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Change the rules - We must stop our habit of wasting taxpayers’ money
Who was yanking Lawrence Duprey’s chain? Was it his wife, Sylvia, who had made it plain to us that she wanted T&T and the fiasco of the CL Financial Group of Companies behind her? “I find most Trinidadians are friendly,” she said on our way to a shopping mall in Ft Lauderdale. “They are a lot of fun and when you meet them at first they are easy to be with.” She was driving with a silent Lawrence sitting in the passenger seat of her black SUV.
“However, you are foolish to think that their friendship is deep. They will hug you and kiss you, but the next thing you know they are sticking a knife into your back.”
Or was it Lawrence’s lawyers, who have kept up the chorus that he should not have spoken with us and that he should get us to stop publishing the articles in the Sunday Guardian because they are not going down well with the Sir Anthony Colman Commission of Enquiry (CoE) into the failure of the Colonial Life Insurance Company? Or are there some other people who were once friends of his but who now want to run for cover and watch every Sunday to see if he has implicated them in one way or another?
To quote a Chinese idiom, Shu dao hu sun san. When the tree falls the monkeys scatter. On April 18, for example, Duprey, through his Girl Friday, Cheryl Netto, sent me one of her e-mails that said, “We have been informed by Mr Duprey’s legal advisers in Trinidad that the commissioner of the Commission of Enquiry has raised strong objections to the articles in the Guardian and they have recommended that no further articles be published while the enquiry is still in progress.”
I hadn’t received by e-mail or post anything from the commission advising or warning me to stop the series of interviews, and I knew that if that had been the wish of the commission such advice would be sent to the editor-in-chief, Judy Raymond, and not to me. So I viewed it as a scare tactic of Mr Duprey’s lawyers and not advice from Sir Anthony Colman.
Was I wrong in thinking so? I recalled that in the case of the American International Group, the collapse had been brought about by the interference of an ambitious attorney general and a battalion of lawyers and I wondered if with CL Financial we were seeing a re-enactment of that tragic affair. However, Ms Netto’s almost daily warning, threat or remorse did not worry me; I didn’t think she had any right to be speaking for Lawrence Duprey.
But I understood that someone was behind her insistence for me to stop the interviews and I guessed that person or people was Mr Duprey’s band of lawyers. They could not have been happy with Lawrence’s decision to talk with us while they were insisting to Sir Anthony that he would not be taking the stage at the Commission of Enquiry as other lesser mortals had done.
The question in my mind was, why was Sir Anthony Colman being so indulgent to Mr Duprey? He had been the five-million-dollar boss of Colonial Life and he had been the one to approach the Government of T&T for the bailout of the company. I saw no way in which the commission could be satisfied with a deposition from him through lawyers about his conduct in the business of running the conglomerate. After all, he was not sick, dead or stranded on Mars. Florida was a three-hour flight from Trinidad.
It is with due respect, therefore, that I feel that this article, the last in a series of five, should be critical of the Sir Anthony Colman commission for allowing Mr Duprey and/or his team of lawyers to claim immunity from testifying in person.
How could Ms Netto in Ft Lauderdale write me that the Commission of Enquiry “had raised strong objections to the articles in the Guardian and that they have recommended that no further articles be published while the enquiry is still in progress”? Why not send such a warning to the Sunday Guardian?
The more I thought about it, the more I smelled several large rodents in Ft Lauderdale and Port-of-Spain. And once more I saw Mr Duprey handing over power-of-attorney, as it were, to Ms Netto as he once did to Gita Sakal. I don’t think he ever placed such trust and authority in the hands of Mr André Monteil, the alleged financial wizard at Colonial Life and now a retired gentleman sheep farmer.
The truth is Lawrence Duprey had not always been worried over the effect the articles would have on the Commission of Enquiry. From our first meeting on March 14, he had said that he was after redemption. I knew he wasn’t talking to me but to a power higher than man, even higher than Sir Anthony Colman. Later, on April 14, he had sent me an e-mail saying that “today’s article was very good. Congratulations.”
