by Larry Smith
Here’s a story that needs to be re-told in full. I knew the protagonist as a high school student at Queen’s College more than 40 years ago, but have had no substantive dealings with him since then.
After studying engineering in the US, Steven Wrinkle, now 63, eventually took over his father’s construction company in Nassau. And for several years in the 2000s, he was the chief voice of the Bahamas Contractors Association - pushing for legislation to regulate the industry and decrying the lack of transparency in government tendering.
The contractors legislation has been drafted for years, but neither PLP nor FNM administrations will bring it to parliament. Most observers attribute this to the law’s potential impact on the handing out of political contracts to cronies.
Wrinkle’s family is from Harbour Island. His great grandfather, Charles Eugene Albury, went to Miami in 1917 to organise a government shipping service to Nassau. He later set up his own shipping business and was a key player in the early development of Miami’s cruise port.
In 1937, the Albury’s built the Parliament Hotel in Nassau. And after Wrinkle’s mother married his father, Skip, in Miami after the Second World War, the couple moved to Nassau to operate the hotel. In 1964, Skip launched Wrinkle Construction.
The story that needs to be told begins five years ago - in late 2010 - when a Bahamas Electricity Corporation inspector visited the BayParl Building, a small office block on Parliament Street opposite the House of Assembly. One of the meters he checked had no active account, so it was disconnected.
BayParl is owned by a company called Parliament Properties, whose principal is Philip Hillier. Steven Wrinkle was paid to manage the property. He is not a co-owner.
In early 2011, Wrinkle directed an electrician to switch part of the building supply (for two common area bathrooms and a hallway) from the recently disconnected meter to a functioning meter in the name of the building’s owner.
There was no attempt to tamper with, or override, the BEC meter or supply line - whatever was done was on the owner’s side of each meter. And the new meter was both functional and attached to an account in good standing.
When Wrinkle met with a BEC official to discuss this, he was advised of large outstanding amounts owed in respect of the disconnected BayParl meter, which BEC believed had been installed as early as 1984. Back then, much of the BayParl building had been occupied by government departments.
According to Wendy Duncanson, a revenue protection manager at BEC, two meters at Bayparl were active but not attached to an account.
“Normally, meters get to a property when someone comes in and applies for service, pays a deposit, an account is opened and we go and connect the meter. Somebody did that or did something,” Duncanson explained in court.
As we noted earlier, Wrinkle did not own the BayParl building, and he knew nothing about the outstanding sums that were supposedly attached to BEC meters with no active accounts. But he later discovered that BEC had debited his personal account for some $150,000.
In July 2011 Wrinkle was charged with “dishonest consumption of electricity" between February and March of the same year. The case went to trial soon after.
“I was in court eight times over the course of a year before being convicted in January 2013,” Wrinkle told me. “We made a no-case-to-answer submission, but Magistrate Derrence Rolle thought otherwise. He sentenced me to a year in jail plus a fine."
Even more surprisingly, Wrinkle was refused bail, despite giving immediate notice of appeal. So the president of the Contractors Association left the court in handcuffs to spend five days at Fox Hill prison - until a higher court bailed him out on $2,000 surety.
“It was a very humbling experience,” Wrinkle confided. “We tend to take our freedoms for granted, but your whole world changes when you go through something like this. In prison you are just a number, literally eating bread and water and sleeping on boards.”
In his decision, Magistrate Rolle asserted that a BEC meter supplying the BayParl common areas had been “removed" on Wrinkle’s instruction. He also claimed that Wrinkle had directed his electrician to “alter the load by preventing the reading and correct consumption of the BEC meter.”
But at Wrinkle’s appeal hearing in February of this year, three senior judges threw out the magistrate’s ruling. In addition to the fact that he was not the building’s owner, they said Wrinkle had not removed any meters, and there was “no evidence that the work done (by Wrinkle’s electrician) had prevented the reading and correct consumption of the BEC meter.”
Wrinkle's appeal notice argued that the magistrate had erred in law when he “allowed himself to assume the role of an advocate” and when he "allowed the prosecution to recall” a witness after the defence had closed its case.
Wrinkle’s lawyer also argued that the decision to convict was unreasonable because no prima facie case had been made out against him.
In their ruling, the appeal judges cautioned magistrates against advocating for one of the parties in a trial by "excessive questioning" of witnesses. And by directing the prosecution to call a witness, they said, the magistrate had effectively “commandeered the prosecutor’s role.”
The appeals court ruling concluded that Wrinkle had not received a fair trial.
Now I realise this is not a life or death issue, and there are other serious miscarriages of justice out there - such as the conviction of tour guide Edena Farah, whose trial for assaulting six police officers was proceeding at around the same time as Wrinkle’s case.
Farah had been seriously injured in a scuffle with police on Woodes Rogers Walk. In fact, bystanders said they had to pull the police off her. She was charged after filing a complaint, and subsequently convicted and given a six-month jail term by the same Magistrate Derrence Rolle who had convicted Wrinkle. Last December, that decision was also overturned by the appeals court.
"if this was a poor black man sent to jail for stealing electricity I bet y’all wouldn't have seen it this way... the point is this man has NO NEED to steal electricity he CAN AFFORD IT. Go check out where this man live and the lifestyle he and his family have ...he is greedy that's his problem and that's why he is going to jail!"
“How many Bahamians go to court on the same charge and don't even make the headlines?"
“This white nigga was theifin electricity whlle he was working on a government building..so now he have a reason for his clothes to get 'WRINKLE', so talk to cousin Bubba because Corucka done dead."
"A tief is a tief whether he/she from the Eastern Rd. or East St. When the Chairman of BEC went into the House of Parliament and suggested that BEC workers were thieves there wasn't an outcry. Now that a white Bahamian has been caught stealing from BEC, and the court does what is suppose to do to thieves, everyone up in arms."
But the bottom line in all of this is that - despite, or because of, his prominence - Wrinkle did not receive a fair trial. And BEC accepted no responsibility for its own egregious failures over many years.
“There are no safeguards against this kind of thing,” Wrinkle told me. “I spent four years trying to get justice in a criminal case and God knows how long it would take if I was to file a civil suit. And could I expect to collect if I did sue? It is all very depressing and disheartening."
Wrinkle likes to cite his 2011 achievement in securing an InterAmerican Development Bank grant for $150,000, combined with a $75,000 contribution from the BCA, to support an online training programme for small Bahamian contractors.
“Hundreds of builders completed the course to upgrade their skills, and we were on track to pass the BCA Bill, which had a lot of consumer protection clauses in it,” he said.
“We’ve been trying for over 30 years to get this law passed, but the BCA office is now closed and everything has withered away. People are afraid to say or do anything because they won’t get any contracts."
Now contrast Wrinkle's story with what the highly paid executive chairman of BEC, Leslie Miller, has publicly admitted since he was appointed to the post by Perry Christie in 2012.
“No-one in this country has paid off their light bill, either corporate or personal. That’s 90 per cent of us,” Miller told radio talk show host Jeff Lloyd last year. "I owe BEC like everybody else."
According to Miller, BEC's receivables include millions owed by government agencies and protected customers (read politicians and their cronies). “That’s the way any small country operates,” he said smugly.
And the Nassau Guardian last year confirmed that Miller and his family businesses owed BEC almost a quarter million dollars, with no payments made in many months.
Miller’s defence? “The economy is bad.” But there are no consequences or accountability here.