A semijudicial Royal Commission of Inquiry reported today that the Bahamian government of Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, from out-island policemen to Cabinet ministers, has been linked to extensive drug-related corruption and influence peddling.
The commission, after more than a year of hearings, thus largely upheld a contention by U.S. narcotics officers that these islands were used between 1978 and 1982 as a major way station for drug smuggling while Bahamian officials looked the other way. They did so in exchange for a share of the astronomical illegal profits available in moving drugs from South America to the U.S. market.
A majority of the three-man commission concluded, however, that no credible evidence ties Pindling to the drug-related corruption, despite deposits into bank accounts in his and his wife's name between 1977 and last year totaling $3.5 million more than his salary.
The third commission member, the Right Rev. Drexel Gomez, the Anglican bishop of Barbados, filed a dissent to record his "great suspicion" about Pindling's wealth.
"I find it impossible to say that the payments were all non-drug-related," Gomez said. "Some could have been but. . . it certainly cannot be contested that the prime minister did not exercise sufficient care to preclude the possibility of drug-related funds reaching his bank account or being applied for his benefit."
Pindling, who has run the Bahamas for 17 years at the head of his Progressive Liberal Party, declined to respond to the charges, according to a government spokesman. In testimony to the commission earlier this year, he denied any wrongdoing.
The commission was not empowered to issue legal indictments, although its recommendations carry substantial political weight here.
In several instances, the commission recommended that individuals be prosecuted on the basis of evidence gathered in the inquiry. Its report was formally handed over to the assembly Friday and distributed to members today.
The Free National Movement, the main opposition party with 11 seats to Pindling's 32 in the 43-seat House of Assembly, called on Pindling today to resign and hold new elections because, its officials charged, "gangsters had direct links to his Cabinet."
"I think the report will have a tremendous impact," said Arthur Foulkes, a Free National Movement assembly member and party spokesman. "I think Pindling is in very serious trouble."
An outraged Pindling named the prestigious commission in November last year after the National Broadcasting Co., citing U.S. drug enforcement intelligence, reported that he and other government officials were receiving $100,000 a month to protect narcotics trafficking through the 700 Bahamian islands. The broadcast centered on an operation that NBC said was run by Robert Vesco, the fugitive American financier, and Carlos Enrique Lehder Rivas, a Colombian indicted for cocaine smuggling who has openly boasted of making a fortune in drug trafficking.
The commission was headed by James Smith, a former Bahamian chief justice. It also included Gomez and Edward Willis, a retired assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Robert Ellicott, former chief justice and solicitor general of Australia was chief counsel.
The commission found that, as reported, Lehder ran an extensive cocaine smuggling operation on Norman's Cay from 1978 until 1982 and that he had an association with Vesco while both resided in the Bahamas. But it added that "despite Royal Bahamas Police reports to the contrary, there was insufficient evidence" to prove Vesco worked with Lehder in the smuggling enterprise.
The Norman's Cay operation was part of extensive drug smuggling over the last dozen years involving payment of "substantial bribes" to various ranks of policemen and customs officials, the commission charged.
It added: "We were particularly concerned to discover that those corrupting influences made their presence felt at the level of permanent secretary top-ranking civil servant and minister."
The commission reported, for example, that the only bank on the island of Bimini, with 2,000 residents, transferred $12.3 million to the Bahamian Central Bank last year, compared to $500,000 in 1977.
"There is no doubt the government was aware of the extent of the problem from 1978 onward," the commission declared.
While not pointing directly at Pindling, the panel singled out some of his closest political and business associates. By attacking the government for ignoring the problem, it also indirectly accused him of failure to take sufficient action to prevent the Bahamas from becoming a drug smugglers' haven.
It concluded that Everette Bannister promised to use his influence with Pindling in exchange for thousands of dollars to smooth the way for at least three American drug smugglers. Bannister, a long-time friend of the prime minister who had been his business associate, allegedly made some of the payments to Pindling questioned by Gomez in his dissent.
In addition, the commission found that, wittingly or not, attorney Kendal Nottage was "fronting" for Michael Salvatore Caruana, whom the commissioners described as "a member of an organized crime family in the United States and a drug smuggler who is now a fugitive from justice."
Nottage, who took over Pindling's law practice, once held shares in trust for the prime minister in a company in which Vesco had financial interests. Nottage was minister of youth, sports and community affairs until his resignation in October.
Another Pindling associate, former agriculture, fisheries and local government minister George Smith, was found to have "corruptly accepted funds from known drug smugglers." Smith also resigned in October.