(Trinidad Express) Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s statement that former prime minister Arthur NR Robinson used to take his son, David, as his travel assistant on overseas trips has been vigorously challenged by a number of persons in the know.
Persad-Bissessar in defending her decision to take her sister, Vidwatie Newton, at taxpayers’ expense on official trips with her, told reporters on Saturday: “It has been done before my time…Indeed, I am advised that former prime minister Robinson would take his son as his travel assistant”.
She dismissed queries relating to her sister’s travel costs, first raised by the Opposition in Parliament last Friday, as mischief.
Newton has accompanied the Prime Minister to several trips including Brazil, Australia, London and Hong Kong.
Former permanent secretary to the Prime Minister, Reginald Dumas, said yesterday he had “absolutely no recollection whatsoever of Robinson’s son ever being on any Trinidad and Tobago delegation (travelling overseas)”.
“In my experience working with him as prime minister, David was never on any Trinidad and Tobago delegation,” he said during a telephone interview.
“Mr Robinson would not do that. He is not that kind of person to have his child or sibling travel with him and say it is his travel assistant. That is not the kind of person he is,” Dumas said.
He added that Robinson did not even have a personal assistant.
“And as for anyone travelling with him as he travel assistant, forget it!” Dumas said.
Former attorney general in National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) administration (1986-1991), Anthony Smart, also said yesterday he was unaware of Robinson’s son travelling with him as an assistant.
In fact, Smart recalled that the opportunity came up during the NAR tenure to have personal assistants to help in the respective constituency offices, he (Smart) considered hiring a relative who was familiar with his constituents but when he discussed the matter with Robinson, Robinson told him that he didn’t think it was a good idea.
And former prime minister Basdeo Panday said yesterday he could not understand what was going on.
“This is a peculiar and unusual case. It is not a hired person. The Prime Minister has said she (Newton) is not an employee of the Government. If you are employed and paid by the State to do anything, one can understand that. But this is not the case. This is the Prime Minister who has her sister…who accompanies her at State expense. This is a case of having her sister or your mother travel with you and then chalking up a bill on one trip of TT$245,000. And nobody (except the Prime Minister) knows what her function is,” he said.
Panday said he had no personal assistant while he served as prime minister, though he said there were persons attached to the Office of the Prime Minister working for the Government.
On Saturday, Persad-Bissessar said: “I trust my sister. I feel comfortable with having her handling my personal matters like food and medication. It is vital. It allows me to spend more time on my job.”
One source who worked with Robinson as Prime Minister said there was no instance when his son travelled with him as a travel assistant while he served as prime minister.
“I know nothing about that. At no time did it happen,” the source said. The source added that it also never happened while Robinson served as President.
“When he was President if anyone of his family travelled with him, they did so at his (Robinson’s) expense,” the source said.
“Mr Robinson would use his own means,” the source said.
The source recalled on one occasion when David joined his father in New York, USA, he (David) paid his own way.
The source added that on another occasion, Robinson’s daughter Margaret-Ann journeyed with him, but it was not a charge on the State coffers.
Another source said one had to bear in mind that the Prime Minister has said Newton does not get paid.
“So how did the State come to spend so much money on her. The Prime Minister said repeatedly that it was the Government of India which paid for hotel accommodation and meals. So how come the Government spent nearly as much on her as the Prime Minister herself? How is it possible if the Government of India were meeting her expense? ” the source asked.
The figures given in Parliament include the cost of a first class ticket to India, which is around TT$70,000. Noting that the TT$233,000 was essentially a per diem allowance, the source said the per diem usually covers hotel expenses plus meals and transport.
“If the Government of India was paying these bills, what does the per diem cover and how did they arrive at TT$233,000 for Mrs Newton. What then is going on?” the source asked.
Foreign Affairs Minister Suruj Rambachan has said repeatedly that “all costs” for the Prime Minister’s official delegation of 12 were covered by the Indian Government.
He pointed out that even the cost of “internal transport” was covered by that Government which provided an airbus for the delegation to travel to various cities.
Robinson did not return calls seeking clarification on the issue.