by Larry Smith
"The secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you've got it made." -- Groucho Marx
Outside of ZNS and other PLP circles, the outrage over tax dodging politicians and officials has been visceral as the government pursues a big increase in the average citizen's tax burden to reduce its fiscal deficit.
A few weeks ago it was revealed that Ishmael Lightbourne, the chief tax spokesman, had not paid property tax on his beachfront home out west or his commercial building in Palmdale for many years - up to two decades in fact. The bill amounts to well over $100,000 and cannot be attributed to recent hard times.
As the government’s chief VAT spokesman, Lightbourne has come in for some harsh criticism. Critics labelled his predicament as the grossest example of hypocrisy in recent times - although convicted Bishop Randy Fraser’s favours from his congregants ranks highest in my view.
Lightbourne is an interesting case. In the 1970s he was an accountant in England - working on tax matters. By the 1990s he had become a managing partner at Coopers & Lybrand in Freeport. A recent newspaper article identified him as a “distinguished (and) talented professional accountant and business consultant with over 40 years experience.”
Coopers & Lybrand merged with Price Waterhouse in 1998 to become PriceWaterhouseCoopers, now called PwC, a global consulting firm with 180,000 employees. Lightbourne parted company with PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 2004, but there is no documentary information readily available to explain why.
Clearly, Lightbourn is not alone in his predicament. After being exposed as a tax dodger by the Guardian, the Tribune reported official figures showing about $392 million in uncollected property taxes on the government’s books - plus another $166 million in hypothetical penalties.
Labour and National Insurance Minister Shane Gibson then threatened to disclose the names of past and present opposition politicians who were delinquent in paying their taxes. “You should always pay your taxes, particularly when you are in government,” Gibson said, before acknowledging that he too had been delinquent.
Meanwhile, PLP Chairman Bradley Roberts seemed to confirm that the political class in general - and their cronies - are not paying taxes. “It’s not only brother Lightbourne,” Roberts said smugly. "There are many others who are sitting in influential positions…And from what I know (Lightbourne’s) tax is a small one."
After the initial shock had subsided, the spin doctors moved in. The website sometimes known as Fred Mitchell Uncensored sought to dismiss the disclosures as a case of a poor unfortunate who had fallen on hard times. “Lightbourne was fired from Coopers & Lybrand and could not work for years (until) the PLP rescued him by giving him a job,” Uncensored said, adding for good measure that, for the PLP, "not paying taxes is not a crime of moral turpitude.”
Elcott Coleby, the PLP’s point man at Bahamas Information Services, argued that since tax evasion and fraud were endemic in the country, it was hypocritical for anyone to complain about the imposition of VAT, which he claimed would only improve tax compliance. "Ronnie Butler said it best when he sang 'I know them long time - them people is mine’”, Coleby said, with tongue in cheek.
Amongst some in the intelligentsia, the confirmation that many of our business and political leaders are cavalier tax cheats is grist for the mill.
As one thoughtful commenter put it, "hypocrisy is the root cause of all of the problems we face in this country: Deport the illegal immigrants, but leave my undocumented worker; pay your real property taxes, but turn a blind eye when I fail to file my declaration of assets, income and liabilities; pay VAT even though I have not paid my real property taxes; and on and on. We cannot continue to maintain this fairy tale. We are facing very real problems and the only way to solve them will be to first admit that they exist.”
In one of his more cogent sound bites since becoming opposition leader, Dr Hubert Minnis said "If the government is not prepared to deal with its own and not prepared to enforce laws, then what the hell we doing in parliament passing laws?”