(Trinidad Express) Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar offered to pay for her sister Vidwatie Newton on the first official trip she made as Prime Minister shortly after assuming office, high-level sources revealed yesterday.
The Express learned the Prime Minister even offered to tender a cheque to cover Newton’s travel expenses, but it was refused by a senior public servant who argued it would set a bad precedent which other prime ministers may be obliged to follow. The senior public servant also told Persad-Bissessar there was precedent for the Prime Minister to have a travel assistant.
“It was in those circumstances that the Prime Minister acceded to the (current) arrangement,” a Government source said.
In July 2010, Persad-Bissessar went to Jamaica to attend her first Caricom Heads of Government Meeting in Montego Bay.
The Express contacted the former public servant on the issue. The individual, who asked not to be named, said Persad-Bissessar indicated in July 2010 that she needed assistance in travelling and enquired about paying for the person who would be accompanying her, which she identified as her sister.
“I understood fully what it was that she wanted. It was the first time that we were having a female Prime Minister. Normally, a protocol officer would accompany the prime minister abroad. And one of the things the protocol officer would assist the prime minister with is if the prime minister needed to get his suits pressed or to get ready for his meetings, those kinds of personal things. The protocol officer would usually assist the prime minister because you don’t expect a prime minister to call room service or the laundry.
“But, in this particular case, it was the first time we were having a female Prime Minister. The protocol officer who was in place was a male, and the Prime Minister did not yet have any of her personal staff. And you have to understand that for people to look after your personal needs, your clothes, et cetera, it should be somebody that you are familiar with and feel comfortable with.
“If we didn’t have someone to help her—and I understood it fully—someone was required to look after her wardrobe, to help her get ready. Because if she unpacked her clothes and went looking rumpled to a meeting, the next thing we would be seeing in the newspapers is, ‘Look how the Prime Minister appeared at this meeting’. It was something (a need) that was recognised,” the former public servant said.
The former public servant said she conferred with a colleague in the Ministry of Finance, and they both understood the need to address the issue since this was the first female Prime Minister on her first trip.
“We felt it was something that could be accommodated,” the person said.
Recognising that Newton was not a public servant or an officer on contract, a recommendation was made, subject to the approval of Cabinet, that she accompany the Prime Minister as a travel assistant, the person said.
The individual added that the travel assistant would tend to those needs peculiar to a female, as well as medication and other personal needs.
The Cabinet agreed to pay Newton’s airfare and hotel accommodation and meals, “but she was not treated like a public officer, and what was granted to her was actual expenses (as opposed to a per diem which, in most cases, is based on a formula which takes into account things that someone on official duty would have to carry out)”.
The same arrangement was used for the Prime Minister’s trip to New York, USA. The individual stressed that these arrangements were made in the unique scenario of a woman Prime Minister now coming on board.
Government sources disclosed yesterday the entire Cabinet had advised the Prime Minister to put Newton on staff.
But at the time, there were persons occupying positions on the staff of the Prime Minister’s residence, and the Prime Minister was reluctant to release them.
One minister, speaking on the condition of anonymity, commenting on the issue, said yesterday: “She tried to do the right thing. She didn’t fire anybody (to create an opening for Newton).”
The minister added further: “The last time the Prime Minister travelled with someone (else), security found the person going through her purse and cellphone. And this is one of the reasons why her sister looks after those kinds of things.”