The opposition politician threatening to take Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Louis Straker, to court if he doesn’t provide proof that he renounced his U.S. citizenship, has quoted former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s popular phrase, “Trust, but verify.’”
Ben Exeter of the New Democratic Party (NDP), who Straker, a member of the Unity Labour Party, defeated in Central Leeward in the December 2015 general elections, told a press conference this week that he is not afraid of ending up with “political mud” on his face.
Straker was first elected as MP for Central Leeward in 1994 and retained his seat until 2010, when he retired from electoral politics. He returned to politics in 2015 and was re-elected, defeating Exeter in elections that the NDP claims were flawed.
International observers, however, say that the results reflected the will of the electorate.
In a Sept. 30 letter, delivered to Straker on Oct. 4, lawyer Kay Bacchus-Baptiste, said that she and a team of lawyers, including overseas counsel, are acting on behalf of Ben Exeter and various persons entitled to vote in the Central Leeward elections.
She said her clients had instructed her to give Straker seven days to prove that he is no longer a U.S. citizen or face legal action.
The Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines prevents persons who became citizens of certain countries — including the United States — under certain circumstances from contesting elections or being elected to Parliament.
Straker, who was born in St. Vincent, had obtained U.S. citizenship but has never presented any proof to the public that he renounced it before running for office in 1994.
Speaking at a press conference in the Central Leeward town of Layou on Tuesday, Exeter said that Straker may or may not have renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1994.
“Just simply come forward and say ‘Yes I did/I did not’’” he urged Straker indirectly.
“So what if it is a 22-year-old question?” he further said in an apparent response to his critics.
“This will bring the answer to bear either way. People say it will be political mud on my face, but to ask a question to get an answer is political mud? I’d rather know the answer now than let it go unanswered,” Exeter said.
“So I say to the people of Central Leeward, I am here for you and I will be with you to the end of this fight. Be it tomorrow or next year. I am not going anywhere. And there is a reason we are in this fight today. I am in it for the long haul. As Ronald Reagan once said, ‘Trust, but verify’,” said Exeter, who got involved in politics after returning from Canada, where he lived for decades.
In giving an update on the matter, Bacchus-Baptiste said she was yet to receive an official response from Straker.
“I have heard comments that he made concerning the letter. Very inappropriate, I should think, and rude comments, but I’ve had no response,” she told the media.
She quoted Section 26 of the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, adding that her client is claiming that Straker is probably in breach of that section.
The section says:
- (1) No person shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a Representative or Senator (hereinafter in this section referred to as a member) if he- (a.) is by virtue of his own act, under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power or state
Bacchus-Baptiste said the idea is so important that it has been incorporated into the Representation of the People’s Act.
She said if Straker owes allegiance to another power apart from SVG, he should be automatically disqualified from running, and if he has run, he should have to vacate his seat.”
Bacchus-Baptiste also cited Section 36(2) of the Constitution, which speaks to determination of questions of membership of the House of Assembly.
The section says:
“An application to the High Court for the determination of any question under subsection (1)(b.) of this section may be made by any person entitled to vote in the election to which the application relates of by any person who was a candidate at that election or by the Attorney-General.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said she was quoting this section in response to comments from lawyer for the government, Dominican Senior Counsel, Anthony Astaphan, who she quoted as saying on radio that a challenge to Straker’s legitimacy as a Member of Parliament must have been brought within seven days of the election.
“I am amazed that a man who is supposed to be learned would make such an inaccurate statement of the law,” Bacchus-Baptiste said, adding that persons on other radio programmes have repeated what Astaphan said.
“I am saying that that’s not what the Constitution says,” she told the media.
The lawyer said her clients are concerned about Straker’s citizenship because of “certain documentations that I have gathered”.
She referred to the voter registration’s search, which she said lists Straker as a valid voter.
Bacchus-Baptiste said that MP for East St. George, Camillo Gonsalves — who renounced his U.S. citizenship in 2013 — is now listed as inactive on the U.S. voter’s list.
She said this “supports the fact that he, Camillo Gonsalves, gave up his American citizenship.
“Lo and behold, for Louis Straker — and they give his number and so on, he is listed boldly as active. So my clients are not being malicious. They are deeply concerned that the law of the land is being flouted by Mr. Straker and I think they have a legitimate interest to ask him the question.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said that persons are so concerned that 900 residents of Central Leeward have signed a petition asking Straker to show proof that he is not a U.S. citizen.
She invited persons from outside of the constituency to sign the petition “because it is a matter that concerns the entire St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
“Our taxpayers’ money is being used to pay Mr. Straker and if he is there… and he is still a citizen of the United States, then he is not validly elected and he ought to relinquish his seat according to the constitution.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said she was not at the event to declare whether Straker was a U.S. citizen.
“I am here to represent my clients who are asking the question. They have a legitimate right to be told. Mr. Straker is not above the law; he is elected by the people to serve the people. How dare he goes and say I am not going to show you? Well, the residents of Central Leeward are asking him to show and we have a petition to prove it.”
The lawyer said that a document surfaced two weeks after she sent the letter and purported to show that Mr. Straker did, in fact, give up his citizenship in 1994.
“But, that document, to me, is not a verifiable document from the United States government. I read it. It is a report,” Bacchus-Baptiste said, adding that she was not saying that he “did not go to the embassy and he did not purport to give it up.
“I do not know the fact. Facts are peculiarly in the knowledge of our elected representative. And he is supposed to come forward and tell the people did he give it up,” she said, adding that one can give up their citizenship and it is not validly recorded.
“That can happen, and in that case, the law in America states what would happen. So he could have gone to the embassy, but who knows if it was validly recorded? We do not know. What I do know is that still on the website, still on the records, Mr. Straker’s name is down as a person to vote.”
Bacchus-Baptiste said she has a document showing where Straker should vote in the upcoming elections in the United States.
“And if he is still on the current list to go and vote and his name is there, I think the people of Central Leeward, they have a right to demand to know the truth. And if, as it seems, it is not going to be forthcoming, then my instructions are to file proceedings under the Constitution, so that the court can do it, as I read to you a while ago. The Constitution gives us that power.”
Speaking at the same press conference, Queen’s Counsel Bertram Commissiong said that he does not know that the onus is on the NDP to prove that Straker is still a U.S. citizen.
“Any person who want to be a representative of the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines must understand that he has a responsibility to them to let them know that he can lawfully represent them. The onus is not on us,” Commissiong said.
Bacchus-Baptiste said that the lawyers should be ready by the end of November to file a case in the matter.
“Let’s give Sir Louis a chance now. Nine hundred of his constituents are asking. Let’s see if he would answer now,” she said.
The issue of Straker’s citizenship will also get some attention in Parliament on Friday.
Opposition senator, Julian “Jules” Ferdinand, is slated to ask the Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves in Parliament on Friday (today) to say if Straker gave up his citizenship of the United States of America prior to being a candidate for the ULP as required by the ULP.
He will also ask Gonsalves to say if so, what was the date when the United States government confirmed Straker’s renunciation of his citizenship and, if not, why was Straker allowed to contest the election as a candidate
for the ULP “in breach of the laws of St. Vincent and the Grenadines”.
Gonsalves has said that he happens to know that Straker is not a US citizen.