Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard, SC, has been asked to discontinue four protracted prosecutions related to the construction of the Piarco International Airport.
The request was made last week by attorneys for a group of 13 businessmen, former government ministers and officials, and companies who have been facing fraud and corruption charges over the project for the past two decades.
The members of the group are businessmen Steve Ferguson and Ish Galbaransingh; former government ministers Brian Kuei Tung, Russell Huggins, and Sadiq Baksh; Kuei Tung’s former companion Renee Pierre; insurance executive Barbara Gomes; Amrith Maharaj; Peter Cateau; Tyrone Gopee; Galbaransingh’s company Northern Construction Limited; Maritime General Insurance Company Limited; and Fidelity Finance and Leasing Company Limited.
In the correspondence, sent late last week and obtained by Guardian Media, British King’s Counsel Edward Fitzgerald put forward six main grounds why he and his colleagues felt that Gaspard should exercise his discretion under Section 90(3)(c) of the Constitution to take the bold move.
“Where the interests of justice and the public interest can only be met by discontinuing the Piarco proceedings, the DPP not only has the power to take that step but an obligation to do so in his role as an impartial “minister of justice”,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald’s main ground of contention was that the move was necessary to protect the moral integrity of the criminal justice system based on serious allegations of political interference in the investigation that led to the charges against his clients.
He claimed that the Piarco prosecutions were a direct attack on prominent figures in the United National Congress (UNC), under whose tenure the airport was constructed between 1997 and 2001.
Fitzgerald stated that based on his clients’ connection with the political party and the “extraordinary” facts of the case, the only reasonable inference that could be drawn is that the Piarco proceedings were politically motivated.
“Those facts include the timing of the investigation of the prosecutions, at a time when the People’s National Movement (PNM) was seeking to ensure its success in the next general election,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald referred to statements from former attorney generals Glenda Morean-Phillip and John Jeremie, SC, and former prime minister Patrick Manning in which they allegedly imputed his clients’ guilt in relation to allegations raised in the investigation.
“These attacks on the presumption of innocence were particularly damaging because exceptionally in the Piarco proceedings, the investigation and advancement of the prosecutions was driven by the Attorney General and was subject to his oversight,” he said.
Fitzgerald referred to the fact that the investigation was conducted by the Anti-Corruption Investigation Bureau (ACIB), which was established in 2002 under Manning’s administration and falls under the Office of the Attorney General.
He claimed that the establishment of the ACIB was not authorised under the Constitution and violated the doctrine of the separation of powers by “coalescing” the power of the Executive branch with the investigative power of the State.
“Thus, the timing of the ACIB’s creation, its mandate to investigate past UNC projects, and most importantly its subordination to the Attorney General, a PNM Cabinet Member, all contributed to the inference that the institution and pursuit of the Piarco proceedings was politically motivated,” Fitzgerald said.
He pointed out that in 2006, Jeremie allegedly gave instructions to then-DPP and current High Court Judge Geoffrey Henderson to direct all communications with the ACIB through his office but he (Henderson) refused.
“This was nonetheless a graphic indication of the extent to which the PNM Government was taking active and extraordinary steps to ensure control over the prosecution of the Piarco defendants,” Fitzgerald said, as he referred to a statement Gaspard made in 2019 in which he called for the removal of the ACIB from the AG’s Office.
Fitzgerald also referred to Jeremie’s allegedly improper interactions with former chief magistrate Sherman McNicolls, which were considered by the Privy Council earlier this year when it quashed McNicolls’ decision to commit some of his clients to stand trial for charges in the Piarco 1 case.
“While he was under the influence of the PNM Attorney General, who was determined to secure convictions in the Piarco proceedings, the Chief Magistrate inexplicably adopted the new and amended charges that had been proposed by the Prosecution despite having ruled with good reason that the prosecution could not do so,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald claimed that in 2018, Pierre was improperly approached by former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi. He alleged that Al-Rawi sought to extract evidence against Kuei Tung and Ferguson in exchange for his assistance in obtaining a United States visa.
“It provides further confirmation of the PNM Government’s determination to pursue a vendetta against its political opponents by any means possible,” he said.
Fitzgerald further claimed that his clients’ right to a fair trial without undue delay was breached as the four cases have been pending for almost two decades.
While he admitted that such a right is not explicitly mentioned under the Constitution, Fitzgerald claimed that it could be from this country’s obligations under international law.
He also contended that fair trials in the four cases are not possible due to the “unprecedented” delay.
He pointed out that the prosecution’s key witness Ronald Birk, who his clients are seeking to rely on as a significant source of exculpatory evidence, is in his 80s and suffered two strokes which had an impact on his memory. He also claimed that his clients also had medical conditions that would affect their defence against the charges.
“The prejudice suffered by the defendants will be substantially exacerbated by the fact that several of the defendants are afflicted by age and infirmity, and indeed three have died,” he said.
Fitzgerald gave Gaspard 21 days in which to respond to the correspondence.
Guardian Media understands that Fitzgerald and his clients did not receive a response, up to late on Friday.
About the Case
The charges in the four cases were brought in 2002 following a preliminary investigation by Canadian forensic investigator Robert Lindquist, two years earlier.
In the first case, commonly referred to as Piarco 1 and which was the subject of the appeal before the Privy Council, a group was charged with offences related to the alleged theft of $19 million.
Some of the group and other public officials were also slapped with separate charges over an alleged broader conspiracy to steal US$200 million in another case, commonly referred to as Piarco 2.
Foreign nationals Raul Gutierrez Jr, Ronald Birk, and Eduardo Hillman-Waller were also charged as part of that case.
There were also two other smaller cases, referred to as Piarco 3 and 4.
Piarco 3 pertains to a corrupt payment allegedly received by former prime minister Basdeo Panday, while Piarco 4 involves Renee Pierre, the former companion of former finance minister Brian Kuei Tung.
In 2019, a High Court Judge upheld a legal challenge over the Piarco 2 case after former senior magistrate Ejenny Espinet retired with the preliminary inquiry almost complete.
The ruling meant that the preliminary inquiry into the Piarco 2 case had to be restarted afresh before a new magistrate along with the Piarco 3 inquiry, which was also before Espinet and left incomplete upon her retirement.
The Piarco 4 is also yet to be completed.
Earlier this year, the Privy Council upheld a challenge over the refusal of former chief magistrate Sherman McNicholls to recuse himself from the Piarco 1 case.
The outcome of the appeal meant that the preliminary inquiry of the case, which was completed before McNicholls, had to be restarted before another magistrate.
Recently there has been public concern over the status of a multi-million civil asset forfeiture case being pursued by this country against some of the accused persons and companies in the United States.
Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, and the country's US lawyers were disqualified from continued participation in the case after a judge ruled that Armour allegedly downplayed his role in representing Kuei Tung in the local proceedings several years ago.
Armour has denied any wrongdoing as he claimed that he informed the court of his role based on his memory and that he was denied an opportunity to correct the record after he had an opportunity to check his records.
The decision is currently being appealed, with former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi being appointed as the substitute client representative for this country.