Shortly after Harry Harnarine’s security detail was ordered to leave the studio of Radio Jaagriti, Sat Maharaj, secretary general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, said he began receiving “threatening phone calls.” Maharaj, testifying at yesterday’s hearing at the Commission of Enquiry into the failure of the Harnarine-led Hindu Credit Union (HCU), said in reply to questions from his attorney Jagdeo Singh that the relationship between himself and Harnarine had deteriorated to the point of being “acrimonious.” “Not only acrimonious, but life- threatening...I received calls on the telephone that Harry paid someone to get rid of me,” Maharaj said. At this point, Farid Scoon, attorney for Harnarine objected, saying there was no evidence of an acrimonious relationship between the two before the commission, even if it was so. Singh replied: “What is important is the witness’ perception.” Maharaj continued: “I received information by someone perceived to be his bodyguard,” adding that he won’t identify the person. He said he wrote the Commissioner of Police about those threats and received a November 19, 2008, reply from the CoP’s office stating it had conducted a “comprehensive threat assessment,” and had determined “a low-level threat exists.” Maharaj said he didn’t understand what that term meant, and that “one bullet was as good as six.” Referring to Harnarine, he said: “I thought here is a man who believed he was all things to all people.” Maharaj said after getting the threats, he began “restricting” his activities, especially at nightly Hindu prayers.
Singh asked Maharaj whether the Maha Sabha has received funds from the HCU to build the Vishnu Boys’ Hindu College and the Saraswati Girls’ Hindu College. Maharaj said the HCU had a charitable foundation to “assist the community.” He said: “At the time, we had asked for a grant of $700,000. I want to make it clear...it was never $4 million.” Manager’s cheque from Intercommercial Bank Ltd, No.155677, showed a cheque dated December 19, 2003, tendered to Scotiabank to cash. In the afternoon, under questioning from Scoon, Maharaj said HCU meetings were open to violence and that Harnarine constantly interrupted. “I advised many of my friends not to join the HCU,” he said. The enquiry is being held at Winsure Building, Richmond Street, Port-of-Spain. Later, Scoon asked Maharaj, for the benefit of what he called “our former colonial masters,” whether the HCU Foundation had paid $650,000 to refurbish the El Dorado Shiv Mandir and whether the Caroni Hindu School benefited from a computer lab. “I don’t see them as colonial masters...They conquered people,” Maharaj said. “My memory does not recall.” Maharaj said the State was expending “large sums of money” because of a man who acted as if he was “running a private firm.” He said “clever little arguments” were being used to shift blame from the HCU in its early days of having 2,000 members and $5 million in deposits. Scoon asked Maharaj whether the former HCU head and him had fallen out over Harnarine’s proposal to encourage non-Hindus to join the HCU. To this, Maharaj said: “The Hindu Credit Union, like the Catholic or Muslim Credit Unions, any Hindu could join, whether you’re a white Hindu or an Afro Hindu. If he wants support from the community, then get consensus from the community.”
Maharaj said it was a “clever ploy” to isolate the Maha Sabha and put the organisation against Muslims and Catholics. “That is an old trick that not even Machiavelli will try today.” He said the Maha Sabha was always sourcing funds to repair its schools and temples. Maharaj accused Scoon of using race and religion as a tactic that not even politicians would use as “people are beyond that.” “I joined the HCU because it was a Hindu credit union. If Harry and his cohorts, they effect a change in a closed boardroom, we have a right to say we did not agree to that change,” Maharaj said. The Hindu leader said Harnarine had approached him to get the Maha Sabha’s support for the HCU, and it thereafter dissolved a teachers’ credit union to merge with the HCU. Maharaj said his son Vijay attended three HCU meetings and then decided he didn’t want to return because of how the meetings were being conducted. Scoon, who addressed Maharaj as “shri,” an honorific Hindu title of respect, and as a brother, asked Maharaj if he’d met Harnarine at HCU’s office at Pierre Road, Felicity, central Trinidad, before undergoing heart surgery in Miami, to which he said, reluctantly and after much cross-talk, yes.
