AN activist’s legal pursuit of the reasons for the Petrotrin board’s withdrawal of its lawsuit against former chairman Malcolm Jones involves an attack on a key witness against two top Opposition politicians, Queen's Counsel Vincent Nelson, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has alleged.
On the ruling in favour of Ravi Balgobin-Maharaj’s quest to unearth details of Petrotrin’s botched World GTL (gas to liquids) plant, the AG said it was just “a run-of-the-mill case” and not any legal landmark victory on freedom of information, as claimed by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
For his part, Balgobin-Maharaj vowed to press on in the law courts in tribute to Petrotrin ex-workers.
Al-Rawi held a news conference at his ministry in Port of Spain yesterday, after Balgobin-Maharaj addressed reporters outside.
Al-Rawi hit out, “This is not a landmark decision. This is a twisted attack on a state witness.” He alluded to Nelson’s plea bargain to turn state witness against former AG Anand Ramlogan and attorney Gerald Ramdeen over alleged corruption in the award of legal briefs and fees under the former regime.
Saying the Opposition was wrongfully alleging a conspiracy between the Government and Nelson, Al-Rawi said, “Ask yourself why. Is it not a fact that Mr Nelson is giving evidence in criminal proceedings against past attorney general Mr Ramlogan, and Mr Ramdeen?”
He said those prosecutions involve the DPP and police, not the AG, and will be heard in a law court.
“It would be improper of me to speak to deeply on that, but it appears to me this matter is all about attacking a witness (Nelson).
“This attack against a witness is why the Government has sought to bring whistleblower legislation and evidence amendment legislation, so that witnesses can step forward to tell their story.”
The AG added, “This case is not what it’s being made out to be. Expect a consistent attack. This is UNC defence, for UNC position.”
He remarked on the Privy Council’s invitation for Petrotrin or the AG to disclose information that could dispel concerns of political interference in the decision not to sue Jones.
“I got today – for the first time, as we’ve moved offices – the statements of Charmaine Baptiste and Anthony Chan Tack.
"Left up to me, I’d disclose them right now. Why? God help them (UNC), when you understand what’s inside these statements! It will show that the case against Mr Jones was completely ill-founded and it would demonstrate that there was an absolute dereliction of duty by the attorneys-at-law who sought to suppress that information. That lies at the feet of the UNC’s team of attorneys.”
The AG said Petrotrin was bound to obey arbitration norms of confidentiality of witness statements, as endorsed by both the High Court and Appeal Court but overruled by the Privy Council.
Al-Rawi complained about “spliced and edited” videos of the Privy Council sitting now being circulated online by the Opposition, in what he deemed a contempt of court and a breach of copyright.
“I will certainly be reporting that to the Privy Council.”
He warned that anyone who re-publishes the video online must take authorship of it as a breach of the law.
Balgobin-Maharaj said the AG was trying to downplay the significance of the law lords' ruling as it was embarrassing for him.
“This matter is in the public interest to be aired. The Privy Council lords said the Government appears to be hiding information that is in the public interest, and that is what I’m trying to get to.”
Balgobin-Maharaj said the Government has opposed him “time and time again,” by denying his original request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, and then opposing his application in the law courts.
“So whatever Mr Al-Rawi says – that this isn’t some sort of victory – I have to disagree strongly with him, and say it is a complete victory, not only for me but for the people of TT, in moving forward and trying to get the information regarding the multi-million-dollar loss that occurred with World GTL.”
Balgobin-Maharaj said Al-Rawi has chosen to take the opinion of Vincent Nelson, who had drafted the initial case for the PP government, but then flip-flopped to say the case could not be won, when the PNM came into government.
Balgobin-Maharaj said the lawsuit against Jones was initially supported by a second legal opinion from Russell Martineau, SC, but the case was ditched on the basis of only one legal opinion.
“No second opinion was ever sought by Mr Al-Rawi before dismissing the case, and therefore his opinion in this really does not matter at this time.
“He has fought tooth and nail to have it struck out. It is only this Privy Council ruling that allows me to go forward now.”
Balgobin-Maharaj said he next heads to the High Court to seek to get the witness statements used in deciding to withdraw the case against Malcolm Jones. He will file the motion based on public interest. Saying Al-Rawi is continuing to fight the matter and so run up the State’s legal bill, he said this undermines the AG’s vow to keep costs under control, and runs counter to the Privy Council’s judgement.
“I have to ensure this matter reaches its conclusion,” Balgobin-Maharaj said. “My interest is for the people of TT and especially the employees of Petrotrin who lost their jobs. Really, they are the victims of this entire fiasco, that started with the WGTL and ended with Mr Al-Rawi deciding to withdraw the claim.”
The failed World GTL project had a final cost of US$399 million (TT$2.8 billion) and was eventually sold to NiQuan for US$35 million (TT$245 million), Energy Minister Franklin Khan told Parliament last June.