Rowley: Government 'blindsided' by SSA scandal

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley speaks to media at the VIP Lounge, Piarco International Airport, after returning to TT on Sunday. - Venessa Mohammed
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley speaks to media at the VIP Lounge, Piarco International Airport, after returning to TT on Sunday. - Venessa Mohammed

Hours after the Director of Public Prosecutions, Roger Gaspard, SC, ordered the release of four former Strategic Services Agency (SSA) employees, the Prime Minister said the scandal at the organisation had blindsided the government.

Former director of the SSA Major Roger Best, who was sent on administrative leave in early March, was arrested on May 16, along with pastor Ian Brown, a former special reserve officer assigned to the SSA, former security supervisor Portell Griffith and Sgt Sherwin Waldron, formerly assigned to the Special Operations Response Team.

The group was arrested after a two-and-a-half-month-long investigation into a wide range of allegations against SSA agents and were questioned on the transfer of the weapons from the police to the SSA.

Best faces a possible charge of possession of an automatic rifle – an MP5K Heckler and Koch automatic sub-machine gun – in contravention of the Firearm Act and possibly misbehaviour in public office for transferring two Sig Sauer MPX guns and two Sig Sauer 516 rifles.

Police also searched the homes of Best and the others for electronic devices for interrogation by the police’s cyber and social media unit of any communications data and stored data.

Best was fired as SSA director on May 18, while still in police custody, by acting president Nigel de Freitas, on the advice of the Cabinet.

Speaking with the media at the Piarco International Airport after his return from a trip to Ghana and India, Dr Rowley was asked about his thoughts on the latest development.

He said the government, although “blindsided” by the developments at the agency, had acted quickly and decisively.

“The government was able to be informed at an early stage and we approached it with vigour and commitment. There is an ongoing, very serious investigation that is taking place, and as I said before, some of what has been unearthed in this investigation has been quite troublesome.

“There are impressions of criminal conduct which are being investigated by those in authority to do that. And where it fell to the Cabinet to act on persons who were having the support of the Cabinet to do their jobs, if they fell short in that way, the Cabinet did not hesitate to act.”

Rowley said little about what the ongoing audit into the agency has found, adding, “We expect that we will rectify it and return the agency to its purpose.”

Asked about Best’s replacement, Rowley said that had been taken care of “a long time.”

He praised the acting director, retired Brig Gen Anthony Phillips-Spencer, who was recalled from his post as ambassador to the US to lead the audit into the agency.

“When we realised that we had a problem of this nature, the government acted swiftly and there's an acting appointment there with all the authorities of the office and for the time being that will be satisfactory.”

“As you would have seen, action has been taken and will be taken along the way eventually. There may be changes in the leadership, but Brig Spencer right now is as good an officer as we could have had to deal with this situation, and he will continue to hold it for a while.”

Newsday asked Rowley if he was aware that the man who introduced Best to Pastor Brown had also worked with Phillips-Spencer at the embassy in Washington.

Rowley said the authorities were aware of the link and added the man had been recalled “a few weeks ago” as the investigation developed.

“There's a very broad-spectrum investigation taking place. I don't know if you may recall when I first spoke about this, I said that an audit is being done of infrastructure, personnel and processes that covers everything and everybody.

“I do know of the officer that you're talking about. That officer has been stationed in Washington. But given the concerns that we've had in what has gone on in Trinidad and his connection to it, he has been recalled from Washington to Trinidad, and the investigations continue.”

Asked if he was concerned about the possibility of the man in question being able to influence Phillips-Spencer or taint the ongoing investigation, Rowley said, “No, that doesn't arise.”

Meanwhile, police have to complete further investigations before consulting with the DPP on whether they have sufficient evidence to support criminal charges against the four.

Officers of the Professional Standards Bureau met with Gaspard, who reviewed their file and gave instructions.


"Rowley: Government ‘blindsided’ by SSA scandal"

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