October 23, 2019

Allegations of bribery charges haunt Caribbean politicians

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BASSETERRE, St Kitts – One year ago, a British High Court judgment mentioned St Kitts and Nevis’ Prime Minister Dr Timothy Harris, among two Caribbean politicians who were allegedly involved in a bribery scandal that led to the resignation of an Antigua and Barbuda government minister.

In the judgment, British billionaire and property tycoon, Peter Virdee told his business partner that Prime Minister Harris begged him for campaign funds, a pair of shoes and an expensive watch.

Since attending an event in London for Commonwealth leaders who were guests of Queen Elizabeth the Second, prime minister Harris has avoided travelling through the British capital. The other Caribbean politician named in the court ruling is former Antigua and Barbuda minister Asot Michael, who was taken off a British Airways flight by British police when it arrived from St Kitts and Antigua. Harris was booked on that same flight with Michael but cancelled at the last minute.

In a May 13, 2018, story, the British Daily Mail said Virdee was accused of bribing high-ranking Caribbean politicians. Two London High Court judges, Lord Justice Holroyde and Justice Dingemens dismissed the applications of Virdee and his partner Dieter Trutschler to keep the telephone conversations recorded by German police from being admitted into evidence in another trial.

The judges noted that “without going into particulars and putting the matter at its very lowest, we have no doubt that a judge considering the passages we have quoted would regard them as capable of giving rise to a reasonable inference that the claimants were willing in principle to make and to pay bribes but felt that the Caribbean politicians (Harris and Michael) were asking for too much.”

In a statement released through the government’s information service, Dr Harris robustly defended himself, “emphatically and unequivocally” denying any involvement since becoming prime minister. “The judgment references a period of time beginning in 2014. Prime Minister Harris cannot speak to what may have occurred before his assumption of office of the prime minister February 18, 2015,” it read.

However, Harris’ foreign minister and premier of Nevis, Mark Brantley admitted publicly that his name is in the judgment.

The transcripts, from telephone conversations recorded by German police, quotes Virdee telling Dieter Trutschler as follows: “I am taking him (Harris) and his entourage out for dinner this evening and then we have an after-party, so be ready for a big bill but in the interim he (Harris) said he would like a nice watch. I said ‘OK.’ And then he (Harris) called me this morning (Saturday, March 12, 2016) and he said ‘Have you got my watch?’ I said ‘Oh I have got to pick your watch up..’ I spoke to him last Saturday, last Sunday at the airport hotel when he was in transit to Dubai and he said ‘Look, I am in favour of this, I will send my minister down.’

Virdee continued his telephone conversation by saying: ‘I had a very stiff conversation with him (Harris), to the point I said: ‘Listen, you have got another 3, 3 and a half years. In two years’ time you are going to start your election campaign, you are going to come to me and say ‘Peter Virdee, I need some election funding’ and I am going to say ‘PM (Harris) I can’t help you, if I have not earned anything from this country’ and then you are going to get upset and then we are going to fall out, so it is your call, how do you want to do this.

The billionaire businessman continued: “I am going to have a very frank conversation with him (Harris), I mean as frank as I can get and today’s conversation is going to be ‘Yes we are going to be in St Kitts’ or ‘No, we are not going to be in that region’, simple, because I have not got time to go and entertain and go and meet him at airports and take him out for lunches and take eight of them out for dinner and buy him a watch and buy him this and buy him shoes. I haven’t got time for that. Now, I don’t mind nurturing a relationship; the guy is in power today…”

Harris and Peter Virdee were discussing an energy project, similar to one in Antigua and Barbuda at which energy minister Ian Patches Liburd attended the official opening.

The dates when German police recorded the conversations coincide with a visit that Harris made to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from March 8 to 10, 2016. Harris was in London on his way to and from Dubai.

Also recorded was a conversation concerning a proposed energy project in St Kitts, similar to one in Antigua at which St Kitts and Nevis energy minister Ian Patches Liburd attended the official opening and is seen in a photo with Virdee.

Virdee told Michael that Dieter Trutschler spoke to him and he (Michael) mentioned to him that he had initially asked for 50 percent, then 30 percent and Peter Virdee agreed with Asot Michael around 1.2 million.

The three men disagreed over a proposed payment of $2 million as part of the St Kitts venture to an unnamed person in St Kitts only referred to as “our friend” by Virdee.

Asot Michael is recorded in the transcript as saying: “That is too much, come on give me a break. Peter. 2/3 million, come on.”

Peter Virdee said “he has already asked for 2 million.

Asot Michael asked: Who? to which Virdee replied “Our friend.”

Asot Michael said: “You have no right to be entertaining discussions with him about that. We agreed.”

Peter Virdee: “I have not entertained a discussion with him. I am just telling you what he has indicated.”

Asot Michael said: “I mean he can indicate whatever the (expletive) he wants to indicate.”

Peter Virdee said: “Understood but.”

Asot Michael asked: “He gets a million, they are lucky.”

After further discussion on the proposed St Kitts project, Asot Michael said: “I am not working for nothing and you guys walk away with everything like in Antigua. I’m sorry.”

The opposition St Kitts-Nevis Labour Party called for the resignation of prime minister Harris and mounted a massive demonstration which condemned his behaviour in public office and called for his resignation.

Douglas Wattley, former chairman of Harris’ Peoples Labour Party (PLP), said he was not surprised to learn that Harris had become embroiled in the Peter Virdee-Antigua-St Kitts Bribery Scandal.

“I am only disappointed. I am disappointed, in part, because he thinks he could get away with this behaviour. Those of us who dealt with him in the PLP know this side of the prime minister. He is a man devoid of integrity. He has a defective moral compass,” said Wattley.

Amidst rumours that two Cabinet colleagues were hatching plans to remove him as prime minister, he hastily called a town hall meeting in his constituency.

“Whoever carried their suit to dry clean, to get freshen up and nice up for the swearing-in of a prime minister, tell them there is no vacancy. There is no vacancy in the office of the prime minister. And I don’t care how much rumours they spread; I don’t care when they said where they said some people went to keep secret meeting for whatever they do in the dark has to come out in the light. Whatever is done in the dark has to come out in the light. And what will come out in the light is that none of them, none of them who are scheming can hold a candle of correction to me,” said Harris.

For more on this story go to: https://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/2019/05/15/allegations-of-bribery-charges-haunt-caribbean-politicians/

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