As fate and the parliamentary vacation schedule would have it, PNM government ministers were saved on Thursday from facing any "music"—and tough questions at the weekly media briefing—on PNM deputy leader Marlene McDonald following her arrest that day.
There was neither Cabinet nor any media briefing. McDonald was the one actually facing the "music"—on alleged misappropriation of funds—and colleagues down to Prime Minister Keith Rowley were staying in respective corners as police climaxed the Calabar Foundation probe started in 2016.
As the biggest political development for the year, it's the end of a long road which some believe should have been expected. A development shaking both Government and Opposition. No one's even joked about the possible blighted aura of the Public Administration post previously held by Maxie Cuffie who had suffered a stroke in 2017, and by McDonald whose tenure in the Rowley administration has been turbulent.
Her predicament has threatened Government's carefully cultivated anti-corruption image and it has renewed scrutiny of Rowley's management and judgment skills. He has stood by her against allegations and probes appointing her a minister three times in the four-year term; firing her twice due to misconduct and other matters.
After the last appointment in 2018, Rowley was asked in Parliament if he received information from the Integrity Commission and/or Fraud Squad clearing McDonald. He said only he could appoint Cabinet members and that wasn't dependent on any commission letter. He was silent on the police, however, and recent developments have revived the question of whether it was wise to have appointed her in the face of an on-going police probe; an action which indicated either contempt for police work or trust for a positive outcome.
On Thursday, Rowley's responses on McDonald, given in a subdued tone, still left queries on why he took the risk. Rowley's boast that his Government would defend no wrong-doing is now being truly tested with the most acute case, closest to PNM's uppermost level.
With no sign of resignation (from her) or dismissal (by him), his Government and party's political profile are mired with the misfortunes of their deputy leader, legislative group head and MP for prime PNM turf once held by no less than PNM founder Dr Eric Williams. How the probe's outcome—and consequent action by either McDonald or Rowley—affects PNM's fortune in POS South remains ahead.
McDonald's predecessor MP Eric Williams also had his share of issues, resigning as Energy Minister in 2006 after alleged bribery charges on which he was freed due to unreliable evidence and wrongful arrest. McDonald was Rowley's staunchest ally in 2010/15 opposition days; her importance in his 2015 Cabinet just as strong due to a minority of experienced members plus she's been a magnet for PNM grassroots/traditional support.
The crime issue—where some of her Sea Lots constituents were concerned—had already threatened her political standing and Government's by extension. Contagion risk to McDonald heightened recently when one constituent was killed by police and another repeatedly detained. Her brief Public Utilities appointment in 2017—curtailed because of alleged gang leader Cedric Burke's presence at her swearing-in function—taught McDonald how some links could negatively impact her career. She was allowed to remain as deputy leader after removal then. But it's left to be seen whether that'll continue if the current situation deteriorates.
Police Commissioner Gary Griffith is still overseas. But the timing of police action—in the current Parliamentary recess—has spared McDonald and Government from facing that forum under the current cloud. Her Opposition colleagues—for several of whom she's a favourite—have reacted considerately enough for some UNC followers to even speculate whether she's being "sacrificed" on PNM's anti-corruption altar.
The development has arisen early enough for PNM—heading to Local Government polls before year-end—to do damage control. In the event of a negative outcome, McDonald's years of issues make for a complicated situation to handle regarding her already uneasy constituents, Government's profile and Rowley's image. What's next?