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Sookoo denies saying Minister assaulted 300 women

By Anika Gumbs CCN Senior Multimedia Investigative Journalist

Two affidavits have been sent to the police detailing an alleged plot to set up Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj in a sex scandal in an attempt to have him removed as a Cabinet minister.
The plot, according to the affidavits, was orchestrated by president of the Agricultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago (ASTT) Dhano Sookoo, in retaliation following reports made by Maharaj to the Fraud Squad last year of financial impropriety at the organi­sation.
The saga is the latest turn of events as the bitter feud between Maharaj and Sookoo escalates.
Last September, Maharaj referred a number of complaints, relating to financial impropriety at the ASTT that were levelled against Sookoo, to the Fraud Squad.
Last Friday, Maharaj told the Express he was prepared to immediately tender his resignation if any of the claims stated in the affidavits were found to be true.
“If anyone can produce as much as a shred of evidence to support the claims made against me in those affidavits, I will immediately resign as a Cabinet minister,” Maharaj said.
The affidavits, dated December 31, 2013, obtained by the Expre­ss were signed by Unemployment Relief Programme (URP) employees Carla Beckles and Karen Solomon after they sought legal advice on the matter.
Beckles and Solomon listed in the affidavits the sex scandal plot that was discussed with them by Sookoo.
They also listed two instances Sookoo alleged Maharaj used his position to influence the decision-making process for the granting of loans for his wife, Kristal Maharaj, and his adviser, Calvin James.
According to the affidavits, on December 8, 2013, both Beckles and Solomon met with Sookoo at her home in Sangre Grande to discuss the drafting of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the agriculture division of the URP and the ASTT.
However, the affidavits stated that during the meeting Sookoo expressed dissatisfaction over the ministry’s withdrawal of funding to the ASTT.
The affidavits added Sookoo then went on to make the following claims to Beckles and Solomon, indicating the information needed to be leaked to the media:
• Three hundred women were sexually assaulted by Maharaj and were ready to approach the media for redress;
• Maharaj acquired a $10 million loan for his wife, Kristal, from the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) without any collateral;
• A $2.9 million loan was acquired by Maharaj for his adviser Calvin James from the ADB for an aquatic project. Maharaj advised the ADB to treat the loan as a Government loan;
• A judgment was won in favour of the ADB against Apsara Restaurant for $3 million. However, Maharaj advised the ADB to accept a settlement of $300,000;
• A rice harvester was purchased by the Food Production Ministry, but the machine cannot operate in mud and water;
• 100,000 citrus trees were purchased by the Food Production Ministry, but never distributed;
• The sum of $3 million was paid to Maharaj and James for the sale of Caroni lands.
By letter dated January 6, 2014, Maharaj wrote to acting Commissioner of Police (CoP) Stephen Williams, requesting an investigation be launched into the plot to set him up.
Copies of the affidavits signed by Beckles and Solomon were also attached.
The letter, the Express learned, was also copied to Minister of National Security Gary Griffith.
And when contacted last Friday, Maharaj described the allegations in the affidavits as “totally false” and “ridiculous”.
“Where did these 300 women come from? I am not aware of any complaints of sexual assault against me. It is baffling and very ridiculous.
“The allegations are very serious and it is almost as if I am being accused of sexually assaulting one woman per day,” Maharaj said.
On the issue of a loan being granted to his wife, Maharaj said: “Neither my wife nor myself have been granted a loan from the ADB. First of all, to qualify for an ADB loan you must be a farmer. I am not a farmer and I do not have a badge. In addition, if the ADB was to grant a $10 million loan it will curtail operations at the organisation, leading to its closure.”
Maharaj has also denied any involvement in the granting of an ADB loan for James.
“That loan was granted before James started working for me,” Maharaj said.
The minister’s denial was corroborated in a text message sent to the Express by James.
The text message stated: “I applied and received a $2.6 million loan from the ADB in 2012 for a commercial aquaponics facility in Carlsen Field. It was approved and facility is functional.
“It should be noted that contrary to ASTT president’s claim, Minister Maharaj did not influence the loan approval. In fact, I was at the Ministry of the People when the loan was approved.
“As per treating the loan as a Government loan, I don’t know what that means, but my project is visited periodically by the ADB and I have not been delinquent on payments to date.”
With regard to him advising the ADB to settle a matter involving Apsara, Maharaj said:
“A report on the matter showed that $2 million was spent on legal fees to recover outstanding monies totalling approximately $400,000. When I enquired, I was advised that the loan was granted under the last adminis­tration.
“An issue arose and the matter is still ongoing before the court. I was told that a judgment was pending and an out-of-court settlement could not be reached at this time.”
Maharaj also denied any involvement in the sale of Caroni lands and the purchase of a rice harvester that is not equipped to function in mud or water.
“Firstly, Caroni lands are not being sold to anyone. As part of the Voluntary Separation Enhancement Package offered to former Caroni workers, the lands are being leased. Honestly, relating to the rice harvester, I do not know if it is functional or not. I know that bids were secured via the open-tender process,” Maharaj said.
On the issue of citrus trees being purchased by the Food Production Ministry and not being distributed, Maharaj said: “The ministry is not in the process of purchasing citrus trees. The ministry propagates its own citrus plants. We purchase seeds but not citrus trees.
“I find it untenable, offensive and bordering on criminal conduct for someone to go to such an extreme to plot against a Cabinet minister, so I found it necessary to bring the matter to the attention of the top cop. This is a very serious matter.”
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