But at other times he has insisted that the articles did not represent the conversations we had had even though he knew our conversations were recorded. On April 20, for example, Ms Netto wrote, “I have received a copy of your e-mail to Mr Duprey and wish to point out respectfully that it is not a question of ‘stopping your work’ but rather at this time of not jeopardising Mr Duprey’s position with the CoE and in particular the commissioner who has already sent written objection to the articles.
He can ill afford at this time to contravene the written instructions and recommendations of both the commissioner and his legal advisers and it is in this vein that you were requested, and are once again asked, to postpone further articles in the interim, in the best interests of Mr Duprey. We look forward to your co-operation.”
You are right if you conclude from this that Ms Netto was now the voice of Lawrence Duprey or of Mr Duprey’s lawyers. Why was she given this authority? Only once was she present at the meetings we had with Lawrence and for only an hour or so.
Now she seemed to be the intelligence behind all our discussions and decisions. Now every time I wrote Mr Duprey, his reply came through Ms Netto. His wife, Sylvia, had ceased to be an intermediary. In fact, she had never filled this role with me. And in spite of what Ms Netto wrote I never did receive any correspondence from anyone claiming to be his lawyer and warning me of Sir Anthony’s annoyance at our Ft Lauderdale meetings.
But this is what Lawrence wrote me on April 12: “It was my understanding and intention that you would write a series of articles which would provide the public with an accurate account of facts on topics which would be agreed upon between us. It was my expectation that you would have provided me with a list of the topics for the five articles proposed together with a brief outline of the points to be made in each article and that I would review and approve each article before it went to press.”
“Up to now, I have not received from you any indication of what the forthcoming four articles will contain.” He went on to point out that one of the incorrect references I made in the first article was that he was “anointed,” which is false, as his first trip to Trinidad to Clico was on a rescue mission at the behest mainly of Cyril Monsanto to help them clean up difficulties the company was experiencing in administration and accounting.
“I did not receive any special treatment,” he wrote. “On the contrary, I was never paid and did not receive any benefits nor shares in the company. In any event, C L Duprey was not really keen on having family working in the company.” His complaints continued, “Some of the topics which would be worth mentioning in your articles are:
1. The transformation of the company—from a small insurance company to a global conglomerate.
2. The fulfilment of the vision of C L Duprey to establish the company in the USA.
3. The mission of the company to promote savings among the public and enable them to own their own homes, as well as to provide sustainable employment and this was done through diversification of the company’s asset base.”
It was his longest communication to me and the fact is when I read this rebuke I recalled what Harry Harnarine had told us in our first interview with him: “I think that Lawrence has been destabilised and it has caused him mental instability.”
I had ignored this as an overstatement of the problems Lawrence perceived he had just as Mr Harnarine had said that “there is a certain fear among some people who want to come back and redeem themselves but they think they see a mongoose gang just waiting to get them. That is a real fear.”
When I went to see him, I was after writing a book about Lawrence’s management of Colonial Life Insurance Company. It was not about setting the record straight in the enquiry and, indeed, I was in no position to guarantee him exposure in any newspaper of commentary that could come from our interviews. But shouldn’t he have known this? This is what I wrote in our first article which appeared in the Sunday Guardian on April 7:
“It was not possible after spending a week with Lawrence Duprey, the disgraced chairman of the Colonial Life Insurance Company Ltd and of the CLF Group of Companies, to come away not wondering if the anointed successor to Cyril Lucius Duprey had not been a lucky and skilful entrepreneur as much as a colourful adventurer, a sweet talker and a bloody idiot. This would not be the confusion one would have had about Sidney Knox and Thomas Gatcliffe, rivals in the business world of the Caribbean and business leaders he would criticise for having a narrow vision of their entrepreneurial role in T&T.”
