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Enriching the lawyers

Friday, April 20, 2018

This week the regular cycle of lawsuits over alleged State corruption, political posturing on both sides, enrichment of lawyers and experts, and no results to date, was again brought sharply into public focus when a High Court judge set aside two orders which had granted the State extensions of time to serve a claim filed more than a year ago on several locally based defendants.

The background to all of this is that in 2012 the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) purchased lands at Eden Gardens in Central Trinidad for $175 million—the value assessed by the Commissioner of Valuations department in the face of a $52 million value assessed by an external valuer. While two experts may differ in their estimates of value of the same property, the $123 million difference raised eyebrows.

In November 2016, after the change in government, the State filed a claim against several defendants, including former HDC managing director, now UNC deputy political leader, Jearlean John, alleging corruption and bribery. This was accompanied by the usual political fanfare by the government in power, followed immediately by cries of political persecution by those no longer in power. 

The State had four months to serve the claim, but apparently did not do so because it was still gathering evidence. So instead, the State sought and obtained two extensions to serve the claim. The defendants went to court and had the extensions set aside, as a consequence of which the claim was struck out.

The State and its expensive foreign lawyers found themselves with egg on their faces, Ms John crowed that they never had a case that’s why it was struck out, and the AG quickly countered (correctly) that the case had not been struck out as being without merit but rather on a procedural ground, and, as the judge had indicated, the State could re-file its claim, which it was going to do shortly.

Of course the State can start again, but, without getting into the merits of the case, can the public, on the basis of past history, be assured that ultimately anything will be achieved?

The same public will remember the October 2017 press conference where this Government announced that a former housing minister, the former EMBDC CEO, and five contractors would be facing civil action to recover $203 million allegedly obtained through white-collar crime. Apparently for 20 months prior, foreign forensic accounting and auditing experts had been working on gathering evidence of cartel bid rigging, no doubt at great cost. What’s become of that?

And the public will no less forget that the former government’s first AG appointed his “A team” of legal action men, which included several English lawyers, to go after the PNM Petrotrin, e-Teck, UTT and T&TEC boards, and to date nothing has benefited the taxpayers despite millions of their dollars being spent on lawyers and experts. In fact, the case against the Petrotrin board was famously discontinued on the advice of the same English QC who had previously advised to bring it. This QC earned approximately $20 million under the last government. Several of his colleagues from abroad earned millions in the Colman Commission of Enquiry into CLICO and HCU, and the commission’s report has never been seen by the public.

It is all well and good to go after alleged wrongdoers who allegedly stole from the public purse (we are talking $326 million in the HDC and EMBDC matters alone), or acted so negligently as to cause loss to the Treasury, but it has to be done right, and not for political purposes while enriching a select few. Absent results, the public has grown both wary and weary.

More worryingly, the cycle, helped by short memories, political misinformation and lies, permits those who are themselves accused of wrongdoing in office to take the moral high ground and wag their jewelled fingers at their successors in power. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be comical.

Mickela Panday


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