Debe housewife Rita Chanka raised her eyebrows with a worried facial expression when she heard Finance Minister Colm Imbert yesterday mention property tax coming into effect next year.
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Manning made CL a political football
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Tuesday 19 March—Lawrence Duprey was saying to me again: “I did not do any wrong.”
But here he was in Florida, almost on the lam, while so many other Trinidadians who, it was generally known, were guilty of one crime or another were free to stay or to leave the country as they wished. It was a case of politics, he said, recalling that in 2010 he had been told by both Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar that he should stay put in Florida, where he had fled after the Government’s $7 billion bailout of the stricken Colonial Life Insurance Company (Clico).
“In both cases they had shown no desire in having me return to discuss the future of the company, saying instead that they were busy with the elections. Don’t come to Trinidad. They took it and made it a political event. “I began to believe that I did not have the immunity of some of the other people whose careers had been halted by their wrongdoing. I had backed the wrong horse and had made my choice of government fatally known to everyone.”
But as the future unfolded it was clearly not the whole story and in Port-of-Spain Harry Harnarine would say to me that “the trouble with Lawrence is that he is a coward; he doesn’t have the guts to fight. He would cave in rather than defend his actions.” Harnarine, in fact, had shown effrontery when he had faced the commission of enquiry in defence of allegations concerning the Hindu Credit Union’s balance sheets.
But the story of Duprey was different; he was reluctant to face the commissioner and the battery of lawyers trying to get at the truth.
Referring to his witness statement of October 22, 2012, which he said had been submitted by his attorneys to the commission of enquiry into the failure of Clico and CL Financial Ltd, Duprey reiterated that he had done nothing wrong and that he had been a hardworking and dedicated citizen of T&T and that he worked hard to create wealth for all. He was, he stated, instrumental in the creation of thousands of jobs in the energy and development sectors as well as saving and developing jobs in the financial services and spirits sector.
However, the global financial collapse and the refusal of the Government to support the group in the time of need had been responsible for the run on CIB and the cashflow problems that developed. And then there were whisperings from within that caused the panic.
“I couldn’t understand the role of the Central Bank of T&T in refusing to assist us.”
As his story unfolded in the lobby of the Comfort Suites, one felt that his world was collapsing around him as financiers and investors were replaced by lawyers and liquidators. Powerlessly he was watching the disintegration of an empire. Instead of buy, buy, buy the new command was sell, sell, sell. It was the only way he would escape debtors’ prison. And so on the blocks were hotels and real estate, Floridian property in which he and his wife, Sylvia, once had so much pride of ownership.
But the nosy T&T newspapers had investigated and probed and put up for public scrutiny every square foot of property that bore the Duprey imprimatur. And yet, never crestfallen, Duprey turned up every day in the lobby of the Comfort Suites at 1800 South Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale to tell his story. It was his way to find the redemption he had said from the start of our meetings he was seeking.
He was still the smiling sphinx, talkative and irrepressible, but behind his eyes one could see the stress from meetings with bankers and lawyers, with brokering one company against another, with seeing million-dollar assets reduced in value from mortgages unpaid. The only time he retreated into uncharacteristic silence, in fact, was when his wife drove us around the city and he sat in the passenger seat next to her and took no part in the conversation that spluttered between her and her backseat guests, giving neither traffic advice nor plans for the day. It was when I felt the hostility he harboured for members of the media for what he saw as harassment and an invasion of his privacy.
But his curiosity about our purpose—and the knowledge that I had written the book on his uncle, Cyril Lucius Duprey—forced on him a détente and old-world politeness. He would even appear to be enthusiastic about the idea of writing a book on him and on his adventures with Colonial Life and the CL Financial Group of Companies, even though there was always the caveat that his wife had warned him against speaking to reporters.
It was clear that he did not trust the media, but in our case he wanted to be sure that we would report his story as he wanted it reported.
The new Pirates of the Caribbean
The distrust had begun with the politics of the region. “West Indian politicians,” he said, “are the laughing pirates of the Caribbean. They never intend to carry out any policy or promise they make to the electorate. They get up in the morning and say, ‘Lord, keep these people ignorant.’ “That is what makes insurance work in the region so necessary and so successful. We fill a need that the politicians do not fill. We offer our policyholders a future.
