Former University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) directors yesterday lost their bid to scrap the $12 million lawsuit which was filed as a result of their decision to lease a $50,000-a-month residential resort complex in Aripo at which Juliana Pena was allowed to live.
Pena was spiritual adviser to former prime minister Patrick Manning.
“All the obstacles in the way of this trial progressing have been cleared,” Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said yesterday.
A court date has now been set for December 3 to 5, 2014. Ramlogan said it means that the former directors—Ken Julien, Dr Rene Monteil, Giselle Marfleet, Scott Hilton-Clarke, Ravindra Nath-Maharaj, Errol Pilgrim and Lincoln Warner—will be required to give evidence and submit themselves to cross-examination of a court of law. Their witness statements must be submitted by September 1.
The Court of Appeal, comprising Ivor Archie, Nolan Bereaux and Gregory Smith, yesterday heard a procedural appeal, arising out of the judgment of Vashiest Kokaram in the High Court on April 11, 2014. Kokaram had rejected a claim by the defendants that the lawsuit had no merit and should be struck out. The judge had stated that there was more than sufficient evidence for the claim to go forward. The former board members (with the exception of Ken Julien) had appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal, but lost.
Speaking at a news conference at his Port of Spain office yesterday, Ramlogan said the decision vindicated the Prime Minister’s position when she announced the initiation of probes in several state agencies.
“It also repels the argument and criticism of the PNM that these probes were some sort of witch-hunt and that there was no justification or basis in these matters being pursued in court,” he said, adding that he was the subject of vilification for pursuing these matters in court. He added that yesterday decision “again” represent “judicial endorsement” of the merit of the claim.
Ramlogan said accommodation was provided to Pena “and her companion” at the Aripo guesthouse. He noted however that this arrangement was not designed to keep political guests and friends, but rather visiting lecturers and members of staff of the University. He added that the basis of the lawsuit was also that the person who leased it (to the university) did not own the property and therefore had no authority to execute a lease, far less collect lease rent.
“It was like if one of you (decide to) lease me the Red House tomorrow morning,” Ramlogan said. The Attorney General said the matter was compounded when the university pumped $10 million to upgrade and renovate the property to bring it “up to the five-star and seven-star luxurious standard” befitting the occupants.
“There was a massive swimming pool and plush accommodation,” he noted. Ramlogan said these monies spent represented an “astonishing waste of taxpayers’ money “by the university in circumstances that were completely unjustified from a political perspective”.
Ramlogan said the State’s contention was that no due diligence was done and the former board signed a lease shutting their eyes to the obvious defects in the title (of the property). “They failed to terminate the lease or act prudently when it was brought to their attention. Because the legal department of UTT did advise that they terminate the sublease when it discovered the serious defects in title. That is at the core of the matter,” he said.
Ramlogan said the one issue that arose during the hearing of the appeal was whether the former Board members could have known that the legal department had advised against entering this lease.
He said the attempt to “plead ignorance” by the Directors failed, after the judges pointed out that the minutes of the Board meeting contained a reference to the legal report and the directors were present at the meeting.
The court awarded cost to the Government.
Lawyers for the State were Gerald Ramdeen, Varun Debideen and Vincent Nelson.
Government has also taken action in an effort to recover over $2 billion from former directors of state companies.