Premier still has questions to answer
Imagine you are the Premier, and the family of a frail, elderly woman contacts you and pleads for help because a Progressive Labour Party House of Assembly candidate owes her substantial rent arrears — what do you do?
Well, if you’re David Burt, you make the debtor a senator, appoint him as junior health minister as a pandemic sweeps the island, and elevate him to the post of junior national security minister — a position that covers law and order.
As for the senior, well she can fight it out for herself, can’t she?
And then the rent debts spiralled to $19,000 — and with each extra unpaid dollar the pain and despair spiralled for the elderly woman as the saga was allowed to drag on and on.
As shocking as it sounds, that is what the Premier did over the scandal involving now disgraced, soon to be ex-senator Curtis Richardson and his former landlady, Margaret Harvey, a woman in her seventies who says the trauma of the lengthy legal action with the outgoing junior minister has left her ill and with her hair falling out.
The Harvey family first contacted the Premier about the debts on May 25, 2020, informing the Cabinet Secretary, Major Marc Telemaque, who told them it was a “private matter”.
Mr Richardson was announced as a PLP candidate in One Bermuda Alliance stronghold Paget East on August 31, 2020. He had previously run there in a 2018 by-election, losing by 161 votes in the best performance in history by a PLP candidate.
The desperate Harvey family e-mailed the Cabinet Secretary again the next day, with court action in the air.
The reply this time was: “I’m sorry this is not resolved. I have made the Premier aware, and I expect he will address the matter directly with Mr Richardson in his capacity as party leader.”
And what happened next? A week after the PLP’s landslide October 1 election victory, the Premier elevated Mr Richardson to the Upper House and appointed him to junior ministries.
And what did the senator give back to Ms Harvey? A paltry $1,400 — and Financial Assistance paid $1,163 on his behalf per month in September, October and November of 2020.
The affair became the talking point of the island after it exploded in the Supreme Court last Thursday, but from the Government there was not a sound.
Then, after four days of silence, in the wake of a thundering sermon by the Reverend Nicholas Tweed about the lack of moral leadership shown by the PLP, the Premier broke cover and finally confirmed The Royal Gazette report that he was told about Mr Richardson’s debts by Ms Harvey before he made him a senator and junior minister in October 2020.
In a statement after Mr Richardson’s resignation, Mr Burt said: “Upon Curtis’s appointment, I was aware of the debt and gave instructions that it must be addressed.”
Clearly, it was not.
After Mr Burt’s “instruction”, the debt soared to $19,000 by the time Mr Richardson finally left in January 2021, and Ms Harvey was reduced to breaking down in tears at the Supreme Court as she recounted the battle to evict Mr Richardson and try to recover the money owed to her — 20 months after the Premier was alerted to her plight.
The elderly woman, shaking with emotion, told the court: “Mr Richardson threatened to take a restraining order against me for coming on my property — an injunction.
“And then he said ʽtake me to court’, we are going to lose anyway … because the court will be on his side because of his affiliation.”
Ms Harvey later told The Royal Gazette: “I can’t sleep, my hair is coming out. All of this has taken a toll on me. He doesn’t care.
“We have been through the court — over and over, the same story.
“Every time we go to court the same thing, he is saying the same thing. He just wants to stall, stall, stall, so that he wouldn’t pay and I don’t think that’s right.
“He has treated me very badly. He said if we took him to court, we won’t be getting anything.”
Despite repeated requests for clarity, the Premier has refused to explain why he appointed Mr Richardson to positions in government when he had been given prior warning about his debt problems — and the anguish caused to the Harvey family.
In a fiery tirade by Mr Tweed, the churchman compared Mr Richardson — unfavourably — with Judas.
Mr Tweed said: “Morality is not for sale. Even Judas gave back the 30 pieces of silver that he got for betraying Jesus.”
Mr Tweed said some politicians believed “the only problem that we have is that it got out to the public — it’s not the moral wrongdoing”.
Given Ms Harvey’s pain and worry, does the Premier feel any sense of shame over the way he has handled this scandal?
The court of public opinion has passed its judgment on Mr Richardson, but very serious questions still remain to be answered about the Premier’s judgment in this squalid affair.
These include why Mr Burt first welcomed Mr Richardson as a candidate for the House of Assembly on August 31, 2020 when he had already been informed of his indebtedness little more than three months earlier.
Why, when he had been informed again about the debt — and acknowledges knowing about it — did he then appoint him to the Senate? To be sure, the PLP had unexpectedly seen all five of its senators from the previous Parliament elected to the House of Assembly, but surely there must have been other individuals without skeletons in their closets?
Indeed, Mr Burt was embarrassed in the days after Mr Richardson was appointed when his appointee as Government Senate Leader, Rolfe Commissiong, was forced to resign over allegations of making inappropriate comments to a woman.
This begs the question of why, if Mr Burt’s awareness of the need to avoid scandal was surely on high alert, he retained Mr Richardson in his role.
Perhaps Mr Burt felt his direction that Mr Richardson’s debt needed “to be addressed“ was sufficient. But if that was the case, the public deserve to know what steps he took to make sure it was, and that Mr Richardson was not putting his landlady through any further distress.
In fact, this has carried on for almost 16 more months, showing that Mr Burt had signally failed to ensure his direction was carried out.
No one disputes that many people have struggled in the wake of the pandemic, but Mr Richardson as a public figure had a duty to ensure he met his personal obligations. Mr Burt’s obligation was to ensure that his legislators behaved honourably. In this case, especially given he was aware of the situation, he failed. He needs to explain why.