“I met Patrick Manning not more than two or three times, but I could see that he was no different from other politicians whom I knew very well in Barbados and Antigua. They have no real desire to raise the living standards of their people; all they hope for is their vote to keep them in office. “Manning’s secret wish was that he would win the election and put himself as President for life. He thought that I would finance this action.
“But I was in his way as a member of the UNC. I believed that I saw a different purpose in Basdeo Panday and that was the reason I helped his family. “But at the same time we were helping thousands of other Trinidadians with scholarships. It was the way I saw that we could help to improve the lives of people and also to give back something to our policyholders. But CL became a political football and it became so because of Manning.”
There were two things that irked the politicians. “The first was the power we had, through the financial growth of the company, and the second was the legitimacy of the wealth we had created. This was the raison d’etre of our companies: poverty alleviation. We needed to raise pension funds and we focused on getting growth from savings.
“And while we did the work, Manning, for example, was talking about the successes of the Asian Tigers. Well, whatever happened to them? Wendell Mottley knows all about this and Citibank’s Steve Bideshi and so too does Bhoe Tewarie.” Rhona was curious. “Hell! They know your story. And so where are they now? Why are they not at your side? Isn’t that what friends are for?”
“I will tell you about them in a minute. But we were growing stronger and stronger with the acquisitions and mergers we made, and at one time, for example, we were the largest vodka-maker in the world, with ten factories up and running. “The problem was my associates could not deal with my ambitions. There was a big gap between my goals and what they saw as their abilities. You remember the Chinese idiom? What can a duck know about the aspirations of a swan?”
Later, when we met Harry Harnarine at the Guardian offices in Port-of-Spain he said, smiling: “There was always a gap between Lawrence and his board of directors and managers. Lawrence always looked at the human side of things and tried to humanise conditions.
“But you can’t do this in business and with people who don’t want to improve and who are content with what’s going on.”
Lawrence had spoken of Carolyn John, for example, who hadn’t been able to get financial reports out on time. “I can walk into Colonial Life any day and see why the company is in the state it is in,” Harnarine said. “What did Lawrence tell you? He sees his downfall as the killing of the phoenix? And he thinks that the ill-will came from the salary he earned every month?
“Well, that is partly true. Five million dollars a month is a salary to envy. But he was clearing the path for agouti to run on. And I am not surprised, as he says, that André Monteil was planning to take over leadership of Colonial Life from him.” The internecine warfare and office politics had blinded most employees to the precarious situation in which the world financial crisis had landed Colonial Life.
“Nobody was projecting the inevitable,” says the man most vulnerable in these circumstances. “People couldn’t meet deadlines, and refused to see that new structures were needed to be put in place. “That’s when Gita Sakal fired Monteil and Anthony Fifi, with my permission. But she was forced later to re-employ Monteil as an adviser. But there were other aggrieved employees, too. More on those later.”
The MOU that the Government had signed with the company was to manage for a time and to hand back the company to him. But this hadn’t happened. But in 2009, and fearing threats to his life, Duprey went to live in Florida. “I have a certain amount of luck,” he says, “and my desire is to see people progress and to help them to have a chance of a good life as I had. But you never know when your luck could change.”
From slumlord to top-dog
I hadn’t forgotten my reasons for contacting Duprey: it was to write a sequel to the book I had done on his uncle, Cyril Lucius Duprey, who in 1937 had founded the Colonial Life Insurance Company with the help of Cyril Monsanto. But while it was fairly easy then to get some facts about the birth and early years of the elder Duprey, it was another matter to get from Lawrence Duprey the story of his boyhood in Trinidad and his student life in Canada, his marriage to his first wife and the truth about his and his wife’s properties in Florida.
Meanwhile, coming into my mailbox since this series with the Sunday Guardian began were stories about his first wife’s claims and his statement that he was without the means to honour her expectations. I have neither the stomach nor will for this kind of journalism and the fact is e-mails like this one did raise questions in my mind about the truthfulness of some of Lawrence Duprey’s confessions and the stories of his birth and youth in Trinidad.
