OPPOSITION Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar called on the police and Integrity Commission to investigate the Government’s rental of a building owned by Attorney General (AG) Faris Al-Rawi and his wife Mona, but the AG stoutly rejected any impropriety by saying he had recused himself whenever Cabinet discussed the lease.
Persad-Bissessar’s claim came at a United National Congress rally at a packed hall at El Dorado West Secondary School on Monday.
She said in 2006 a property at 3 Alexandra Place, St Clair, Port of Spain,was bought for $2.5 million by a company known as Zaman Enterprises owned by the Al-Rawis.
Last October, the AG's in-law offered to lease the property to the Government for $600,000 a month (plus VAT), with Cabinet ultimately agreeing to pay $575,000 per month (plus VAT), that would total $23 million over three years, she alleged.
She said this contract would see the Al-Rawis “laughing all the way to the bank.”
Saying Al-Rawi was a shareholder in Zaman (and a director for a period), while as AG he was also legal adviser to Cabinet, Persad-Bissessar said he has some questions to answer.
“But it gets better: while the negotiations are going on, and before the matter goes to the Cabinet the Attorney General removes himself as a director of Zaman on November 8, 2018 and leaves his son Abraham Al-Rawi and his wife as directors.”
She asked why this happened and whether Al-Rawi was involved in or aware of the company’s talks with the Government to which he as AG was legal adviser.
“What was the role of the office of the Attorney General in providing advice to the Ministry of Public Administration in this matter? Did he make full and frank disclosure of the totality of his interest in this transaction to the Cabinet?”
She quoted the conflict-of-interest provisions of the Integrity in Public Life Act.
Not only is the AG apparently heavily conflicted, but the entire Cabinet which approved this transaction would be guilty if they knew and chose to facilitate it.
“Tonight, I call on all Cabinet ministers present at the Cabinet when this matter was discussed to state whether they were aware of this potential conflict when they approved this transaction. Are you innocent or guilty?"
She urged the Commissioner of Police to investigate for possible breaches of the Prevention of Corruption Act and misbehaviour in public office, adding, “I shall be bringing this matter to the attention of the Integrity Commission.”
Al-Rawi told Newsday all was above board, hitting Persad-Bissessar’s remarks as “spurious and scandalous.” He said he had recused himself at all times during the one-year period of negotiations on the deal, both at Cabinet and its Finance and General Purposes Committee. addressing the question of value for money, Al-Rawi said that in 2012 the Ministry of Housing had offered to rent the building for twice the present price. He said the property is leased at warehouse rates.
He said Persad-Bissessar’s remarks were scandalous and irresponsible because the public record showed properties being rented from the relatives of many former UNC ministers. He said he was not complaining about those rentals, even as the key question was whether the transactions had been done at arm's length and whether they had value for money. He asked why Persad-Bissessar didn't refer herself to the Integrity Commission over the rentals by her former ministers.
“I have come from a successful practice of law and I have business interests and have declared it and recused myself (from the St Clair lease). A breach would only arise if somebody failed to recuse themselves.
“The matter was considered by Cabinet over a year. I took no part and left the room.
“The UNC would seek to make a scandal of everything but themselves. I don’t accept a single word of the nonsense she is speaking.”