Former president Bharrat Jagdeo, former Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon and former PPP/C minister Robert Persaud were among seven persons who were arrested and questioned by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) yesterday as part of its criminal investigation of the sale of lands in the controversial ‘Pradoville 2’ housing scheme.
In addition to Jagdeo, Luncheon and Persaud, Lisaveta Ramotar, who is the General Manager of the Guyana Gold Board and daughter of former president Donald Ramotar, Ramesh Dookhoo, former Chairman of the Private Sector Commission and Dr Ghansham Singh who were also beneficiaries of house lots in the scheme, were also arrested and questioned. Marcia Nadir-Sharma, former Deputy Director of state holding company NICIL was also questioned. They were all released without charge.
Jagdeo spent about 45 minutes in the SOCU headquarters at Camp Road, Georgetown, before he emerged smiling but sweating. He told reporters who had assembled that he invoked his presidential immunity after being questioned and was subsequently told that he was free to go.
“They asked me several questions relating to the Pradoville transaction and I made a short statement because they ask asked me questions in my official capacity and I have immunities on those, so I refused to answer those questions. So we can expect [with] the vindictive nature of this government that charges will be laid later and if they are we will contest them in court,” he said.
“I asked, ‘Are you asking me questions in my private capacity or my official capacity at that time? Cause if you are doing that, you are going to breach the veil of official immunity for official acts. That will have far reaching consequences in this country because anything that [President David] Granger does as president in his official capacity too will be challenged,” he said, while adding that the SOCU officers did not answer his questions. .
“On the other matters, I said ‘I prefer to say nothing at this time.’ So they can choose what they want to do—that is to charge us etc. and that is fine we will contest in court—
but if they believe that any of these acts will intimidate us or, you know, make us scared of exposing wrongdoings of the government, they are wrong about it,” he added.
Article 182 (1) of the Constitution states that “…the holder of the office of President shall not be personally answerable to any court for the performance of the functions of his office or for any act done in the performance of those functions and no proceedings, whether criminal or civil, shall be instituted against him in his personal capacity in respect thereof either during his term of office or thereafter.”
Luncheon, during his arrest at the Church Street Office of the Leader of the Opposition yesterday morning, was told by Police Superintendent Brian Vieira that it was for conspiracy to commit a felony, to wit, fraudulent misappropriation of state property in relation to Pradoville 2.
Jagdeo later said that while the charges were not clear and there was a “hemming and hawing” by SOCU officers on what they were, it was explained that it was similar to what Luncheon was arrested for.
“It was a general thing,” he said, while noting that the questions posed to him were based on audit reports on NICIL and NCN and Pradoville. “Those were the three things they talked about,” he added.
Luncheon said that he was not surprised by the arrest and would co-operate fully. After his release, he told the press that he was questioned on audits pertaining to Pradoville 2 but believed that there was no evidence to substantiate the claims for which he was arrested and did not foresee charges.
Persaud, Ramotar, Nadir-Sharma and Singh chose not to speak with the press.
The SOCU probe is based on an investigation of the Sparendaam Housing Project, known as ‘Pradoville 2,’ which was part of a larger probe of the financial operations of the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CHPA) that was conducted by accounting firm Ram & McRae, which concluded that a criminal case for malfeasance could be made against the PPP/C Cabinet members who benefited.
The firm found that awardees grossly underpaid for the lots by a total of nearly $250 million, while the state-owned National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), National Communications Network (NCN) and Guyana Power and Light Inc. (GPL) were never reimbursed for millions spent to execute preparatory works.
“Our examination leads to the conclusion that the project was done outside of the established procedures,” it said, while noting that former PPP/C housing minister Irfaan Ali piloted every aspect of the transaction without recourse to the CHPA. “While the minister has considerable powers under the Housing Act, his role in the issue of titles was well outside of his functions and powers,” the report said.
Luncheon’s arrest had been anticipated by Jagdeo and other PPP, leaders who gathered at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, on Church Street, to await the police.
Stabroek News arrived at the office around 11.30am and was ushered to a waiting room along with two men, who were later identified as the officers assigned to make the arrest.
Unaware that the two men were police, Jagdeo came to the room and explained briefly that he was awaiting the police for Luncheon’s arrest. He quickly left before the men could state that they were already there.
Other members of the press arrived and were taken to a conference room, where Jagdeo was to make a statement on the matter.
As he was pointing out that SOCU would be visiting to make arrests, the police entered and informed Luncheon of his arrest in the presence of Jagdeo.