True or false?
“I come from a slum landlord background. I know what it is to go into the homes of very poor people and see how they live. “It is knowledge of these wretched lives that motivated me, that made me see how the politicians were failing societies in the Caribbean and how it was important to them for Caribbean people to remain poor and stupid.
“The trouble is, the business community did not really help to lift the people from the squalor in which they lived. They were concerned with maintaining the peace so that their businesses would continue from day to day. But they had no real interest in the welfare of the people who were their customers and on whose support their businesses depended.”
The work at CL Financial, Lawrence was saying, began to change the pattern of ownership of businesses in the country. “We bought shares from Barclays and then we bought Angostura. I bought 80 per cent of the shares in Bacardi and we had 35 per cent of the shares in Neal and Massy. We were bigger than anyone else. We controlled Republic Bank, the Bank of Commerce, the Express and the Guardian. It was scary. When I bought Angostura from Bacardi, nobody knew about it.
“We literally controlled the whole country. It was because of this that they used to bad-talk me. In Guyana, we were in control of forestry and insurance and we were building homes. Up the Essequibo we had gold mines. In the USA we had hotels. I will show you tomorrow.
“Carolyn John had me barred from entering W Hotel. She’s now running the show at Colonial Life, but she can’t provide financial statements.”
What about the reports of his own businesses in Florida? Did they exist, and did they follow the philosophy he demanded for the companies of Sidney Knox and Thomas Gatcliffe who for years had been the titans of businesses in T&T?
“They didn’t build skills,” Duprey insisted, “and they were not as aggressive or concerned about creating markets outside the Caribbean as Butch Stewart has done. They lacked the entrepreneurship and bravado of the Jamaicans. That’s why it was easy for us to develop the various brands of CL Financial and to make the company a world leader. Now I hear they want to change the name of Clico to something like Atrius!
“But you have to understand that we did not use policyholders’ money to do so; we used money from the United States and Europe. It was when the world financial crisis came that we found ourselves without the resources to meet all our costs of running these companies and when the Central Bank of T&T took the unusual step of not rolling over our debt repayments. “They haven’t put out the old Duprey fire, however, and I am still working in China, in India and in Africa.”
And still no word of the Green Island Real Estate and other companies he and his wife were reported to own and manage in Florida. But do you want to know what Shiva Persad, British American’s financial adviser, did concerning 6,000 acres of farm land that was sold to a Dubai businessman for US$300 million? Or why Branker was interested in 6,000 acres of land next to Disney World in Orlando? And how CL Financial lost US$70 million on the deal and why Branker was fired from British American?
Duprey was clear about these things, but he had nothing to say about Dalco, Prism Trust and Romulus, companies he owned with his wife. They were sacred cows. While he had a considerable shareholding in CLF, Lawrence Duprey said, “I did not act as if CLF was my company. There were many other shareholders and at all times I sought the best interests of the company so that the benefits would redound to the policyholders, shareholders and employees.”
But who goofed? Duprey or his lieutenants? And if so, what about the responsibility of the government regulators? Surely Government cannot be exonerated from its role as caretaker of the nation’s patrimony. All reports on subsidiaries were tabled at CLF board meetings and were discussed by the CLF board of directors.
“In the case of the CIB, the director of Insurance Companies had the power to recommend to the Central Bank of T&T a corrective course of action.” But Duprey was unaware that any action like this had been taken. What had prevented Mervyn Assam, who at the time of the global financial crisis was at the head of the CIB, from bringing to the board the liquidity problems being experienced by CIB?
But Assam, Duprey insisted, was a capable and efficient manager. It is not difficult, while talking with Duprey, to empathise with the Godfather persona that he projects: the casual appearance and the large, round smiling face and the wide embrace.
He had this dream of putting Caribbean countries together despite their smallness of size, and his wry jest about the laughing pirates of the Caribbean confirms his good humour. But he says, “Every time we try to do it through the public and private sector, the politicians let us down. Every time they mash it up!”