comparing the way he was being questioned to an attempt to “re-enact slavery” and declaring he felt like he was before a “lynch mob”.

Mr Burgess took issue with Narinder Hargun, counsel to the commission, within minutes of taking the witness stand at the tribunal and went on to accuse him of trying to “beat me down like a slave” and of “racist practices”.

He was told by commission chairman Sir Anthony Evans he was “beginning to cross a line” and should answer straightforward questions that were put to him.

Several times, Mr Burgess told Sir Anthony, a British judge and former Lord Justice of Appeal, that he had “never walked a day” in his shoes and could therefore never experience nor understand what it was to be a black man and be disrespected.

Mr Burgess ensured the issue of race dominated the morning session at St Theresa’s Church Hall in Hamilton, with the racial make-up of the panel itself coming in for criticism from him.

He questioned why the commission — made up of Sir Anthony, businesswoman Fiona Luck, businessman Kumi Bradshaw and former politician John Barritt — was 75 per cent white in a country with a 60 per cent black population.

“You know what it feels like to me here?” asked Mr Burgess. “That I’m before a lynch mob.”

The former Cabinet Minister, known for his firebrand style of politics, both within Parliament and in his former career as a union leader, was quizzed by Mr Hargun on a series of government capital works projects (see sidebar inside) during the time he was Minister of Works and Engineering, including the over-budget, behind-schedule Dame Lois Browne-Evans court building.

He told the tribunal that while he was Works Minister, he favoured black contractors over white, where their bids for contracts were for similar amounts, because it was the Progressive Labour Party’s policy to enfranchise black business owners who weren’t in the running for projects in the past due to discrimination.

“The black guy would get it because he’s been discriminated against all their lives,” he said, adding that Works and Engineering permanent secretary Robert Horton co-operated with that policy, but the architects in his ministry “certainly” did not.

He claimed to have saved taxpayers millions of dollars in relation to five capital projects while he was Minister and said civil servants were “incensed by that because this little black boy from the streets came in and got the work done for $17 million less”.

Mr Hargun began his questions by asking Mr Burgess about new offices for the Department of Human Resources, suggesting the project wasn’t put out to tender because Mr Burgess didn’t want it to be. Mr Burgess replied: “Mr Hargun, you are incorrect. Don’t tell me stuff you know nothing about. I am very sensitive to disrespect and I will deal with it.” Pressed further about the tendering process, Mr Burgess responded: “Don’t try to tie me to something I knew nothing about. You are not going to recreate torture and slavery here with me.”

When Sir Anthony interjected, saying the commission held the same view about disrespect, Mr Burgess continued: “It is disrespectful when I give you an answer when you are trying to beat me down like a slave to hear what you want to hear when I tell you I have nothing to do with it. Don’t disrespect me.”

Later, his remarks to Mr Hargun turned personal when he claimed — while being quizzed on what he knew about the individuals involved with the company which built the Dame Lois Browne-Evans building — the lawyer was trying to “beat me down like a slave so you get the answers you want”, adding: “I know you are from South Africa, you know.”

Mr Hargun, a director of Conyers Dill & Pearman global law firm and head of litigation in its Bermuda office, is understood to be from India.

Mr Burgess was watched by a crowd of supporters, some of whom murmured their support when he chastised Mr Hargun for being “disrespectful” and pursuing questions he felt he had adequately answered.

Later, peals of laughter rang out in the public gallery when Mr Burgess’s lawyer, Jerome Lynch QC, warned Mr Barritt about a cockroach which was near him on the floor.

Mr Burgess cautioned Mr Barritt: “You shouldn’t be killing cockroaches” and Mr Lynch added: “Well, they are black, for a start.” Mr Burgess again turned to Mr Barritt, who he reminded had black relatives.

Questions about the Dame Lois Browne-Evans building led to fraught exchanges between Mr Hargun and Mr Burgess.

The police and court building was built between 2008 and 2011 when Mr Burgess was Minister, and was completed in June 2011, well over budget and behind schedule, a few months after Ewart Brown stepped down as Premier.

Mr Burgess told the tribunal he was not the minister when the initial contract for the work was entered into and maintained “nothing changed” when the second contract was entered into.

Mr Hargun asked Mr Burgess about cabinet minutes from October 2008, when the contract was discussed.

Asked if he remembered the meeting, Mr Burgess said: “Why are you asking me hypotheticals? This was eight years ago.”

He told Mr Hargun: “Don’t raise your voice at me.”

When Sir Anthony interjected again, stating it was a straightforward question he had been asked, Mr Burgess said: “I like your tone. I don’t recall that meeting. I don’t remember.”s

Telling Mr Hargun “let’s be cool now” as the lawyer continued to ask questions about the project, Mr Burgess again accused him of “trying to re-enact slavery”.

Mr Hargun then suggested to the former Minister that when a contract was entered into by government, the names of those behind the companies involved would be disclosed to Cabinet, to avoid any conflict of interests and to allow Cabinet to be satisfied of their financial standing.

Mr Burgess replied: “That is done before it gets to Cabinet. I am going to tell you one more time, when that paperwork comes to us, they [civil servants] have made their checks. That is not for Cabinet to do.” His reference to Mr Hargun being from South Africa followed.

Sir Anthony intervened again, calling Mr Burgess a person of “great experience” and adding “the least the commission will expect of you is to answer the questions in a respectful way.”

Mr Burgess responded: “Mr chairman, I am glad you recognise my status. He needs to respect it.”

Sir Anthony said: “The commission will judge whether sufficient respect is being shown to a witness,” before Mr Burgess told him: “You have never walked in my shoes. Every day of my life, I am reminded I am black. You will never experience that. Everything we do, it is directed because we are black.”

Sir Anthony told Mr Burgess: “I appreciate you are under some strain” but the PLP backbencher insisted he wasn’t. “I would react according to the atmosphere. I can be cool. If you want to be biblical, I can go there. If you want to be street, I can go there.”

In response to one question, Mr Burgess told Mr Hargun: “We abolished slavery in 1834.” Mr Hargun replied: “I’m not interested in that.”

Mr Burgess said: “I know you are not, because of your racist practices.”

He suggested a line of questioning about the involvement of Vincent Hollinsid and Winters Burgess in LLC — the contractor on the Dame Lois project — was due entirely to their complexion. “If they were white, you wouldn’t even hear those questions to me.”

After Mr Hargun was again accused of racism, the lawyer appealed to Sir Anthony to step in, telling him: “This is abusive.”

It was then that the chairman told Mr Burgess he was “beginning to cross a line”. Mr Burgess’s evidence ended in the afternoon, before former Premier Paula Cox took the stand.

The tribunal continues at 2pm today, when Accountant-General Curtis Stovell is expected to give evidence.

In the interest of treating the Commission of Inquiry much like continuing court proceedings, The Royal Gazette has taken the decision to disable comments. This is done for the protection legally of both the newspaper and our readers

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