Disgraced former Trinidad soccer executive makes political comeback

Former international soccer powerbroker Jack Warner is proving that it will take more than a swirl of corruption and bribery allegations to keep him out of the political game.

Three months after being booted from the ruling government in oil-rich Trinidad and Tobago amid reports of an FBI probe and more damning corruption allegations that rocked international soccer, Warner formed an independent party and regained his parliament seat Tuesday in a landslide.

But his political comeback, while not surprising given his wealth, not only raises questions about the future of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s weakening government coalition but also underscores a potentially dangerous trend. Disillusioned voters throughout the Caribbean are increasingly willing to trade votes for the maverick regardless of reputation.

“There is a vacuum of political representation that is always going to be dangerous until we address it,” said Sunity Maharaj, a Trinidad journalist and political analyst. “Throughout the region, people have been starving for direct representation. When they can get someone, anyone — whether with unimpeachable character or of criminal character, or in between — the person’s character doesn’t matter so much to them as much as that person delivering to them.”

In Trinidad, Warner had long been the chief financier of one of the country’s top political parties, the Indian-based United National Congress. He had even served as party chairman before he was forced to give up the post, along with his parliament seat and national security minister’s job, in April. An ethics panel from the Confederation of North and Central American and Caribbean Football (CONCACAF) accused him and another top soccer official of fraud and embezzlement, allegations he denied.

This wasn’t his first bout with corruption allegations.

He has faced them since the 1980s, but in 2011 as vice president of FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, Warner was accused of attempting to bribe Caribbean delegates with $40,000 each to vote for FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam. He also was accused of embezzling $15 million of federation funds and misappropriating $1 million in FIFA money earmarked for a reconstruction project in Haiti. According to the soccer confederation ethics panel, Warner also failed to disclose that the $25.9 million Havelange Centre for Excellence in Port of Spain, built with soccer funds, sits on land he owns, according to the report.

Warner, 70, has denied all of the allegations, calling the CONCACAF report and its allegations “baseless and malicious.”

Voters in Chaguanas West, a fast-growing community in central Trinidad, also seemed to agree.

As the man behind the scenes in Trinidad politics, Warner has had a front-row seat as voters grew increasingly disenchanted with elected officials who seem to disappear after the victory party. Making himself the exception, he has built a reputation over the years as the “indispensable” politician with deep pockets who opened his constituency office in the wee hours of the morning and remained until the last person left.

“If any member of parliament were to forget what representation means,” Warner said Tuesday during his victory speech, “he or she would be doing so at his own peril.’’

But Warner’s win isn’t just the result of his image as the “indispensable” grassroots man. He’s known for using his money to win the support of loyalists through his support of community events and infrastructure projects. While others are forced to depend on the central government for paved roads and drains to curtail flooding, residents in Warner’s constituency get them — courtesy of the man himself.

That fact and Warner’s emergence as a “larger-than-life figure” despite the corruption and bribery allegations swirling around him, should serve as a warning to the rest of the Caribbean, Maharaj said.

“If I am running a government and I know that my constituents are generally affected by a level of political malaise, simply because we are not energizing then, involving them, consulting them in the process, I am creating a vacuum for someone to take care of them and I will be lucky if they are on the right side of the law,” she said.

Nowhere in the region has this developed to a troublesome extreme than in Jamaican. There, crime bosses are regarded as community leaders and take on hero-like status as they step into the power vacuum, doling out school fees, business loans, food and medicine to residents in impoverished neighborhoods known as garrisons.

In 2010, more than 70 residents were killed in Tivoli Gardens when police tried to seize drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke. Residents were accused of protecting Coke as police tried to execute an arrest warrant from U.S. officials, who sought him on drug and gun trafficking charges.

“The parallels with Dudus are significant,” Brian Meeks, a political science professor at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, said in reference to Warner. “While Warner cannot be described as a ‘Don’ in the Jamaican sense, he does hold sway over a significant constituency, in part through the distribution of resources and also, no doubt, astute representation.

“But like Dudus, this relationship is apposite to any understanding of democracy and deeply disturbing to the mid-term prospects of transparent and accountable government in the Caribbean.”

Less extreme than Jamaica is the case of Haiti, where voters, fed up with traditional politicians in 2011, propelled a former outlandish singer known for keeping company with bad boys to the presidency.

Two years later, Michel Martelly still bills himself as the anti-establishment, non-traditional politician as he takes on parliament and looks for ways around it — and the traditional donor community — to achieve his goals.

Like Martelly, Warner is viewed as a lovable rogue who outwits his adversaries.

“Jack is diabolically clever,” said former Trinidad prime minister and one-time supporter Basdeo Panday. “He was able to turn the campaign around. All of the cloud around him simply disappeared and he converted the argument into one of performance.”

And in the case of Warner, an Afro-Trinidadian running in an Indian stronghold, performance also appeared to offset the coded ethnic language of the UNC platform, which has long been regarded as an Indo-Trinidadian party.

Panday sees danger in Warner’s win for Persad-Bissessar and her weakening government coalition. Warner’s victory was the second major electoral disaster for Persad-Bissessar, a former ally,. who slammed him on the campaign trail over the corruption allegations.

“She pitted herself against him and made this a battle between her and him,” Panday said. “She has begun to swallow her own propaganda about her greatness. A lot of the vote for Jack was an anti-Kamla vote. I don’t think she knows how much people dislike her and they dislike the party for all of the promises they have made and reneged on.”

Persad-Bissessar said despite the political setbacks, her coalition remains in control of the government.

“This is just one battle in many, many more to come,” she said Tuesday night.

And while some wonder if Warner will use his victory to strengthen the independent party he formed only three weeks ago and challenge Persad-Bissessar, there remains the damning allegations of the soccer report and the ongoing U.S. probe.

Peter Carr, a spokesman with the U.S. Department of Justice, said the department does not comment on cases under investigation. But he said “parliamentarians are not immune from extradition.”