(Trinidad Express) Wealthy Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam and his nine-member delegation quite literally walked straight through Immigration and Customs to the VIP lounge of Piarco International Airport before being whisked away in an executive ride to the Hyatt Regency (Trinidad) Hotel on the morning of May 9, 2011 with a suitcase full of bribe money.
A documents trail and eyewitness accounts reveal the former Qatar Football Association president was issued a visa exemption by then Minister in the Ministry of National Security Subhas Panday days after a request was made by bin Hammam’s buddy and the man who made the suggestion to bring cash to the Hyatt meeting, Jack Warner.
Documents obtained by the Sunday Express show Warner, the then Minister of Works and Transport and the man who arranged the infamous Caribbean Football Union (CFU) conference to facilitate bin Hammam’s 2011 presidential campaign to FIFA voting members, made the request for a visa waiver for bin Hammam and nine others on April 29, 2011, days before the Qatari’s planned arrival on a private jet at Piarco International Airport.
Visa Exemptions for AFC Delegation
On May 5, 2011, four days before bin Hammam’s arrival in Trinidad, former deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of National Security Sandra Lynch wrote to Warner in his capacity as president of the CFU, to advice that visa exemptions had been granted for the visiting ten-member Asian Football Confederation (AFC) delegation.
Lynch signed the approval letter giving bin Hammam and his party a free pass through Immigration and Customs for the substantive permanent secretary at that time Jennifer Boucaud-Blake, who has since retired and did not immediately return messages left on her voicemail.
The letter to Warner stated in part: “I am to refer to your letter dated April 29, 2011 and wish to advise that the Honourable Minister in the Ministry of National Security acting in accordance with the provisions of Regulation 13 (13) of the Immigration Regulation has exempted the persons listed in the attached from the requirements of a visa, over the period May 9 to 11, 2011, to participate in a special meeting of the AFC. Kindly ensure that this approval is presented to the Immigration Authorities upon arrival at the Port of Entry.”
Guy Benjamin, the then Chief Immigration Officer, has no recollection of the May 5, 2011 ministerial order. He said no such directive came to his attention. Benjamin told the Sunday Express such instructions are usually issued to the Chief Immigration Officer because the CIO has to facilitate the visa exemption order for the identified foreign nationals.
In the case of bin Hammam and his AFC football associates, no instruction of any kind was issued to the office of the CIO. The directive was issued instead to Jack Warner, the former government minister and ex-vice-president of FIFA, the world governing body for football. Oddly enough, a May 4, 2011 Warner request for visa exemptions for a three-member Haitian delegation, headed by Yves Jean Bart, the Haitian Football Federation, and granted the following day, May 5 for the same May 10-11 conference, was copied to the CIO.
Lynch, who approved a controversial fire truck payout several times the value of the crashed tender during Warner’s tenure as Minister of National Security, also signed off on the visa exemption order for the Haitians which also went to CFU president Warner. The former deputy PS could not be reached for comment.
Panday: My Hands are Clean
Panday, however, said he “may have signed” the request for the visa waiver without knowledge of the subsequent bribery allegations. Panday said yesterday he had no recollection of the specific Warner request for visa exemptions and made clear he had no conversation with Warner on the matter.
“I don’t recall this one at all,” he told the Sunday Express, adding that if he did sign off on the visa waiver request, “then there must be a record of it in the Ministry of National Security”.
The former minister, who said his “hands are clean” added that no queries came to him following the subsequent cash-for-votes bribery allegations. He said by the time the police commenced investigations he was already out of the ministry.
Reginald Dumas, a career diplomat and former head of the Public Service questioned why the visa exemption letter was issued to Warner, then a Cabinet Minister wearing his CFU hat, and not to the COI as required by law to facilitate any Section 13 (13) government request. There are questions too about whether the visa exemption requests went to the Cabinet and why the authorisation letter for the bin Hammam party was not copied to immigration.
Eyewitness Reports place
Warner with the Money
Warner did not immediately respond to requests for a comment but eyewitness accounts reveal that bin Hammam’s party was met as soon as they came off the tarmac on the morning of May 9 by Joan Brammer, head of Airport VIP Protocol, and taken straight to the VIP Lounge with hand luggage in tow.
They were shuttled in executive rides to the Hyatt Hotel immediately after their luggage was collected from the baggage claims area. There was no security screening of the bin Hammam delegation’s hand luggage, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Brammer refused comment when contacted by the Sunday Express.
Bin Hammam attended a private Warner-hosted dinner at Joseph’s Restaurant in Maraval later that evening and met again with his former FIFA ExCo (Executive Committee) friend and colleague early the next morning (May 10) at the US$1,799 a night presidential suite at the Hyatt. Eyewitness reports place an empty-handed Warner entering the lobby of the hotel and later a suitcase-carrying Warner on his way out of the hotel.
Suitcase of Cash in Warner’s Office
Testimony given to the FIFA Ethics Committee investigator and former FBI director Louis Freeh by former CFU general secretary Angenie Kanhai place the bribe money in a locked piece of hand luggage with the key in the front pocket in Warner’s Works and Transport Minister’s office at the corner of Richmond and London Streets.
Kanhai, in a May 2011 statement to the FIFA Ethics Committee said: “On May 10, 2011, Mr Warner advised me that he had gifts, which were to be distributed to the delegates. Mr Warner did not tell me what the gifts were, but advised that they were to be distributed from the hotel that afternoon. After consulting with my staff, Jason Sylvester and Debbie Minguell, I suggested to Mr Warner that the gifts be distributed between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. that day.”
The two-page statement, signed by Kanhai said: “During the morning session on May 10, Mr Warner made an announcement to the attendees about picking up the above mentioned gift.” She said she was instructed to go to Warner’s official government office to collect a locked bag and subsequently discovered that the bag contained envelopes stuffed with cash.
More Bribery Allegations
Warner quit the world governing football body following accusations of bribery in June 2011. He and bin Hammam were accused of giving Caribbean officials US$40,000 in cash to win support for bin Hammam’s presidential challenge against Sepp Blatter.
More recently, the Sunday Times reported evidence of more alleged bribe payments from bin Hammam to football officials, including Warner, in exchange for support of Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. The British newspaper asserted that substantial payments were funneled directly to Warner controlled bank accounts.
Warner, identified as a key benefactor to bin Hammam’s largesse had denied the newspaper claims and countered that the money he received from bin Hammam was to help with losses he suffered during an earthquake in China.