SOCU questions ex-Finance Minister Kowlessar over land deals

Saisnarine Kowlessar

As the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) continues to investigate suspicious state land transactions made during the PPP/C’s time in office, former Finance Minister Saisnarine Kowlessar was yesterday detained for questioning and he was later released on $200,000 bail after declining to answer questions.

Kowlessar voluntarily turned up at SOCU’s Camp Street headquarters, where he was placed under arrest and faced with questions for about two hours.

A source told Stabroek News that Kowlessar was Finance Minister during five transactions which are being investigated by SOCU as a result of the forensic audit of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL).

As a result, the source said Kowlessar was requested to attend an interview, which he did, but “he didn’t cooperate. He said that based on the advice of his lawyer, he had nothing to say.”

Kowlessar held the post of Finance Minister from 1999 when his predecessor Bharrat Jagdeo was appointed president, until 2006, when Dr. Ashni Singh took over the portfolio. Singh and former NICIL Head Winston Brassington are currently before the court on misconduct in public office charges which stemmed from land sales made while they held office.

Almost two weeks ago they faced intensive questioning about approximately 30 more land sale transactions and after being fingerprinted, were released on $200, 000 station bail each. Kowlessar was also fingerprinted.

Kowlessar’s attorney, Mark Conway, told Stabroek News yesterday afternoon that the questioning related to five pieces of land that were purchased/sold during his client’s time as minister. While he could not remember the location of the lands or when they were sold, he said that his client was contacted and asked to come in. The attorney said that his client complied, knowing fully well that if he didn’t he could be arrested.

Conway told this newspaper that his client remained silent during questioning as the law makes provisions for this. “It is now up to them to decide when or if they will bring charges”, he said.

Asked if his client was surprised, he responded in the affirmative, while noting that a long time has passed since his client demitted office. Conway said that his client was very calm during his interactions with the ranks.

Kowlessar is required to return to SOCU for further questioning next week.

Following the laying of charges against Singh and Brassington, the PPP had accused the government of political vindictiveness and embarking on a fishing expedition.

Jagdeo has since said that both Singh and Brassington acted in accordance with decisions made by his Cabinet.

“It is a Cabinet decision, which has been issued back to the Ministry of Finance and to the Privatisation Unit to execute. So, Brassington or Ashni Singh could not have executed these decisions unless the matter came [and] the recommendation was approved by the Cabinet,” a seemingly upset Jagdeo had said during a two-hour long press conference he hosted on April 12th. He called the charges which were laid against the duo hours earlier “frivolous.”

Jagdeo had explained that a recommendation was made on the matters by the Privatisation Board and it was sent to Cabinet for approval. Approval was given and it was sent to the Privatisation Board and the Unit for implementation. He had explained that all of the sales went through a transparent process and were logged in a compilation by the Privatisation Unit of all the sales made under his government and which was submitted to Parliament.

“These are all land sales. In the National Hardware case, there was an open and public tender… If you go to the newspapers, you would see that it was advertised for almost two months. People had an opportunity to submit bids, they received one bid and the transaction was concluded at that time. Look at the years in which these lands were sold:  2008, 2009 and 2011,” he had said.

Singh and Brassington were questioned about the sale of state lands to the SOL fuel company in Linden, Guyana Stock-feeds Limited, the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry Headquarters, Bel Air Gardens transactions with persons such as Ian and Mary McDonald, the Roraima Group of Companies, Sanata Textiles, and Clairan’s, as well as sales from one government entity to another government entity and company to company, which included the old Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation (GPC), Twins Manufacturing, Hand-in-Hand, National Hardware, Pritipaul Singh Investments, and Roraima Duke Lodge.

Brassington, a US resident, had said shortly after his release on May 9th that the ranks were taking every instance where the valuation is above the selling price and calling it misconduct in public office. “Now, every single one of these transactions …was approved by the Privatisation Board or the NICIL Board or both and every single one of them was approved by Cabinet,” he said.

He had explained that matters would first go to a stakeholders’ board, which included representatives of labour, the consumers’ body, the private sector bodies and government. The Privatisation Board would then make a recommendation. Among the eminent persons on the board he had listed were Lincoln Lewis and the late Joseph Pollydore.

He had said that accusations are being made even in cases where there was a public tender.  He noted that there were eminent persons on those boards and the privatisation programme was “distinctly different and better than that under the previous administration, under the PNC [People’s National Congress] administration… We have produced records that showed what we did and there is nothing wrong in what we did but these charges which have never been used in Guyana before, they couldn’t find a single statute to say ‘you broke the law’—and misconduct in public office, we are not public officers based on legal cases and the Constitution. We didn’t carry out instructions in an improper manner. Everything we did we have a justification and an approval from boards and Cabinet. So it is a travesty in justice,” he had charged.

Singh later said that what was being witnessed was a pattern of “ominous vulgarity… and dictatorial abuse of authority,” which he said started out with the arrest last year of several prominent PPP figures, including Jagdeo and former Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon.

While he said they will continue to cooperate with the authorities in every respect, he did not go into detail about the questioning. He said that “what we are witnessing is state bullyism, political harassment of the very worst kind.”

Arguing that the charges and the fresh allegations being made were baseless and nonsensical, the former minister had said that despite the lack of merit in the accusations being made, vast amounts of police and state resources were being devoted to pursuing these matters for no purpose other than a “political witch hunt.”

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