straight to the point – from different points of view

Afra the deviant by David Walker

Afra the deviant by David Walker

I am grateful to the Chief Justice for recently informing us of the quantum of fees paid to our top attorneys. Much has been made of the large amounts expended on these folks by the government. I can now make sense of the total sums involved given the hourly rates of 2,000 TT$ and more.

 

I took it for granted that these top attorneys have been retained for the most critical cases, cases where important matters of jurisprudence were being resolved or where heinous crimes had been alleged. So it was when I read a document relating to a case soon to be heard in our courts.

 

The government must be up against some major criminal element, I thought to myself when I recognized the names of their lawyers as being among those considered the brightest and best the nation had to offer. Was it a major drug dealer? Had they discovered who brought in the container load of chickens stuffed with illicit drugs? Had they found Dana Seetahal’s murderer? Had they finally decided to prosecute one of the folks behind suspicious transactions being monitored by the FIU? Or had the Securities and Exchange Commission found its teeth?

 

The answer to the above, and all the rest of my fanciful list of criminal elements was a resounding NO. The government was rolling out the best attorneys it could find at great expense to you and I against that known deviant, Afra Raymond. You see my friends, Afra Raymond had the temerity to ask for the audited accounts of CL Financial. Yes, his alleged crime was to ask for information about the company on which we have been told a massive 20 billion dollars, and counting, of our money has been lavished.

 

This government, so boastful of openness, accountability and transparency will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to argue that the public has no right to see those accounts. In any modern, open economy that wishes to trade with the world and speaks of building an International Financial Centre, such information would have been given to the public as a matter of course. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, not even the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been sufficient to allow us access to this important information about how our money is being spent by persons whose every action has been placed beyond scrutiny or sanction by the courts, the regulator or Parliament.

 

Afra is not alone. I have asked for some fairly rudimentary information under FOIA and been denied. The message from Afra’s case is loud and clear. If I am to receive the information that I seek, I had better be prepared for a long and expensive battle. That is the unambiguous message to anyone who dares to ask for information about how our money has been spent.

I should remind readers of the words of our dear Prime Minister, the head of the government when she first spoke in Parliament on the issue in October 2010.

The $5 billion has been spent—we are advised—to repay matured EFPA policies in an ad hoc and unstructured manner where payment arrangements were entered into based on levels of funds invested.  What criteria did you use to repay investors?  Whom did you choose to pay?  How were they chosen?  These questions need to be answered.  Because if it is today after the $7.3 billion, all these EFPA people, the policy group and so on, they are out there, where is their money?  Where is their money?  Did you have a priority listing of who should be paid?  Why did you go—and you are now crying crocodile tears about trade unions, credit unions, the poor man and the small man—why did you not pay them first?   Why did you not pay them first?  Where did that $7 billion go?  We need those answers, Mr. Speaker.

 

We deserve those answers.  The taxpayers need to know.  Because when a parent has to buy school books and bags to send his/her children to school but they have to pay tax out of the little money, they need to know where that money has gone.

 

If the Prime Minister believed that we deserved to know these things when the expenditure was 5 billion dollars, why does her government now deny us that information when the expenditure is over 20 billion dollars? She is the head of the government and surely must have approved the denial of information to Afra, and the retention of top attorneys to block all access to the very information that she so forcefully said we the public deserve.

 

That is not the only information Afra asked for, and has been denied. In his last budget statement, the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai said that but for the state intervention, many of the companies in the group would have collapsed. Afra sought to know which companies in the group had been saved via government intervention, and under what authority they were rescued. You should remember that the Section 44 bailout was limited to financial institutions under the regulatory control of the Central Bank. This release of this information is being resisted.

 

For avoidance of doubt, as the attorneys might say, all of this is in the public domain since Afra filed his affidavit recently. Once filed, it is open to the public.

 

Like Afra, I have been denied access to rudimentary information about the bailout. For example, in an affidavit to court in a related matter, Minister Dookeran said that agreements were entered into with financial institutions to guarantee an 80% redemption on the first ten zero interest bonds given to policyholders. I requested a copy of the agreement. That has met with silence. I also asked for the identities of the institutions who were party to agreements and how much money was involved. More silence.

 

I also asked for a list of any policyholders who were paid other than through the “Dookeran Offer”, with details of their terms of payment. Remember that the Prime Minister accused the previous administration of ad-hoc payments based on unspecified criteria. We know that the practice continued. Her call for full disclosure is as relevant today as it was when she made it in October 2010. How does she justify its denial now?

 

I am left with no alternative but to pursue this information through the courts. The government knows how costly that will be and presumably hopes that the cost will prove to be a bridge too far, and it may well be. But even if one can afford the cost, there is the threat that if due to some minor technicality, I lose the case, I would have to repay the deliberately exorbitant costs of the state.

 

Denial of information has now become the modus operandi of the government, the Central Bank and CLICO/CLF in this matter. I remind you again, they say it has cost 20 billion dollars and counting. They have spent that money with absolutely no oversight. Now they will spend even more of our money denying us access to any information about that expenditure.

 

We are left to trust them that our money has been wisely spent. In deciding whether that trust is justified, I remind you of another quote from the Prime Minister’s speech referred to above.

“The Government cannot afford an additional $7 billion to pay off all investors in Clico and BAT over a shorter period.  We cannot afford it and when the Government cannot afford it, the country cannot afford it, the taxpayer cannot afford it and the people cannot afford to pay this amount at this time.   We cannot afford it!  We have already spent taxpayers, $7.3 billion, so we cannot come up with that $7 billion now.  This will be fiscally irresponsible

 

The Prime Minister told us that in effect that the total cost of honouring all contacts would be 14.3 billion dollars, and that we could not afford it. Yet the Dookeran Plan which should have saved us from that fate is now said to cost more than 20 billion dollars. We have had no explanation for the increased cost, and I will also be asking for same. Given this great disparity, can we trust them and their appointees without access to basic information?

 

I would love to hear from every Cabinet Minister as to whether they support this use of taxpayer funds to block public access to basic information about the expenditure of more than 20 billion dollars of our money. In fact I will write to each of them individually. You can support me by doing so as well. Kindly inform me if you do.

 

See also:

The power to abuse

A winning hand for CLF shareholders

The bailout explained – Part 1

Corrupt politicians beware

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