By Julie Ramlal
Special To HBN
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Apr 25, 2006 – Attorneys for Trinidad and Tobago’s Opposition Leader, Basdeo Panday, are set to apply for bail today after he was yesterday found guilty of failing to declare a multi-million dollar London bank account to the integrity commission. But a leading T&T political analyst is now questioning whether Panday’s political future could be jeopardized because of the ruling.
The guilty verdict has major implications for the UNC, as both Panday’s seat in the Parliament, as member for Couva South, and his position as opposition leader, are now under question. UWI Professor John La Guerre believes Panday’s position in the United National Congress and as opposition leader may be in peril.
“There will certainly be moves within the party to have some kind of resolution of the vacuum that would thereby be created,” he said yesterday. “There may be increasing calls for his resignation, and it will certainly stimulate some resistance to his dominance in the UNC.”
Section 49 (3) of the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution reads, “Any member of the House of Representatives under sentence of death or imprisonment, is mentally ill, declared bankrupt or convicted of an offence relating to elections, and where it is open to the member to appeal against the decision, either with the leave of a court or other authority or without such leave, he shall forthwith cease to perform his functions as a member of the House so however that, subject to the provisions of this section, he shall not vacate his seat until the expiration of a period of thirty days thereafter.”
While Section 49 (4) says that period can be extended for further periods of thirty days to enable the member to pursue an appeal against the decision by the Speaker of the House. However extensions of time exceeding 150 days shall not be given without the approval, signified by resolution, of the House.
Section 49 (5) adds, “Where on the determination of any appeal, such circumstances continue to exist and no further appeal is open to the member, or where, by reason of the expiration of any period for entering an appeal or notice thereof or the refusal of leave to appeal or, for any other reason, it ceases to be open to the member to appeal, he shall forthwith vacate his seat.”
If Panday wins his appeal within the five-month period, however, he may resume his duties as a member of the House. It’s the first time in the country’s history that a sitting member of parliament has been sentenced to prison.
Chief Magistrate Sherman McNicolls delivered the verdict just after ten o’clock yesterday morning, at the Port of Spain Magistrates Court.
Panday was found guilty on three charges, and sentenced to two years hard labor. He was also ordered to pay TT$20,000 on each count.
The 72-year-old UNC chairman was charged with deliberately failing to disclose a London bank account, held jointly by himself and his wife, Oma, to the Integrity Commission, for three consecutive years, 1997, 1998 and 1999, while he served as prime minister.
There was heavy security at the court, as scores of United National Congress supporters, including two of Panday’s daughters, turned out for the ruling. However, his wife, Oma, was notably absent.
UNC members present in the courtroom were visibly shocked by the verdict, and the party’s Deputy Political Leaders Jack Warner & Wade Mark, CEO Dr. Tim Gopeesingh & Vice Chairman Vasant Bharath, offered no comments to reporters once the ruling was revealed.
But in an immediate reaction, the local Chapter of Transparency International said it was pleased to see that action is being taken to ensure that politicians are brought to account.
Chairman of the Transparency Institute Reginald Dumas said the verdict is a significant one. “I would want to hope that the country, not merely the courts, but the country as a whole, will pursue this line of being strong on the issue of integrity in public life,” he said.
During the trial, Panday repeatedly denied that he had any involvement in the London account, even though he is a signatory on it. He told the court it was CL Financial Executive Chairman Lawrence Duprey who gave his wife Oma 119,183 pounds sterling (TT$1.2 million) in November 1997, representing scholarships for two of his daughters who were studying in England.
Duprey, who was called to the witness stand, admitted giving the money to Mrs. Panday, not as scholarships, but as financial assistance.
Duprey’s home and three businesses attached to the CL Financial group of companies were searched last week Friday by officers attached to the Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau (ACIB).
Searches were carried out at insurance firm Clico’s headquarters and CL Permanent, both located on St Vincent Street, Port of Spain, Document Wizard, a subsidiary located along the Eastern Main Road, in Laventille, and at Duprey’s home at Collens Road, in Maraval.
Two Canadian investigators, Ron Piers and Howard Williams, also assisted local police officers in the searches. Head of the ACIB, Acting Superintendent Joseph Edwards told reporters that the searches were related to Duprey’s testimony in the trial of Panday. Edwards said the police search was geared toward “trying to get information to substantiate” what Duprey said or “negate” what he said.
Police have not yet divulged any details about the progress of that investigation.
Panday has made significant contributions to the political arena during 40 years as a politician. He served as prime minister of the oil rich twin island republic from 1995 to 2001. (Hardbeatnews.com)