Following discussions between Minister of Finance, Washington Misick, and Premier Dr Rufus Ewing, Misick will no longer have lottery and gaming as a part of his portfolio.
Finance minister and 50 percent owner of the Casablanca Casino, Washington Misick
This decision reportedly comes following a request made by Misick for a transfer of responsibility for lottery and gaming to another minister to avoid the possibility of perceived conflict of interest.
In April of this year, Cabinet imposed a one-year moratorium on the issue of new gaming licences, reportedly in an effort to address the concerns raised by the ministry of finance, and the 2008 Caribbean Financial Task Action Force report, which suggested that the gaming industry in the Turks and Caicos Islands was non-compliant to international standards. The moratorium is said to be intended to give government the time needed to develop legislation and policies to regularize the industry.
“We as a government have a job to do. We are taking a number of measures to show the world that we are not a rogue government. We are making every effort in our financial sector to ensure that we are compliant to international standards and can be respected as a fair and transparent financial services centre. Our lottery and gaming industry should not be an exception,” Misick said.
“I take the job that the people have given me very seriously. It is not a game, it is serious business. While I have done my part in declaring my interests in this matter and have refrained from inclusion in decisions made with regards to lottery and gaming, I think that it is in the best interests of everyone for the responsibility to be transferred in order to avoid misconception and my integrity coming into question and that of our government,” the minister added.
Despite the imminent transfer, and as is the responsibility of all Cabinet members, according to a press statement, Misick will continue to exclude himself from decisions made relating to this industry.
The responsibility for lottery and gaming has been transferred to Ewing, effective October 1, 2013.
The Cabinet’s agreement in March to a proposal by Misick for a one-year moratorium on the approval of any future gaming operations in the TCI, raised questions as to Misick’s half share interest in the Casablanca Casino and whether the move by Cabinet to eliminate competition for Misick and his partners was done with full disclosure as to his personal interest.
The Casablanca Casino, the sole casino in the Turks and Caicos Islands, reportedly enjoys a concessionary rate of 5 percent in respect of the gambling levy paid to the government compared to the 30 percent paid by other operators.
Subsequent reports in April that the casino was up for sale fuelled local concern over the moratorium on new gaming licences approved by the Cabinet. The asking price was reportedly some $13 million.
The casino achieved some notoriety when it was revealed at the Commission of Inquiry in 2009 that it was the subject of a very lucrative lease to a company owned by Progressive National Party (PNP) government ministers and/or their family members only after the casino was licensed as a standalone business outside of a hotel. The gaming laws were also changed to permit anyone to gamble who had an annual income of $75,000. Before Casablanca it was stated government policy not to allow casinos that were not part of a hotel and residents were barred from gambling in local casinos.
Some three weeks after the Cabinet decision to impose a one-year moratorium on new gaming licences, Misick admitted that he still owned an interest in the Casablanca, while denying that he had anything to do with the decision by Cabinet.
“This didn’t even come from me… The paper was prepared by my ministry… This decision was not made by me. The decision is a collective decision by cabinet,” Misick said in an interview on local television.
Responding to questions on the issue, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed that Misick declared his part ownership of the Casablanca Casino in March, when he proposed the one-year moratorium on the issue of new gaming licences.
Andra Bean at the FCO said, “The minister of finance declared his business interest in gambling.”
Bean went on to say that the Gaming Unit in the Ministry of Finance required reorganisation to ensure all taxes due are recovered promptly and efficiently. It was proposed there should be a moratorium on new licences being issued until the reorganisation was completed. An upper limit of one year was suggested, although in discussion the view was that this review should be completed as swiftly as possible to ensure the plans for new tourist developments are not unduly disrupted.
However, the FCO’s summary of the situation was not entirely accurate, according to the governor’s update of the relevant cabinet meeting – unless the governor’s report was flawed.
According to the FCO, it was proposed that a moratorium on new gaming licences be issued “until the reorganisation was completed. An upper limit of one year was suggested.”
But, according to the governor’s update, a one-year moratorium was proposed and agreed – not an upper limit of one year until the reorganisation has been completed.
Since it appears from the FCO’s response that the governor was in error in this respect we unsuccessfully sought clarification from the Governor’s Office.
There was also no evidence that the minister declared his business interest in gambling and, again, we never received a response from the Governor’s Office to a request for confirmation and clarification.
It is beyond doubt, however, that Misick failed to declare, prior to his nomination as a candidate in the November general elections, his interest, through his part ownership of Casablanca Casino, in an agreement with the government for a concessionary rate of 5% as compared to the usual 30% gambling levy.
It is understood that the Integrity Commission was looking into this, but again no response was ever received to our request for confirmation.