Maharaj, who told Scoon he can’t harass him as he’d done with other witnesses, accused Scoon of being “prone to exaggeration,” that he had an aortic valve replacement done in Miami. “I’d ask the presiding judge to give me leeway,” Maharaj said to Sir Anthony. Several times during the proceedings, Sir Anthony had to temper Maharaj to allow Scoon to question him and for Scoon to give Maharaj a chance to reply. Sir Anthony also told Scoon to restrict “the theology.” Scoon complained that “everybody has latitude, they go where they want.” Scoon put it to Maharaj that he’d told Harnarine at the meeting in Felicity that Harnarine was “prostituting Hinduism.” Maharaj asked Scoon whether he wanted to say Harnarine was a “good guy.” Maharaj, who said he probably had $100 in the HCU, which he left, told the enquiry it’s quite likely he had used the weekly Bomb newspaper to distance the Maha Sabha from the HCU as their relationship had “reached zero.” He said he’d advised HCU members who were complaining to them, including a cane farmer from Reform, Gasparillo, who had invested $600,000 in the HCU, “to get out as fast as they could.” Maharaj said people were calling the Maha Sabha-owned Radio Jaagriti, crying about not being able to get their hard-earned funds invested in HCU. He said that’s how “devious things went.” Under questioning from Deborah Peake, attorney for HCU liquidator Dave Rampersad, Maharaj said he could not substantiate reports that properties were being bought in HCU’s name at inflated prices and “monies were being paid back to him,” referring to Harnarine.
Maharaj told the enquiry when he told Harnarine about these reports at the Felicity meeting, he denied them.
Intercommercial Bank’s cheques cashed
Byron Brown, operations officer, remittance, at Scotiabank (T&T) Ltd, testified that in 2003/4, he was operations officer, verification, assigned to the cash processing unit at the bank’s Park Street branch, at which several cheques for $1 million were cashed. Three $1 million Intercommercial Bank manager’s cheques, September 3, 2003, December 23, 2003, and April 16, 2004, were tendered into evidence as having been cashed. Brown said HCU had encashed Intercommercial Bank cheques at Scotiabank for some period of time. “That was the relationship as far as I know...I can’t recall how often,” Brown said. “It was often enough to know something was on with them.” He said the bank usually keeps records for three years. Brown said a vehicle bearing the name HCU Security usually showed up with uniformed security officers to receive the cash.
Asked by Scoon whether Devant Maharaj, former president of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (Gopio), now Transport Minister, and Anand Ramlogan, now Attorney General, were Hindu leaders, Maharaj replied he knows them as a government minister and attorney, respectively. Scoon described Devant Maharaj practically like a “son” of Sat Maharaj. Sat Maharaj retorted that Scoon was accusing him of bigamy. Scoon said a press release was issued to the effect that a forensic audit was being conducted into HCU at the time when Devant Maharaj was working at the National Lotteries Control Board. Scoon said after the release surfaced, Conrad Enill, former minister in the ministry of finance, and former labour minister Larry Achong had to apologise to Harnarine. Sat Maharaj: “I know for a fact that they lost their jobs. They had to apologise. Harry thought he was the kingmaker.” Scoon asked Maharaj about the Maha Sabha’s annual Indian Arrival Day dinners, to which Maharaj replied that it’s been honouring East Indians of note since about 2008. Scoon asked: “You don’t invite PNM there?” The question shocked fellow attorneys, who groaned in unison. Scoon: “This is an inquiry. We’re dealing with reality.” Maharaj: “Last week, we had Selwyn Cudjoe. He ate the food.” Scoon: “In 2008, it was an Indian thing. You all didn’t invite PNM. Maharaj: “You’re spreading racist propaganda. What does that have to do with stealing money?” To Scoon’s suggestion that Devant Maharaj and Anand Ramlogan attended a Maha Sabha dinner at Crowne Plaza and hatched a plot to close down the HCU, Maharaj replied: “Red herring. Pure fiction.”