(Trinidad Guardian) The Government has suffered a setback in its prosecution of a corruption lawsuit against former Housing Development Corporation (HDC) officials, two State officials and two private companies over a $175 million land deal.
High Court Judge Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell on Tuesday upheld an application by the 10 defendants in the case to set aside the lawsuit, based on the procedure used by the Office of the Attorney General in filing it two years ago.
Their legal victory was short-lived, however, as the AG’s Office announced by evening that it would be moving to refile the case.
The defendants are former HDC officials Jearlean John (managing director), Henckle Lall (chairman), Graig Davis (deputy chairman), former Commis-sioner of Valuations Ronald Heeralal and his co-worker Everil Ross.
Project manager Peter Forde and his company Project Specialist Limited were also listed as defendants along with Point Lisas Park Limited and its owners Anthony Sampath and Patrick Soo Ting, who sold the land to the HDC.
In her decision, Donaldson-Honeywell agreed that the group had been prejudiced by the AG’s Office decision to file the lawsuit under a “seal of secrecy” in November 2016 and to seek two successive extensions of time in which to serve the lawsuit on them. It was eventually served in July last year.
The State’s decision was largely based on the fact that its investigation into the alleged corruption was ongoing at the time and the case had to be filed within the four-year limitation period for civil lawsuits.
“The claimants did file the claim before they were ready to do so in order to beat the limitation deadline, but chose not to serve the claim and keep it secret. I see this as a risky strategic decision,” Donaldson-Honeywell said.
While she noted the State’s conduct was not a deliberate abuse of process, she said: “These strategic decisions or inadvertence by the claimants put the defendants on unequal footing.”
Donaldson-Honeywell suggested that refiling of the case would be appropriate, as it would give both sides “more precise focus” in the claim.
Once refiled the AG’s Office will have to convince the court why the limitation period should be waived, as in other cases in which corrupt activities are only discovered after a change of regime.
The lawsuit centres around the HDC’s purchase of 20 hectares of land at Calcutta Settlement Road No 2 in Freeport, known as Eden Gardens, in 2012. While the private company valued the land at $52 million, Herralal later said this was “grossly undervalued” as his office estimated it at $180 million.
In the lawsuit, the Government is alleging that the group was part of a conspiracy to bribe State officials to overvalue the land and benefit from the proceeds.
In an interview with CNC3 yesterday, John said she was pleased by Donaldson-Honeywell’s decision as she and her attorney had been advocating against the case since it was first filed.
“The HDC, at the time, had conducted itself properly in the transaction. If you look at what the PNM placed before the civil court, it really was a cut and paste piece of nonsense,” John said.
John again defended her position as she pointed out the price paid for the land was fair market value.
“It was developed land with roadways, pavement, electrical and plumbing infrastructure. The PNM twisted it in such a way to tarnish me and the HDC during that period,” she said.
She noted that both a Joint Select Committee of Parliament (JSC) and the Integrity Commission had previously cleared her and the officials of any wrongdoing in the deal.
But Minister in the Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Affairs Stuart Young maintained the Government’s position.
In a press release announcing its plans to refile of the case, Young said: “The strength of the substantive case is unaffected: The AG and the HDC remain confident of success. By obtaining the judge’s order the defendants have succeeded only in delaying the final outcome of the litigation.”
Young said because of the delay caused by the application, the State would press for the speediest procedure possible and seek an early hearing once it is refiled.
Point Lisas Park Limited, Sampath and Soo Ting were represented by Fyard Hosein, SC, Sasha Bridgemohansingh and Rishi Dass, while Gerald Ramdeen represented John. David Phillips, QC, and Anthony Bullock represented the State.