"Emailgate" dividing Trinidad & Tobago

Peter Richards

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, Friday May 24, 2013 – As had been expected, the opposition motion of no confidence against the coalition People’s Partnership government of Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, this week was doomed to failure.

But Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley has been successful in getting the Trinidad and Tobago population to debate whether or not Prime Minister Persad Bissessar and senior members of her government, including Attorney General Anand Ramlogan, were involved in a sinister move to undermine the judiciary, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and the media.

Rowley, who has since been taken before the Privileges Committee of Parliament over his disclosure, told legislators that he had received in December last year, a total of 31 emails, from a “whistle blower” indicating how operatives within the government had sought to undermine those institutions.  He said he had passed them on to the Office of the President.

Prominent attorney Israel Khan has labelled the e-mails an “international scandal” and said if they were true then the major players “should be arrested, charged and prosecuted”.

But at the same time, he also acknowledged that if the emails “ are false then those responsible for perpetrating these nefarious lies should be arrested, charged and prosecuted”.

“I have had discussion with a computer expert who advised me that any 10-year-old with the information which was already in the public domain could have hatched those e-mails. It is my considered opinion that the Government should advise the President to set up a commission of enquiry into the entire scandalous state of affairs concerning these e-mails which attracted the attention of Parliament and the world at large,” Khan said. 

Rowley said the emails, dating back to September 2012, were from people concerned with the government’s defence of the early proclamation of Section 34 of the Administration of Justice (Indictable Proceedings) Act that had the effect of allowing people, whose trial has not started after a 10-year period to walk free and a verdict of not guilty entered against their names.

Critics say that the clause was aimed at supporting businessmen Ish Galbaransingh and Steve Ferguson, who have been described as financiers of the ruling United National Congress (UNC), the biggest partner in the four-member coalition People’s Partnership government.

The two are facing fraud and laundering charges relating to the re-development of the Piarco International Airport in 2001. They are also wanted in the United States on a number of related charges.

The government later repealed the section and Prime Minister Persad Bissessar dismissed her then justice minister, Hebert Volney, a former High Court judge, on the grounds that he misled Cabinet into believing that the Chief Justice Ivor Archie and the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Roger Gaspard, had supported the idea of the early proclamation.

Rowley told legislators that the contents of the email collaborated strongly with events that unfolded in the country last year as the government sought to defend its decision over the controversial legislation and read into the Hansard, the exchange of correspondences between people with email addresses like “anan@gmail.com, kamlapb@gmail.com, surujrambachan@hotmail.com and garygriffith@hotmail.com purporting to come from senior government ministers and officials.

Prime Minister Persad Bissessar said while the email address was hers, she was not the author, and that she had passed them to the police for investigation.

“These e-mails, I want to say, are a total fabrication,” she said, adding she had written to Acting Police Commission Stephen Williams regarding the “very serious allegations and ascertain the authenticity of those e-mails and to take such action as is required according to the law.” 

For his part, Ramlogan, as well as other government legislators sought to bore holes into the emails, with the Attorney general, who had previously threatened Rowley with making the statements out of the immunity of the Parliament, indicating that he was now prepared to publicly debate the Opposition Leader on the matter.

Ramlogan described the emails as “entirely misconceived, totally devoid of merit, completely unjustified, and an abuse of Parliament,” adding “in this era of technology, it is easy to forge e-mail accounts, or to create accounts that are either very similar or appears to be an authentic existing email”.

But Rowley and the opposition are insisting that the matter be investigated by the Integrity Commission, and is also holding out for an independent investigator from outside of the country.

Volney has called on Ramlogan to step down while the investigation proceeds, but the Attorney General has brushed aside these calls telling the population “the Commissioner of Police also by virtue of an amendment to the Police Service Act has the power to contract specialist officers as of when necessary and deem them police officers so they can be co-opted into the Police Service if their expertise is required.

“So if for example the police investigator were to recommend the services of an IT specialist from a particular firm or a particular country, that is something within the remit of the Commissioner of Police,” said Ramlogan.

Former attorney general, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, who has called on the senior government ministers implicated in the controversy to hand over their cellular phones and computers used in September 2012, said it was not enough for the Prime Minister to pass the information to the police for investigation.

“This, with due respect to the honourable Prime Minister, is treating this matter not with the seriousness with which it deserves. It is trivialising this serious matter. It is giving a cosmetic and superficial response to a matter which strikes the root of democracy,” he said, urging also that all the politicians should “in good faith, swear under oath” that the e-mails were not created by them.

The Roundtable Group, comprising opposition political parties, trade unions and non-government and civil society organisation, has issued an eight point demand so as to ensure transparency in and during the investigations.

It wants the Trinidad and Tobago government to “invoke the provisions of the various existing mutual legal assistance treaties with one or more jurisdictions – US, Canada UK – in order to obtain the competent person or persons with experience in cyber investigations” and that a Special Counsel be appointed so that the investigation could begin “immediately”.

Integrity Commission chairman, Ken Gordon, told a local newspaper that “as of now, I am not saying year or nay” with regards to whether or not the Commission would proceed with an investigation, said “it is something which requires being looked at carefully. And it has to be looked at in the context of the fact that it is breaking new ground.

“Is it ground that you can chart successfully, and when I say successfully, I mean in terms of the legality of the Commission’s decision to investigate or not?  “One would have to get a view of the law which could stand the test of all the rigours to which it would be put,” he added.

Gordon confirmed that former President George Maxwell Richards had sent him a letter regarding the emails in March, a few days before the expiry of the term of office of four members..

“If I had taken the matter up with the old commissioners…here are people who are going out of office in seven days. There was absolutely no prospect of getting a decision made in the remaining seven days. “And all that you would be doing would be involving people in something which you knew they couldn’t address and putting confidentiality at greater risk. It made absolutely no sense,” he added.

The Chamber of Industry and Commerce says while it welcomed the disclosure that a police investigation has started, the announcement in the Parliament “carry serious implications for all persons and, indeed, the entire national image.

“The Chamber believes that nothing less than an urgent, efficient and thorough investigation is required. We believe this investigation must be given top priority, and conducted with the requisite accountability and transparency that is expected. The Chamber also expects that should there be any need for an independent expert with the requisite technical expertise to assist, this would also be done expeditiously.”

Both the government and the opposition have taken the matter to the streets.

On Thursday night, Rowley, addressing supporters of the People’s National Movement (PNM), said he was satisfied that he had done his job and if the Privileges Committee of the Parliament acts to send him to jail “”I would prefer to be in jail with criminals than in Parliament with criminals”.

The coalition government, which is observing its third anniversary in office on Friday, will no doubt tell supporters as its public rally on Friday night, as it has done in the past, that Rowley had fabricated the emails in a bid to force the collapse of the government. (CMC) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)