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St Lucia minister welcomes airport project corruption probe

From Caribbean News Now contributor

CASTRIES, St Lucia — Guy Joseph, Saint Lucia’s minister for economic development, housing, urban renewal, transport and civil aviation, said on Monday that he is not worried about an investigation into his reported involvement with alleged corruption associated with the Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) Redevelopment Project in 2008/9.

“I’m not worried. If there’s an investigation, I welcome the investigation,” Joseph said at a press briefing.

In a letter dated December 16, 2015, to Andrew Finkelman, a trial attorney with the US Department of Justice Criminal Division, Office of International Affairs, in Washington DC, and filed as part of legal proceedings in US federal court in the Southern District of Florida, the then attorney general of Saint Lucia described Joseph as one of two “key persons of interest” in an investigation into corruption in relation to the proposed US$157 million airport redevelopment project.

The other person of interest to the Saint Lucian authorities was Antonio Assenza, a Florida businessman and the majority owner of a local company Asphalt & Mining (St Lucia) Company Limited (A&MSL), which was one of three bidders for the airport contract.

As part of the investigation in this regard, authorities in Saint Lucia are seeking US assistance in obtaining subscriber information, billing invoices, and call details for a specified AT&T phone number in relation to numerous calls made by local officials to the shareholders of A&MSL, Assenza and Andre Edgar, a Saint Lucia businessman.

Specifically, ministers Joseph, Allen Chastanet [now prime minister] and Sean Matthew, then CEO of the Saint Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA), telephoned the shareholders of A&MSL, on no fewer than 130 occasions between November 1, 2008, and February 12, 2009, the date of the issue of the request for proposals in relation to the airport project by SLASPA.

The same three persons telephoned the same two shareholders between February 13, 2009, and April 5, 2009, the day prior to the receipt of the bidders’ proposals, on 79 occasions.

“No calls were found to be made to either of the other two bidders, Ashtrom and IMTC who responded to the HIA request for proposals on April 6, 2009,” the attorney general pointed out.

When asked by journalists about the high volume of calls he allegedly made to Assenza while A&MSL was bidding for a contract under his ministry, Joseph denied there was anything unusual or suspicious about the calls.

“Asphalt and Mining and the airport project was one project. Asphalt and Mining was doing several road projects within the ministry of communications and works of which I was the minister. So to make phone calls, all my phone calls records are there. I have said it before and you can see all the people that I call. I didn’t know it was illegal to call people,” Joseph said.

However, his response does nothing to explain why it was necessary for the then tourism minister, Allen Chastanet, or the CEO of SLASPA to make so many calls about other road projects.

Department of Justice assistance was also sought in relation to a number of emails between the parties mentioned, using email accounts based in the US, and also including another individual Wayne Auguste, a Saint Lucian consultant retained by A&MSL and its two shareholders Assenza and Edgar, whose involvement began at least in December 2008, prior to the issue of the HIA request for proposals (RFP) on February 12, 2009.

However, government and SLASPA press releases omitted to mention the involvement of Assenza via Auguste in the process prior to the issue of the RFP. In addition none of the information said to have been given to Auguste was shared with either of the other two bidders, Ashtrom and IMTC; nor was there any finding that either sought such information.

The government and SLASPA press releases also omitted to mention that, on March 31, 2009, Assenza emailed the A&MSL draft bid to Matthew, stating: “Need your thoughts asap.”

On April 6, 2009, A&MSL submitted its HIA bid proposal to Matthew and Joseph and a comparison of both documents shows similar information.

At no time was there a similar request by or an offer to either Ashtrom or IMTC, the other bidders.

When questioned by investigators about Assenza seeking his review of the proposed bid, Matthews stated: “It was not uncommon for Assenza to try this. A lot of these would not get a response. I gave out no information.”

The government and SLASPA press releases omitted to mention that, after the July/August 2009 evaluation of the bids by SLASPA, IMTC won, with A&MSL finishing in third place:

IMTC Consortium 80.2 points
Ashtrom 75.2 points
A&MSL Consortium 73.8 points
The SLASPA board accordingly recommended IMTC as its first choice, with A&MSL in third place.

On August 21, 2009, Matthew made a presentation to Cabinet of these findings. Later, on August 25, 2009, Matthew wrote to conclude: “It is therefore recommended that IMTC be the preferred contractor for reflective of SLAPSA’s and GOSL’s [government of Saint Lucia] best interests.”

In May 2013, Matthew and Ben Emmanuel, another SLASPA official, were asked by investigators what Joseph’s reaction was to the third place finish of A&MSL in late 2009.

“The results were not what he expected. In terms of general demeanour, he does not want to approve anything that did not include A&MSL. There was always the indication that unless A&MSL is a part of it, he would not approve it. There was always pressure on me (Matthew) and Isaac Anthony (SLASPA chairman),” Matthew said.

“There was pressure on SLASPA to get it done in a certain way. Key is government; to say there was not the pressure is incorrect. It was clear to me from the minister (Joseph) that if it does not go his way, he won’t approve,” he added.

Emmanuel described Joseph’s attitude as not consistent with reality, noting: “His attempt to suggest he is not in touch reflects his negligence as a minister so for me it is nonsense”.

According to the attorney general, the findings reflect on the Joseph/Assenza relationship and the constant pressure apparently imposed by Joseph on Matthew and others to promote the personal and corporate interests of Assenza for the HIA project.

During an October 15, 2013, conference phone call with Matthew and Emmanuel, they were asked by investigators: “Did Joseph ever state that he was having telephone conversations with Assenza and/or Edgar on the subject of HIA?”

Matthews responded: “He never indicated that to anyone of us. I mean it was not something Joseph hid at all his acquaintance with Assenza. He was really open with his knowledge and acquaintance with Assenza and Edgar. He would not have to say anything to us. He had interactions with all those individuals and on other things anyways. We would have been a more difficult group to deal with, because we would have always gone through a process. He is our boss so always a level of respect but our process would always dictate that management has to go through a process to the board with any interface we had, and Ben and I would say the same thing to everybody.”

However, according to the attorney general, the only known person employed by SLASPA who made alleged improper direct contact with Assenza was Matthew and throughout all the board meetings and written communications, he never disclosed this to the board.

On September 2, 2013, investigators requested Matthew’s cell phone invoices for the period from November 2008 to June 2010, given that SLASPA had paid these invoices on behalf of Matthew.

On October 29-30, 2013, a local investigator attended at SLASPA to inspect Matthew’s phone invoices and for the first time it was identified that Matthew had called Assenza in the months of January and February 2009 prior to the issuance of the HIA RFP on eight occasions and between the issue of the RFP and the receipt of the A&MSL response, a further 11 occasions.

Despite all the communications between the investigators and Matthew over the ten plus months, Matthew never volunteered that he had made phone calls to Assenza.

The investigator, upon learning of these findings, was never able to question Matthews. In the first week of November 2013, Matthews after 26 years at SLASPA resigned, and the letter made it effective November 30, 2013.

IMAGE: Guy Joseph

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