The legal minds advising the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) have a responsibility to ensure that solid cases are taken before the court, according to Minister of State Joseph Harmon, who says that government will continue to pump resources into the unit to boost its investigative capacity.
“SOCU, they are gathering information and if, in fact, the persons who have the legal eye to see what is it that will stand up in court, allow it to go through, how could you blame the investigators?” he asked during a post-Cabinet press briefing on Friday.
Harmon was asked how concerned the government was about SOCU’s apparent inability to bring solid matters before the court and the recent contention by the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) that the unit was not doing quality investigations.
Following its investigations, SOCU is advised by the DPP, legal advisor retired Justice Claudette Singh and a team of special prosecutors handpicked by government.
In response, Harmon defended the work of the unit, while saying that since government took office in May 2015, the unit has grown.
“SOCU was a unit with Sydney James and four or five persons when we took office ….government has given the unit the capacity to go after organised crime, to investigate, the resources to go about doing the investigation [and] exposed them to best practices all around the world,” he said while noting that James recently returned from an overseas-based training programme.
“We are improving the competence and the capacity of SOCU,” he was quick to add.
Harmon stated that the SOCU investigators are trained as policemen to look at certain things and to gather information. “At the end of it, is the legal luminaries who have to advise whether this matter has to go to court or not. They are the one to say, ‘Look, there is a deficiency here and a deficiency there, correct it,’” he stressed.
The DPP’s Chambers on October 17, in a letter to Kaieteur News over a news item headlined ‘US$500M GBTI contempt charge…3 weeks later, DPP still to pronounce on charges against her lawyer,’ made it known that the unit’s investigative capacity was not where it ought to be.
“SOCU needs to focus on doing quality investigations before sending files to these Chambers for legal advice because charges are based on evidence and not wild recommendations,” the letter said.
“After they have obtained the quality evidence, only then should a credible investigator recommend a charge. Once all the evidence is there to support the offence/ offences being investigated, charges are recommended,” it said.
Days after the letter, Chief Magistrate Ann McLennan ruled that SOCU failed to prove its case against former General Manager of the New Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC), Nizam Hassan and Felicia De Souza-Madramootoo.
Hassan and De Souza-Madramootoo, the wife of an engineer, were jointly charged last November with allegedly procuring money by false pretense by continuously approving payments to the Trinidad-based Constantine Engineering and Construction Services, for works at GMC’s headquarters that were “incompetently and incorrectly” done.
In assessing the evidence by several of the 26 witnesses who testified, the Chief Magistrate stated on October 20 that the court discredited their testimonies since they seemed to have had self-serving interests based on their responses to questions asked under cross-examination.
She added that there was no evidence presented by the prosecutor to show that the building materials used were inferior. She noted too that there was no false pretense because the same procedure adopted by Ida Sealey Adams, who served as the acting General Manager during the period Hassan was out, was adopted by Hassan.
Subsequently, Chief Magistrate McLennan found that the prosecution failed to prove essential evidence of the charge and that its witnesses were discredited under cross-examination.
Upon these grounds, the court found that there was no prima facie case established and, therefore, there was no other choice but to uphold the no-case submissions made by the defence attorneys, who included Glenn Hanoman.
Harmon stated that many persons have been complaining about the length of time it is taking for SOCU to bring matters before the court. “Every day, they are saying, ‘You did Commissions of Inquiry, you did audits but still these people walking about the road who did all of these bad things.’ But as you understand now, these matters have to be prepared in a particular way so that they can stand cross-examination in the court and …allow the magistrates or the judges to make decisions that are based on the evidence,” he stressed.
Harmon said that the judiciary is independent. “We do not tell them what judgement they should give… [but] present the evidence in court and ask that they look at it impartially and neutrally…,” he added.
In June, Stabroek News was told that the unit’s workload had increased tremendously, as in addition to regular duties, investigators were also looking at 25 forensic audits that were commissioned by the government.
Most of the audits have multiple aspects which have to be investigated. For example, the audit of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) has led to 86 investigations, while the audit of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB) has led to 45.
Harmon also reminded that SOCU has lodged complaints “that there are so many matters that they have already finished investigating and it is not coming to the court as yet.” The ‘Pradoville 2’ matter is an example. Months after the investigation was completed, there has been no pronouncement on the way forward.
“We have to be patient because a number of these things require careful investigation and so it is not in my view correct to say SOCU is not doing this and SOCU is not doing that. We have to work with SOCU and clearly SOCU is going to get the help,” he said,
Harmon noted that SOCU has gotten international help and the unit will get additional help to ensure that “the cases that they bring before the court, that they stick.”
Irish consultant Dr Sam Sittlington was contracted by the British government to provide advice and training to SOCU. After spending some time with the unit last year, he returned for a follow up visit earlier this year.
In January, he had told reporters that the unit’s four sleuths were handling in excess of 300 investigations and that they were unable to effectively tackle them with its current staff complement.
Subsequently, the unit’s human resources were strengthened. However, its operations were once again burdened when its workload was increased with the audit reports.