PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, May 1, CMC – Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley says he is referring to the Integrity Commission the use of more than TT $800,000 (US $133,330) on the travel and other arrangements for Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar’s sister to accompany her on overseas trips since she came to office nearly two years ago.
Leader of Government Business, Dr. Roodal Moonilal acknowledged in Parliament last week that “the post of travel assistant to the Prime Minister is not an established post created by the Cabinet”.
But he said Vidwatie Newton, a qualified nurse, provides several duties to Prime Minister Persad Bissessar on her overseas trips.
He said that as of March 20, this year, a total of TT$868,268.11 (US$144,711) had been spent representing “airfares, hotel accommodation, meals and incidentals whilst on official overseas travel with the prime minister.
“Mrs Newton is a qualified nurse by profession. She accompanies the Honourable Prime Minister on certain overseas travel and performs related duties as well as a scheduling coordinator to ensure the prime minister’s presence and attendance at specific functions and activities,” he said.
But Rowley told reporters that the opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) is referring the matter to the Integrity Commission “so that the Commission can determine after its own investigation whether this $800,000 was properly spent with the proper authority.
“We will advance the questions, answers and the public utterances (of the Prime Minister on the matter),” he said, noting that the Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister, was now out in front “seeking to provide a palatable explanation to what we call political abuse of public funds”.
Rowley said the Opposition was also “confused” about the employment of Newton, whom the government first said was a travel assistant to the Prime Minister.
In March, Prime Minister Persad Bissessar defended her decision to include her sister as part of her official delegation on trips overseas, insisting that her family member is “responsible for the Prime Minister’s diet, medication, exercise, wardrobe and other health related and personal issues”.
The PNM had called on her to justify having spent thousands of dollars on having Mrs. Newton accompany her on several trips including to Brazil, Australia, London and Hong Kong.
“The Office of the Prime Minister (like the office of the President), has traditionally recognized the need for a level of personal service and ancillary support to the office holder. To this end, there is ample precedent of personal staff accompanying past and present Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,” the Prime Minister said in a statement then.
The PNM had claimed that the Prime Minister had told the nation she had been “advised that former prime minister (ANR) Robinson would take his son as his travel assistant” describing that statement as an attempt “to mislead the public on the abuse of the public trust and the public purse by the Office of the Prime Minister.”