In the past week, police in Trinidad arrested and charged two former high ranking officials of the previous United National Congress (UNC) government for their alleged role in overpaying close friends and associates hundreds of millions in legal fees and then splitting up the excess among themselves.
Former Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and former Senator Gerald Ramdeen appeared in a Port of Spain court on Monday on charges related to fraud and misconduct in public office in what authorities claim was a major money laundering and self enrichment scheme that was the modus operandi of officials of the UNC government during its last term that ended in the fall of 2015. They both pleaded not guilty and are to return to court late next month for a second hearing.
Government has said that the charges came at the end of three years of highly secret investigation into the workings of the AG’s office and other government departments but the main opposition party has already begun flouting theories that the charges are being timed to damage it and its leading candidates ahead of general elections next year.
Widespread and credible allegations of imbedded corruption, graft and nepotism had dogged the five-year term of then prime minister Kamla Persad-Bisssessar, a development she and other party big wigs have acknowledged through apologies as the campaign heats up in the oil and gas-rich twin island republic with Tobago.
In the current case involving Ramlogan and Ramdeen, the state is contending that more than US $200 million in fees for legal briefs as part of an elaborate scheme by the AG’s office and close associates to cream off millions from the state by overpaying for services. Both Ramlogan and Ramdeen have vehemently denied the charges but authorities say they have more than enough proof after painstakingly investigating the alleged scheme in recent years. Trinidad has a population of 1.3 million and is rich in oil and gas. Successive administrations have been plagued by a culture of either corruption by officials or squandermania of public funds.
The state says it did not get value for money and boast that Vincent Nelson, a British attorney of Jamaican heritage who was retained by the UNC on several cases, has already turned whistleblower / main state witness and will unload all he knows when the trial starts in the coming weeks. He is being provided with blanket security to ensure he testifies and will be allowed to leave the island until officials are ready for him.
Widespread and credible allegations of corruption have been cited as the main reason why the UNC lost the elections to the Afro-supported People’s National Movement. (PNM). The PNM has been taking stick from the populace for some political mistakes and inabilities including difficulty controlling a spiraling murder rate that has so far seen nearly 160 deaths so far this year but polls are already showing that it has received a political bump up from the arrests of two men who are widely regarded as incredibly arrogant and cocky.
Investigators say there is evidence that the higher than usual fees for legal briefs were deliberately made to leave enough money to be divided up by those involved. Current Attorney General Faris Al Rawi said investigators and prosecutors will go all the way. He is confident of convictions even as calls are being made for Ramlogan to be booted from the party hierarchy. Ramdeen has already quit as a UNC opposition senator.
“Due process is required and people will have their say in the respective forum they must,” Al-Rawi told Guardian Media. The office of the AG has discharged its duty on a host of corruption matters with alacrity and serious complexity. We’ve provided all that we must to the police. What we did, is that we did our jobs. We did the respective investigative aspects within the boundaries we have. We referred whatever we had to refer in many matter not just current matters. We’ve referred these products to the respective authorities. I expect those authorities will be acting with the same degree of anxious alacrity that government acts,” he said.
And in an interesting development when the two appeared in court on Monday, Attorney Pamela Elder asked the court to deal with the cases quickly as star witness Nelson is stricken with prostate cancer and could die anytime soon.
“He is ill so we ask that the matter proceed as soon as possible so if he were to pass on we would have his evidence,” Elder suggested. The state has said it will be alacritous with this case. The second hearing is scheduled for June 28th.
Down south in Guyana, similar scenes are playing out as authorities there have charged several high ranking ex government ministers and officials with money laundering and misconduct in public office. The most high profile of this is ex housing minister Irfaan Ali, who is the candidate of the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in elections next year. Ali is on 19 charges of misconduct and could face even more. The PPP has hurled similar charges at authorities that they are trying to damage its elections campaign just like the UNC has done.