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Ministers, family answer charges

By Rickie Ramdass rickie.ramdass@trinidadexpress.com

WHEN one looks back at the past year, there were a number of issues arising from the political arena that made major news headlines.

From the controversial Section 34 fiasco, resulting in then justice minister Herbert Volney being fired by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, to Persad-Bissessar herself having to defend the travelling costs of her sister Vidwatie Newton as she accompanied the Prime Minister on trips to countries around the world, including India.

Those issues, among others, created a stir among the population.

Also, some of the very lawmakers within the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament or their close relatives found themselves in trouble with the law or were the subject of police investigations in 2012.

Take, for example, Minister of Science and Technology Dr Rupert Griffith.

Only on Wednesday, Griffith reappeared before Chief Magistrate Marcia Ayers-Caesar in the Port of Spain Magistrates' Court, accused of using insulting language towards a police officer.

He was charged via a summons— dated March 8, 2012—with the offence, which was alleged to have taken place on that date at Dock Road, Port of Spain, near the Waterfront Complex, where Parliament is housed.

The matter first came up for hearing on May 21, with the minister pleading not guilty to the charge.

Since then, there have been repeat- ed adjournments as both the State, which is being represented by attorney George Busby, and the defence team, led by Senior Counsel Israel Khan and including Om Lalla and Derrick Balliram, seek to have the case ended in their respective favours.

The State is contending that Griffth insulted PC Larry Joefield as the officer was in the process of issuing a traffic ticket to the minister's driver after he ran a red light at Dock Road. It is arguing that Griffith referred to the officer as "a stupid police" and accused him of being a rogue element within the service. Griffith pleaded not guilty to the offence and the matter went to trial.

In November, Khan made a no-case submission on behalf of his client, saying the charge laid against him did not exist in law. The exact charge laid was that on March 8, 2012, at Dock Road, Port of Spain, Griffith used insulting language to the annoyance of persons on the said street. Khan said such a charge did not exist. As it relates to insulting language, the attorney submitted that the charge should have read that Griffith used insulting language to provoke someone to commit a breach of the peace.

The submission was eventually overruled by Ayers-Caesar, who said she believed Griffith had a case to answer. When the matter was last called two days ago, Busby made an application to have the charge amended, but Khan said this was not allowed as the defence had already closed its case, with Griffith refusing to give evidence or to call witnesses to testify on his behalf.

Khan said the only way such an amendment could have been made was if the case were still proceeding. This, however, is not so, he had said. The matter is still pending, with Ayers-Caesar adjourning it to January 23 when she would give her ruling as it relates to the submissions made by both the defence and prosecution.

The very next day, January 24, former junior minister in the Ministry of National Security Collin Partap is scheduled to appear in the Port of Spain Court, charged with failing to submit himself to a breathalyser test. Like Griffith, Partap was charged via a summons four months after the offence was allegedly committed outside the Zen nightclub in Port of Spain on August 25.

During that four-month period, there had been an outcry from members of the public who were of the opinion that the matter would be swept under the carpet. Hours after Partap, who is also the Member of Parliament for Cumuto/Manzanilla, was detained by police at the Belmont Police Station, he was fired from his position in the National Security Ministry by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.

According to the police, Partap was stopped by police after he activated the siren and blue swivel lights on the Government-owned vehicle outside the club, along Keate Street, where he refused to administer himself to the breath test. He was taken to the police station where he made contact with his attorney and only agreed to the test about an hour later after the intervention of Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams.

The test showed that Partap was within the legal limit. The police were criticised by members of the public for the slow pace in which they were dealing with the matter. The evidence gathered by investigators was forwarded to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard SC but was returned to the investigators several days later as it was missing "critical pieces of information". It was only after reviewing the completed files early last month that Gaspard ordered the charge to be laid.

Early in the year, Carnival Monday to be exact, Trade and Industry Minister Vasant Bharath, the then minister of Food Production, made headlines when he ran over the foot of pedestrian Marlene Williams along Maraval Road, Port of Spain.

Though he was never charged with any offence, Bharath came to an agreement with Williams to pay compensation and settle the matter out of court. The incident had left Williams injured and unable to walk without the assistance of a cane. Prior to that, he had also become the centre of controversy over the purchase of a Porsche Cayenne SUV for official use.

The criticisms came from Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley, who said Bharath was guilty of the same extravagance he had accused former prime minister Patrick Manning of displaying when it was revealed he (Manning) had sought to buy a Bombardier private jet.

"This is like clutching at straws. This is really blowing a storm in a teacup," Bharath had responded. He said there was no extravagance involved since the vehicle cost just over $400,000. The cost of the car to an ordinary individual would be $800,000 to $900,000. Cars purchased by ministries and Government agencies are exempt from taxes and duties, said Bharath.

On the issue of him running over Williams's foot, the two met at the St Clair Police Station, in the company of Cpl Robert Walker and Bharath's attorney, Jagdeo Singh, where they came to an out-of-court settlement. The agreement, however, was never made public.

In an interview with the Express two days after the incident, Williams said Bharath had run over her foot while driving a black Range Rover as she was walking south along Maraval Road near Rust Street. She said the minister had failed to stop to render assistance to her, and a police officer on a motorcycle intercepted Bharath's vehicle.

A report was lodged at the Woodbrook Police Station, with Bharath refusing to comment on the issue, saying only the police were investigating the matter and "all will be revealed in a very short space of time".

Education Minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh was also placed in the spotlight for several days last year. Despite him not having any charges hanging over his head, he was hounded by the media which were seeking answers as a result of a video posted on social-networking sites showing a man resembling his son, Shane Aleong, assaulting a man outside Brooklyn Bar in Woodbrook with a cutlass.

The video showed a man hitting 56-year-old Gregory Wight with the flat side of a cutlass as he (Wight) was purchasing doubles from a vendor on Carlos Street on September 16.

Following investigations by officers of the Port of Spain Criminal Investigation Department (CID), three charges—assault occasioning actual bodily harm, possession of a weapon and using obscene language —were laid against the 28-year-old information technology consultant.

On October 1, he made his first appearance before Senior Magistrate Annette McKenzie in the Port of Spain Court and pleaded not guilty to the charges. He was granted bail in the sum of $25,000 to be approved by a Clerk of the Peace III, but this prompted his attorneys to ask that the approval be removed because of the late hour the matter was called.

Having the bail secured before the closure of the court would prove to be a difficult task they had said. But McKenzie said there was a procedure that needed to be followed, regardless of who was brought before the court.

"This is the procedure that has to be followed. Why should this defendant be treated differently than anyone else?" she had asked. Aleong spent the night in prison and was released the following day after the bail bond was secured.

That matter is still pending and continues later this month.

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