But Walter Lippmann had warned that “when you come to international affairs confusion is compounded,” and Duprey had mounted this stallion for more than 20 years and had stood in the arena like a colossus until the world’s financial crisis put an end to his image of omnipotence.
Day after day, the legendary Duprey talked to us about the business and political world he had lived in since the elder Duprey’s death in 1988, and now one in which he hoped for ‘redemption’ and for the opportunity to return to Trinidad to put Humpty Dumpty Together Again.”
I want to make it plain that Rhona and I had gone to Florida on our own and did not represent any newspaper when we talked with Lawrence. We could promise him nothing. However, the morning that we returned to Trinidad, because of delays by Caribbean Airlines, I wrote the Guardian and the Express asking if the newspaper would be interested in a five-part series of interviews with Lawrence Duprey. I meant to offer the series to the first newspaper that responded.
I heard from Ms Raymond the morning of March 22, but I never heard from One Caribbean Media, whose CEO I had offended it seemed by refusing an offer to assist me with another project, In Search of America’s Soul. Well, this is not altogether true. I had asked her to help with a grant of $120,000 (Rhona and I had spent seven weeks in the United States interviewing Americans and West Indians for the book) and weeks later she had responded with an offer of $20,000.
I am usually good at concealing my disappointment but when she called me with her decision I failed to do so. I was not surprised therefore when she ignored my e-mail.
From the start I had not thought of duplicating the work of the Colman Commission of Enquiry, and whatever Lawrence wanted said was in his power to get by appearing before the commission. It was not my intention to replace the commission. All he had to do was to appear before the commission, face the battalion of lawyers and policyholders, and tell his story. I had no illusion that I could do a better job than he.
However, that he continues to absent himself from the commission is not really his fault; it is the weakness of the commission, its terms of reference, and the strategies of his lawyers. I am not trying to offend anyone; I am trying to find an explanation for what appears to be a travesty of the rules and to prevent this from happening again. If it is indeed the fault of the rules of engagement, change the rules. We must discontinue our habit of wasting taxpayers’ money and our learned friends should be the first to say this.
I have no idea how I could have misled Lawrence Duprey. I was glad that he had agreed to meet with us and I hoped he would agree to Duprey 2. That was my passionate wish.
When I look back at our meetings I fail to understand how I could have convinced him that I could get anything published in the Guardian or the Express when I was not a representative of either newspaper. I remember that he talked of having shares in both newspapers but he never said to me, “Write your pieces and leave it to me to get them in the newspapers.”
I am sure that would not have worked either, and the fact is neither of us could even be sure that I would write anything that would be worthy of publication. And the idea of five articles was what I proposed to the Guardian when I returned to Trinidad. But he did say he could use full-page advertisements in the Advocate newspaper in Barbados.
However, I could make no such promise. Did I really misrepresent myself to him? Did he see me as having the power of a newspaper mogul? I hope I have never shown this character to anyone. I find the notion disgusting. This tendency to falsify the accounts is not going to get Lawrence Duprey the redemption he craves. Instead, it will have his enemies making fun of him.
As Harry Harnarine says, “Lawrence is a lonely man. I have some of my top officers still with me and my directors still talk to me. Who was closer to Lawrence than Bhoe Tewarie and then the enquiry started? “ You have to be brave. In terms of walking the streets of Port-of-Spain I am free, don’t mind people call out to me, ‘You still here? I thought you were inside.’”
But only a Trinidadian would recognise the black humour in this greeting and know that it is without malice. It would have been difficult, however, for Sylvia Duprey to understand this behaviour and not to go away thinking that she couldn’t trust Trinidadians.
I think by now, after 12 sessions of the enquiry, Sir Anthony Colman would know that the lady’s assessment of the Trinidad character was wrong. What she was sceptical of and finding fault with was our love of picong and mauvaise langue and Sir Anthony has had to cope with this eccentricity for a long time. Poor chap.
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