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Piarco airport cases to be dropped
The biggest fraud cases in this country’s history—which saw billions of dollars in taxpayers money allegedly being pumped into the pockets of the United National Congress (UNC) financiers—are expected to be dismissed later this week. The Piarco Airport Development Project scandal has been ongoing for more than ten years and involves several individuals affiliated with the present Government. Two weeks ago, The Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act 2011 was proclaimed by President George Maxwell Richards in a move to end preliminary enquiries in the local courts.
Certain parts of the act will come into effect on January 1, 2013. The President’s proclamation was gazetted on August 30. With the act in effect, the Preliminary Enquiry Act has been replaced and nullifies the need for a preliminary enquiry to be held in relation to matters filed indictably.
However, the act bears a controversial clause—Section 34(2), which states: “On an application by the accused, a Judge shall discharge an accused if the proceedings were instituted prior to the coming into force of this Act and the trial has not commenced within seven years after the proceedings were instituted, except (a) in the case of matters listed in Schedule 6; or (b) where the accused has evaded the process of the Court and the trial on indictment has, for that reason, not commenced.”
It is this clause which will see the accused people in the Piarco Airport project having their matters dismissed. Contacted on the matter, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard, SC, said he preferred not to comment, since the matter is before the courts. Several people have been charged in relation to the matter. Among those charged with fraudulent activities arising out of the construction of the airport are two ex-ministers from the UNC administration.
The accused—former finance minister Brian Kuei-Tung; former Works minister Sadiq Baksh; former chairmen of the Airports Authority Tyrone Gopee and Ameer Edoo; former client representative in the Ministry of Works at the airport project Peter Cateau; financial director Amrith Maharaj; Steve Ferguson, former Maritime Financial Group executively; and Ishwar Galbaransingh, chairman of Northern Construction Ltd; are involved in the Piarco II case.
The men are accused of conspiring between January 1, 1995 and December 31, 2001, to obtain contracts and payments totaling $1.6 billion during the construction of the new airport. Another case, labelled Piarco I, is also expected to be discontinued. Those involved in this matter are Kuei Tung; Russell Huggins; Maritime executives John Smith; Ferguson and Barbara Gomes; Galbaransingh and Maharaj; and businesswoman Renee Pierre.
They are accused of conspiring to convert more than $19 million under false pretences from the Airports Authority. Also facing charges are Panday and his wife Oma who were charged with corruptly receiving $250,000 from Galbaransingh and former Minister Carlos John on December 30, 1998, in exchange for allegedly giving Northern Construction, a contract for the Piarco Airport Development Project. Millions spent Millions of dollars have been spent on legal fees and also consultancy fees by the then PNM government to investigate and represent the State in these matters.
A Commission of Enquiry was established into the circumstances surrounding the construction of the Piarco project. Following which the Commissions findings were sent to the Anti-Corruption Bureau. In fact, financial investigative expert Bob Lindquist was retained to conduct a thorough investigation in the matter and several of his findings formed part of the evidence presented to the courts. The Linquist Report found the Airport project was a fraud on the public of T&T and an abuse of public funds.
According to the Lindquist report, the Piarco project began with six contractors and expanded to 13. Linquist investigations discovered instances of fraud—price fixing and bid-rigging, duplication of payment contracts, false invoices, conflict of interest and a host of other irregularities.
Queen’s Counsel and Senior Counsel were also retained by the State to prosecute the matters. Apart from which, numerous applications were filed in the High Court, when decisions made by presiding Magistrate Ejenny Espinet at the Port of Spain Magistrates' Court were not favourable to the accused. Extradition proceedings and the Piarco Inquiry Ironically though, two of the people involved in the Piarco cases— businessmen Galbaransingh and Ferguson based their extradition submissions as having cases pending in the local courts, and as a result ought not be extradited to the United States.
Galbaransingh and Ferguson are wanted in the US on a series of charges arising out of the construction of the Piarco project. Galbaransingh faced 13 charges, among them wire fraud, conspiracy to launder money and engaging in unlawful transactions. Ferguson faced a total of 82 charges, which included wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money. The offences are alleged to have occurred in the US, T&T, The Bahamas and elsewhere between September 1,1996 and December 31, 2005.
On November 6, last year, High Court judge Ronnie Boodoosingh ruled that the businessmen should not be extradited to the United States. Boodoosingh, presiding in the Port-of-Spain High Court, delivered a 57-page ruling saying that any move to have Galbaransingh and Ferguson extradited would be “unjust, oppressive and unlawful.” In his ruling, Boodoosingh said the lengthy proceedings against the businessmen have generated much public interest and comment.
The High Court judge said T&T was the correct forum to try the businessmen and quashed the October 9, 2010, decision of Attorney General Anand Ramlogan to sign the order of extradition for both men. Submissions provided by the businessmen through their attorneys contended that this country is the appropriate forum to try them, since the investigation started here in 2000.