Government Senator Dr Lester Henry was “reckless” when he alleged on a radio programme that former Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran used taxpayers’ money to effect repairs to his private home.
For his defamatory remarks while speaking as a guest on the Afternoon Drive programme on i95.5FM on June 9, 2014, Henry will have to pay Rambarran damages of $550,000, as ordered yesterday by Justice Devindra Rampersad in the Port of Spain High Court. Rampersad held that Henry’s allegations were “rather serious” and served to undermine Rambarran’s “independence and integrity in no small measure.”
Speaking after the ruling, Rambarran said he was pleased with the outcome. Rambarran complained of statements by Henry, on the radio programme, which questioned his qualifications, experience and appointment as Central Bank governor.
Rambarran said Henry made these utterances out of malice and with no attempt to verify what he was saying.
The judge said Henry’s words would have left the ordinary person with the inescapable impression that Rambarran misused his position to gain an unfair advantage using public funds on private property at an over-the-top and exorbitant price.
Henry said on the programme that the cost of construction work, which he alleged was conducted by UNC financier SIS Ltd, was equal to that of the cost paid by the State to pull out a fire truck after it went over a precipice in Blanchisseuse in 2012. That cost was $6.8 million.
In his ruling, Justice Rampersad found that reference to SIS Ltd and remarks on Rambarran’s qualifications, “carried political undertones.”
Rambarran was represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Richard Jagai and Douglas Bayley, while Gilbert Peterson, SC, and Ken Wright represented Henry.
In rejecting all of Henry’s defences, Justice Rampersad said the tenor of statements would have led the listener “to come to the conclusion that the claimant was not an honest person and was not fit or qualified to occupy the important office of Governor of the Central Bank – the latter being a sentiment which the defendant unabashedly confessed to in cross-examination.
“The court has no hesitation in holding that the defamatory words would have been calculated to disparage the claimant in his office as Governor of the Central Bank,” the judge said. He also noted that, “no doubt the words used in the programme have not been lost in the breeze but have been retained for posterity in the permanent form of a recording.
The time has long passed for the categorisation of the transient nature of slander in the modern era to be revised.
“To my mind, especially in circumstances where radio stations are no longer limited by the strength of their broadcasting signal but now extend over the internet to an international audience via a multitude of online ‘live’ streaming software, apps and other technology all with the capability or recording such.
The transience of the spoken word in the golden age of radio has been replaced by the relative permanence in the current era of global information and technology,” Justice Rampersad said.
Henry, he also ruled, did not provide evidence to prove his claims and neither was Rambarran allowed an opportunity to respond to the allegations.
He said although Henry was a Senator and might feel a duty to make statements on matters of public importance, there was no right for the public to receive false information.
“The public ought not to be interested in information that is not true,” the judge said, adding that the tone of Henry’s interview was “antagonistic and hostile” towards Rambarran.
“There was no balance and no attempt made at any balance.” Justice Rampersad also chastised Henry for failing to disclose a copy of the recording he received from the radio station.
At the trial, Rambarran said any expenditure could be found in the Central Bank’s annual report.
He said he chose to return to his private residence six months into his appointment because of family considerations and because the official residence provided by the bank at Federation Park was in dire need of repairs.
Henry, in his testimony, said while he could not remember all the statements he made during the radio interview, he made them on the basis of information he had, that the Central Bank had paid for repairs to Rambarran’s private residence.
He admitted never seeking clarification of the issue by filing a question in the Senate, nor did he file an application under the Freedom of Information Act to elicit the facts about the work at Rambarran’s private residence.
Henry said he held the belief that Rambarran was not qualified for the position. Rambarran replaced Ewart Williams in 2012 and was fired on December 24, 2015, by Finance Minister Colm Imbert.