Eleven years after being charged with failing to declare a London bank account to the Integrity Commission, former prime minister Basdeo Panday was acquitted yesterday of the charges. A month ago, Port-of-Spain magistrate Marcia Murray adjourned the matter to consider the evidence and deliver a ruling on an application by Panday's lead attorney, David Aaronberg, QC, for the matter to be stayed on the ground of abuse of process.
Yesterday, Murray discharged Panday, saying: "The court is compelled to stop these proceedings to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system." She ruled the Integrity Commission had erred by not giving Panday a chance to be heard before a tribunal. That meant he was deprived of due process of law, she added. Instead the commission sent the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Murray ruled: "The misconduct of the Integrity Commission was so serious that it would undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and bring it into disrepute. "The court is therefore compelled to stop these proceedings to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system." Murray delivered her ruling in less than five minutes when the matter was called in the First Magistrates' Court as she read from the 19-page judgement.
Panday, who was seated in the prisoner dock, did not react. But when he emerged from the courtroom, with his daughter, Mickela, a smiling Panday said: "After all these years of struggle, I have experienced all things, all the ups and downs. My lawyers have done their work and I am really grateful for that."
He said he was confident the application to stay the matter would be granted after hearing Aaronberg's submissions on the last occasion. Aaronberg had argued that Panday was "singled out" and used as a political football and the investigator failed to complete pertinent checks which was unfair to Panday. Panday was before Murray for retrial for allegedly failing to declare a London bank account, contrary to the Integrity in Public Life Act.
He was accused of failing to disclose the account at National Westminster Bank Plc, Wimbledon, London, to the Integrity Commission for the years 1997, 1998 and 1999. In March 2006, Panday was found guilty and sentenced by Chief Magistrate Sherman Mc Nicolls to two years in prison.
Panday appealed that decision and the conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered, which was upheld on appeal to the Privy Council. State prosecutor Timothy Cassel, QC, had dismissed arguments Panday had not been treated fairly and said it was the court's duty to try him and the court's sense of propriety and justice would be offended if the State had not done so.
Yesterday's ruling was delivered in the absence of Aaronberg and Cassel, who are both in England. Asked what he intended to do now the matter was finally over, Panday said: "I am working and enjoying myself. I am having fun." Mickela Panday expressed relief that the matter was over, saying:
"It has been an emotional, financial and physical strain on us. I am relieved it is over and justice has prevailed. I am pleased with the decision and the truth has come out." Unable to say what the State's next move would be until after discussions with the Director of Public Prosecutions, attorney Anju Bhola, who appeared alongside Cassel and Renuka Rambhajan, declined comment.
Soon after leaving the court, Panday went to the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope, to visit his brother, Subhas, who was undergoing tests. Subhas Panday could not be reached for comment.
"In cases of false declarations made under the act, the Integrity Commission plays a 'pre-prosecution' role in that only after it has conducted its due process can it refer persons to the Director of Public Prosecutions. "For these purposes, the Integrity Commission is a critical part of the Executive which makes the decision to prosecute.
"The Integrity Commission failed to comply with the provisions of the act under which it is constituted when it did not advise the President to appoint a tribunal to enquire into Mr Panday's declarations. "Mr Panday was not given an opportunity, to which he was entitled, to be heard by a properly constituted tribunal.
"The referral of Mr Panday's declarations to the Director of Public Prosecutions was therefore ill conceived and it matters not that the Director of Public Prosecutions found there was sufficient evidence to lay the charges. " In the court's view, failing to accord Mr Panday due process under the act amounts to misconduct on the part of the Integrity Commission.
"The misconduct by the Integrity Commission was very serious. The substance of these charges was the 'fruit of the poison tree' which was the product of the Integrity Commission's misconduct. "Furthermore, without the product of the misconduct, these proceedings would not have arisen. "It is the court's view that the misconduct of the Integrity Commission was so serious that it would undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system and bring it into disrepute.