OPPOSITION Leader Dr Keith Rowley was yesterday awarded close to $.5 million in damages for defamation of character after he successfully challenged allegations of corruption made against him by former independent senator Michael Annisette in 2009.
Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh made the order at the High Court at the Hall of Justice in Port of Spain, awarding Rowley $475,000 in damages and an additional $160,000 in legal cost.
The case stemmed from allegations made by Annisette under the protection of parliamentary privilege during a debate in the Senate in October, 2009, where he accused Rowley of corruption with respect to the Landate Project and the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT).
Because of this cloak of protection, legal action could not have been initiated against Annisette but several days later on October 8, during a telephone interview with Newsday reporter Clint Chan Tack, Annisette insisted he had documents to prove the allegations made in the Senate were in fact true.
The following day an article was published in the newspaper outlining what was said in the interview following which Rowley filed the lawsuit.
In his 28-page judgment, Boodoosingh said despite Annisette not repeating the allegations made in the Senate during the interview, there would have been a sufficient temporal and substantive connection made by the public between the words spoken in the Parliament and the comments made by him in the subsequent interview.
In his witness statement, Annisette first said he never gave the interview to Chan Tack or anyone from Newsday but under cross-examination he admitted to speaking to the reporter twice after October 1 when the allegations were made in the Senate. However, he denied the content of the conversation as was suggested in the article.
Rowley contended that by speaking the words he did, Annisette repeated, adopted and confirmed as true the defamatory statements he made previously in the Senate.
He further contended that Annisette implicitly authorised the reporter to publish the words complained of or intended that he do so.
Rowley said that as a result of the allegations he continues to live and work under a cloud of suspicion and constantly has to defend himself when members of the public questions about the “proof” spoken of by Annisette.
He said the statements did not only put a stain on his political life but also his personal and family life as he had to address his children’s concerns and embarrassment about the allegations.
Boodoosingh said he found that the reporter had no reason to tell an untruth in relation to the matters, but in contrast Annisette did, as if he had the conversation he would have been liable.
He said it was his view that the statements would have been exacerbated given the fact that it was made by an independent senator.
“This would have resulted in more weight and credibility being attached to them as compared to statements being made by members of the opposing political parties engaged in a contest for government in a democratic society.
“An independent senator would be considered to be in a different position from another member of parliament who belongs to one of the political parties. It would be more expected in the cut and thrust of debate involving political adversaries that less credibility would sometimes attach to statements being made in political discourse.
“An independent senator appointed by the President however, would be seen in a different light, less partisan and less given to unjustified and intemperate attacks. Statements made by an independent senator would therefore more than likely be given more serious consideration and credence,” said the judge.
Boodoosingh said in this country’s citizens enjoy an admirable degree of freedom of speech, but it has become one of those places where people often tend to be “loose” with facts and opinions about other people.
Senior Counsel Reginald Armour, Vanessa Gopaul and Dawn Gillian Seecharan represented Rowley, while Annisette was represented by attorney Kandace Bharath.