This country’s highest court has ruled that there may have been a basis to support claims that there was political interference in the decision to withdraw a US$97m lawsuit against former Petrotrin executive chairman Malcolm Jones.
The Government had said the decision to drop the case was supported by the legal opinion of British Queen’s Counsel Vincent Nelson, now the State’s key witness against former attorney general Anand Ramlogan and former UNC senator Gerald Ramdeen.
In a judgement delivered at the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court in London on Monday, five Law Lords of the Privy Council ruled that the local courts were wrong to dismiss UNC activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj’s lawsuit which sought the disclosure of documents related to Petrotrin’s failed billion-dollar World Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) plant deal. Maharaj, in a statement, dedicated his victory to the former workers of Petrotrin who were terminated last year after the company was closed.
As part of the judgement, Lord Phillip Sales said that the evidence in the claim suggested that there may have been “some grounds for thinking” that there was political interference in dropping the case against Jones.
The Privy Council also referred to statements attributed to Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi which were made ahead of Nelson’s advice which gave the “appearance of involvement of the Attorney General in taking that decision.”
Jones died in August 2017 after a civil claim, initiated by Ramlogan under the then People’s Partnership administration, was terminated.
In early 2016, Nelson advised the then Petrotrin board that the case had to be discontinued as statements of two key witnesses showed that the deal was a bad business decision and not based on negligence.
Last month, Nelson was charged alongside Ramlogan and Ramdeen over a State legal fee kickback conspiracy.
Nelson has signed a plea agreement with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to plead guilty to the charges and testify against Ramlogan and Ramdeen.
In the case before the Privy Council, the UNC activist was essentially granted a lifeline in his bid to expose the PNM administration’s reason for discontinuing the lawsuit against Jones.
On August 4, 2017, Jones, 74, passed away at Petrotrin’s Augustus Long Hospital in Pointe-a-Pierre.
The decision means that Maharaj can now continue to pursue his lawsuit seeking disclosure before a new High Court Judge. It does not guarantee that he would be eventually successful in his claim.
Sales, who wrote the 15-page judgement, stated that Maharaj had a realistic prospect of success in proving that there was a strong public interest in disclosing the documents, which Maharaj were seeking would normally be considered exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents were the witness statements of former Petrotrin executives Charmaine Baptiste and Anthony Chan Tack. They were vital in the company’s arbitration against World GTL over the failed deal.
Baptiste and Chan Tack’s statements were being sought as they were the catalyst for the decision to withdraw Petrotrin’s lawsuit against Jones.
The Privy Council said it was in the public interest to disclose the statements as it “considers that it is arguable that they are of significant weight, with a view to securing transparency and accountability in relation to relevant decisions in a number of respects.”
The court held that the eventual disclosure of the contentious statements would help the public form their own views on Jones’ conduct in the World GTL deal and on Petrotrin’s handling of its subsequent case against him.
Maharaj was represented by Richard Clayton, QC, Ramlogan, Christopher Knight, Chelsea Stewart and Alvin Pariagsingh. Petrotrin was represented by Thomas Roe, QC, and Dominique Martineau.
About the World GTL Deal
In 2005, Petrotrin and World GTL entered into a joint venture to build, finance and operate a gas-to-liquids plant in Trinidad. The $2.7 billion facility was supposed to convert natural gas into a more ozone-friendly liquefied form of diesel.
Although part of the structure of the plant was completed, it remained non-functional due to lack of appropriate technology. There were also issues with construction delays and extensive cost overruns.
Petrotrin initiated arbitration proceedings against the plant’s former owner in the International Chamber of Commerce and it eventually won. However, the arbitration award is yet to be paid.
World GTL initiated its own arbitration proceedings at London Court of International Arbitration, which was also won by Petrotrin.