In sunny Turks and Caicos, 'political amorality' forces Britain to retake control

Michael Misick resigned as prime minister of the Caribbean island on Mar. 23 amid corruption allegations. He calls Britain's return to direct rule 'modern-day colonialism.'

By , Correspondent

Michael Misick, who until recently was the prime minister of this British overseas territory, has a lot to show for his nearly six years in government.

Providenciales, the commercial hub of this archipelago, 600 miles southeast of Miami, has gone from a sleepy tropical backwater to a sprawling suburban landscape of strip malls, five-star resorts, and red-tiled villas connected by a four-lane highway. Many outer islands have been turned into exclusive resorts attracting the attention of celebrities such as Bruce Willis, who got married at one last month.

But on Mar. 23, Mr. Misick resigned following the release of the initial results of an official corruption investigation which concluded there were clear signs of "systemic venality," "political amorality and immaturity," and "chronic ills collectively amounting to a national emergency."

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The report, headed by retired British Lord Justice Sir Robin Auld, recommended the urgent suspension of the territorial constitution and the imposition of direct rule from London.

Misick has denounced the British plan as a return to colonialism and "a clear and present danger to the interest of our people," but many of his countrymen say it was time for him to go.

Lavish lifestyle at the people's expense?

Mr. Auld had heard five weeks of testimony at the Regents Palms Hotel here this winter, where witnesses described the prime minister's lavish lifestyle and questionable conduct in the sales of public land and the expenditure of taxpayer's money.

Misick's estranged wife, American model and sitcom star LisaRaye McCoy, testified that she spent up to $200,000 a month on clothes for her "first lady lifestyle" and that her husband, who was also the territory's tourism minister, arranged for the government to pay her $300,000 a month to be the face of an international tourism campaign.

She said they used a private jet to take personal vacations to Africa, Europe, and the United States and that she was led to believe the Gulfstream G-1159 belonged to them, and had even designed a family crest to be embroidered into its carpet. In fact, the public treasury of this territory of 32,000 people was paying for the jet, which was leased for $100,000 a month from a company owned by the country's US lobbyist, Jeffrey Watson, a personal friend of Misick who stayed at their $8 million Providenciales home.

After coming to power, Misick's salary and allowances doubled to $288,000 a year, which investigators pointed out was more than that received by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. ("I submit I have done more for Turks and Caicos than Gordon Brown has done for England," Misick responded at the inquiry.)

While in office, the prime minister, a real estate broker, continued to collect real estate commissions and, according to investigators, received $20 million in personal loans from banks, political appointees, and developers, many of which he conceded under questioning that he had not yet been required to make payments on.

"He was giving control of the country to developers," says Robert d'Arceuil, a Providenciales attorney who says the government had become "authoritarian and dictatorial," squelching opposition politicians' access to the media and "stealing" public land and resources.

British direct rule a necessary evil?

Mr. d'Arceuil supports as a necessary evil the British parliament's plan to suspend the territory's constitution for two years, replacing its democratically elected legislature with direct rule by Gov. Gordon Wetherell, who is appointed by Queen Elizabeth. "The British [constitutional] guarantee of good government had to kick in," he says. "Every time we call Britain to assist us, we give them room to take away more of our autonomy, but the whole system of government had broken down." [Editor's note: The section heading in the original version suggested Mr.d'Arceuil had called the British plan a 'necessary evil,' which he did not.]

Misick, who denies breaking any laws, declined through his chief of staff to be interviewed for the article. In an address to the nation last month he condemned the British plan "in the strongest possible terms, for it silences the voice of the people, which is the voice of God." He said the action represented "the strong arm of modern-day colonialism" and called on the United Nations to intercede.

A spokesperson at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London said the action would be "a smart targeted intervention" that "would last no longer than it takes for the necessary reforms to ... take effect," hopefully ending prior to scheduled elections in 2011.

Most of the public support the suspension of the constitution, according to Gemma Handy, a reporter with the Turks and Caicos Weekly News who has covered the corruption hearings. "It's a shame to have had to come to this, but there really wasn't another option," she says.

Was Misick just misunderstood, underappreciated?

Mr. Watson, a self-described friend of Misick who served as an aide to former President Bill Clinton, said the prime minister was motivated by a desire to develop his country and had succeeded admirably. "In the region that the Turks and Caicos exists in, there are 32 countries, and 31 of them are all selling the same three things: sun, sand, and sea," he told the Monitor. "If you are trying to separate yourself from the others you'll be going to conferences and meeting investors all over the map."

"What one person may consider lavish may not be lavish to another," he said, adding that the developers and investors Misick courted live a jet-set lifestyle. Watson acknowledged that his firm did in fact lease a jet to the office of the prime minister, adding that Misick probably needed it "to beat [his] competition to the punch."

Misick testified that he regrets leasing the jet but that he – not the government – paid for personal trips.

Others question why Britain didn't act sooner, given the Turks and Caicos' deteriorating reputation and their governor's duty to ensure good governance.

"It's long been known as a lawless jurisdiction," says David Marchant, editor of Offshore Alert, a Miami-based newsletter covering offshore financial centers. "It's obviously been out of control, but if you're the [British] governor you have a choice between going there and having an easy life by turning a blind eye or to start doing your job properly and have a dangerous one."

The governor's office referred all questions to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office where a spokesperson said successive governors had been unable to investigate corruption allegations because "most people were previously unwilling" to come forward with evidence.

Auld is scheduled to present his final report by April 30, which will contain any recommendations for criminal prosecution. The British parliament is expected to suspend the constitution immediately thereafter.

"This has to be seen as an aberration," Mr. d'Arceuil says. "I firmly believe the people of the Turks and Caicos will make the right decisions once this corrupt administration is removed."

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