The ailing Luncheon, who uses a walker, was informed by Vieira that he had a choice of going to SOCU’s Camp Street Headquarters by police transport or by private transportation. He opted to go with private transportation and was whisked away, after which Jagdeo held a short media briefing to air his views on the matter.
Jagdeo accused the APNU+AFC coalition government of directing the arrest as an act of political vindictiveness, with the aim of instilling fear and intimidation in the PPP’s support base and silencing them on issues of national importance.
He echoed most of what he had told attendees at the memorial for former presidents, Cheddi and Janet Jagan on Sunday.
Jagdeo noted that attorney Anil Nandlall had written SOCU on Monday informing that all PPP persons would have been available yesterday at the Church Street office to answer any questions SOCU had. “Clearly they refused that course, so there was no refusal to cooperate, but the venue was here rather (than) SOCU. We have seen this police force gone to people’s home to take statements in serious criminal matters but they are refusing in this instance,” he asserted.
“They are hoping they will break our will to fight them, taint the reputations of these people and then send a message to Guyana—that if you could arrest Dr. Luncheon, who else would be safe in this country? This is all a political witch-hunt. And it is clear as day. The reason the government is doing this is because it is failing miserably in every area of the country…because it has not delivered on any of its promises and it can’t lead this country to a prosperous future… the country is in economic disarray and we have seen an insidious move to erode our constitutional rights,” he added.
“This act will long be remembered in this country as one of the injustices we have seen in this country and we will remember it. The country needs to understand when you see those images today you should recognise that this has nothing to do with corruption; it is trying to break the will of those trying to resist them—our will—but they will not do so,” an animated Jagdeo stressed.
He said there is nothing that compelled anyone to go to SOCU to give statements. “The statements could be taken anywhere… we wanted to make sure it is done in an area where people could see attempts to [pursue] a witch hunt against out members. We want all the questions they asked to be made public,” he added.
Questioned on why he felt that he or members of his party should be given special privileges by the police on where they are questioned, he said it was within the ambit of the law. “When the invitations came, we were not told there was an offence at that time—we were told it was an interview at SOCU. You need to be specific if you are interviewing people for an interview you need to say what the interview will be,” he said.
Jagdeo added that he felt that he was the “ultimate target” and that he would not be surprised if he too would be arrested.
His belief became reality when not half an hour after Luncheon had arrived at SOCU, the head of the agency Sydney James and other personnel arrived with Jagdeo.
Already at SOCU was Nandlall and attorney Mark Waldron, who represented Persaud. Soon after, a battery of lawyers arrived, including Sanjeev Datadin, Pratesh Satram and Jaya Manickchand.
Jagdeo lamented that although the members of the former PPP/C Cabinet indicated that they would cooperate and would be available for interviews, SOCU appeared to be receiving instructions from the political directorate.
“A legal advisor of government says today that…close to one billion in gold is smuggled annually… and yet they have not made, in this government, a single arrest…or have they brought a case against anyone for smuggling one billion per annum out of the country. But guess who they have gone after?” he said, while noting that SOCU was set up to go after organised crime to support the Financial Intelligence Unit. He charged that now the focus has been shifted to going after political opponents. So after all of this… you are now going after Luncheon for one plot of land that he has gotten in 23 years at Pradoville and that is the entire focus. Or it is Jagdeo and the others,” he argued.
The Ram & McRae audit report noted that lots were allocated to six Cabinet members—Jagdeo, Luncheon and then ministers Persaud, Manickchand, Dr Jennifer Westford, and Clement Rohee—along with other persons with connections to the government.
It was stated that 8.1494 aces of a total of 12.1187 acres were allocated in the scheme.
The report said the awardees made payments to the CHPA but these were significantly lower than the market value. “No files were maintained by CHPA for any of the plots allocated by a process that can be described as lacking transparency at best,” it further said.
Jagdeo, it said, appeared to be central to all decisions relating to the project and would have benefited significantly from dealings in land transactions with the state. He was assigned two acres.
“Mr Jagdeo’s role appears egregious. He allocated or caused to be allocated to himself not one but two lots, totalling 1.9603 acres of land… Moreover, the acreage of the land sold to him was approximately six times the average of the other residential lots, the acreage of which ranged from 0.23 acres to 0.3005 acres,” the report said.
It was pointed out that Jagdeo also caused the area to be provided with three transformers, which cost over $8 million, but he paid GPL “nothing.”
The report also highlighted that the payments for the costs of upgrading the infrastructure for the scheme were borne by NICIL, NCN and GPL. However, it added that no reimbursement was received by NICIL from the CHPA for the infrastructure costs, amounting to approximately $71 million, that could be verified.