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ANTIGUA HIT BY SCANDAL

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Apart from Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, there are few other countries in the Caribbean Community which are perennially plagued by corruption scandals such as Antigua and the latest one to hit the island has triggered the resignation of one of its most high profile ministers.

Businessman Asot Michael, a longtime senior functionary in the governing Antigua Labor Party (ALP) will resign as investment and trade minister on May 17 in the midst of an international bribery scandal involving several police jurisdictions-Germany, the United Kingdom and the Caribbean.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne had last October relieved Michael of his ministerial position after British authorities had informed him about an ongoing investigation into allegations that he had demanded bribes from British property tycoon Peter Virdee but Michael was reappointed after the ALP had won all but two seats in general elections in March. Michael was last year briefly detained at London’s Heathrow Airport and questioned but was released and allowed to travel.

Saying he did not want to further tarnish the name and reputation of Antigua and the cabinet, Michael, 48, handed his resignation letter to Browne at around midday on Tuesday as audio recordings of his conversations with Virdee and another businessmen surfaced and were widely carried by British media.

His resignation followed hours of deliberations by the Antiguan cabinet this week as details of his demands for money, a vehicle and other items were made public from audio recordings taped by German police. Authorities say that given the details contained in the audio recordings, it was hard for cabinet colleagues to support his retention in the system.

While minister of energy back in 2016, the international police group allege that Michael had demanded a vehicle for his mother, cash and campaign finance ahead of the 2018 elections in exchange for influence peddling. He represents St. Peter in the city and will remain as its representative for a while yet. The other businessman involved is Dieter Trutschler, a partner of Virdee.

“The allegations have caused anxiety in some quarters of our society and are being used by opposition political elements to discredit me and the government. I have not worked so diligently over the last 21 years for the advancement of Antigua and Barbuda, and in support of ABLP to allow the reputation and standing of the nation and the party to be tarnished by political actors who are determined to pull down the government and the party by besmirching me. The nation and the government remain of first and foremost importance to me,” wrote in his resignation letter. Browne accepted without hesitation, no longer in a position to bat for his longtime colleague.

Virdee’s links to Antigua have to do, as an editorial in the Observer Newspaper stated this week, with him being an investor in a 1,000 acre solar development project in sister isle Barbuda.

Not much is known by locals of the project but Virdee ran into trouble with German police after being nabbed on a European arrest warrant on allegations that he and partners had concocted a scheme to avoid mandatory tax payments.

In the juiciest portion of the intercepted conversations, Virdee is overhead complaining to Trutschler that Michael had been demanding $2 million as a bribe for favors with the project.

“Could you buy my mum a car?’ I said, ‘I will think about it.’ Then on my next visit Michael said, ‘You promised my mum a car.’”

Continuing, Virdee complains that “I said I have no problem in buying you a car, no problem, but I can’t be giving you chunks of the money that you are not entitled to beforehand and give money to the party and then go and buy you a car,” allegations Michael deny.

Asot’s departure from the cabinet comes just as islanders were beginning to forget about the mid 2016 incident involving then ambassador to the United Nations John Ashe who was charged by American police for allegedly taking $800,000 in bribes from Chinese businessmen, again to peddle influence at the United Nations and other forums. Ashe died weeks after while exercising in a gym in New York.

“The media reports refer to recordings of conversations between persons other than myself, and I cannot be held responsible for their utterances,” he said.

Updated 3:55 pm, May 17, 2018
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