After ‘Warnergate,’ a clear choice

Media attention has continued, of late, to be focused on Trinidad and Tobago, unfortunately not by way of developments that are the least bit flattering. Word that Jack Warner, who is the minister of works and transport in the Kamla Persad-Bissessar government, had been suspended by FIFA for his alleged involvement in a bribery scandal and had subsequently resigned from his FIFA position, was big news throughout the sports world, delivering for Trinidad and Tobago the sort of ink the country hardly ever commands on the world stage.

An in-depth backgrounder in the New York Times last week, detailing how Warner’s cushy situation in FIFA and the hot water he had most recently gotten into had become an international cause célèbre, was indicative of the expansive reverberations from the “Warnergate” episode that went down in early May in Trinidad. That’s when Warner, at a meeting of the Caribbean Football Union, was reported to have facilitated the payment of “gifts” of $40,000 in cash to attending territorial representatives to garner support for a FIFA presidential candidate. The candidate, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, was provisionally suspended along with Warner.

Warner’s resignation from FIFA, from the CONCACAF regional confederation and from the Caribbean Football Union came after a FIFA ethics committee report concluded there had been “comprehensive, convincing and overwhelming” evidence he was complicit in the scheme to offer cash in exchange for votes. Stepping down in disgrace was striking turnabout from Warner’s feisty protestation when his suspension came, at which time he had promised “a tsunami” of revelations about the sordid goings-on around FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter. Any alert observer would of course have been immediately curious as to how could he possibly spill such beans without self-incrimination, he having been generally seen as firmly ensconced in Blatter’s FIFA clique for years. That the tsunami never materialized should have been no surprise.

The spin Warner put on this untoward turn of events was, as expected, that he was quitting the football scene to devote himself to his public service responsibility to Trinidad and Tobago! Would that he could have given thought to that when he decided to so vigorously be a player in the country’s political maneuvers. We don’t know if someone else occupying Warner’s position in FIFA would have been permitted to simultaneously hold a cabinet post in the T & T government. Maybe it’s a privilege accorded him only because he has been the “Mr Moneybags” of his political party and its chairman. Whatever, the “Warnergate” debacle hopefully would have dramatized the inanity of the government trying to rationalize letting Warner slide, with claptrap about nothing in the law forbids his serving the two masters.

Sadly, it’s the kind of kowtowing that has only fueled the “I am the law” demeanor that seems to drive Warner‘s patented style. The power broker status he had enjoyed for years in FIFA would conceivably do that to a guy. Small wonder that some months ago, in the conduct of government affairs, a contract Warner awarded had to be voided when the impropriety of his action came to light. The smart betting says the same bravado and smugness about the impregnability of his operating space in football circles would have factored into the devil-may-care manner in which he allegedly went about business at that meeting in Trinidad.

What’s scary is that there are obviously those who buy the tripe spewed by Warner apologists, that his resignation from FIFA was all about freeing himself up to continue with his cabinet duties as the dedicated public official he touts himself to be. What a crock! Mention is frequently made, too, of Warner’s doling out goodies to the less fortunate, all of which may be accurate. Still, a comment in the Times article by an Olympic Committee member in Trinidad is somehow what lingers: “Big criminals do the same thing.”

Demands have been made for Warner to step down from his ministerial post. With FIFA, at the time of his resignation, declaring that investigations into Warner’s role in the bribery matter would cease, this certainly had the appearance of wiggle room Warner might use, making the chances even more remote of any such voluntary move on his part. At the same time, unless FIFA extracts a deal from bin Hammam wherein he also resigns in return for the investigation into his misdeeds being terminated, it’s difficult to see how any thorough bin Hammam inquiry would leave Warner unscathed. Indeed, perhaps mindful of the organization’s shredded image, there has been precisely such intimation from at least one FIFA source.

However she cares to slice it, the issue of Jack Warner continuing as a cabinet member is one which the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, should she ignore, she will do so at her own peril. In the span of little more than a year, Persad-Bissessar’s administration has had to defend multiple instances of conduct flying in the face of the unyielding integrity that was its promise. Giving succor to Warner – with all the “hardest working minister“ hype that comes with the package – is very likely to be an untenable course for the prime minister. If the Warner situation is left intact even in the latest subterfuge attempt, Persad-Bissessar’s reported cabinet reshuffle, this hardly cuts it as salve for an irritation already way out of control and which threatens only to get worse.

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