World Press Freedom Day 2019


…highlighting concerns that authorities and public servants in Trinidad and Tobago do not respect the rights of journalists…
—closing stanza of Reporters without Borders’ 2019 World Press Freedom Day webpage on T&T

This article was submitted on World Press Freedom Day 2019 – Friday 3 May 2019. This year, T&T is 39th out of 180 countries, placing our country well within the upper quartile in terms of standards of press freedom.

Freedom of the Press is an important constitutional right which must be balanced against rights to dignity. A considerable part of my work is in this arena, so I consider myself a member of the press, even if only as a part-timer.

In the last two days we have witnessed a political aspirant lose a defamation case against a businessman, with damages of $775,000 awarded by the High Court. More importantly, we have also seen the unprecedented arrest of a former AG, Anand Ramlogan SC and UNC Senator, attorney Gerald Ramdeen reportedly surrendering to the police. Both men are allegedly implicated in a series of transactions to receive rewards from legal fees paid by the State.

Issues of the established privileges of the legal profession are likely to gain centre-stage as these prosecutions unfold. Are legal fees to be set to a scale, with little scope for flexibility, or can those be simply ‘subject to negotiation’? Do lawyers’ offices possess a special immunity from police search or not? If that immunity can be pierced by a search warrant, how does that affect the presumption of lawyer-client privilege? Does lawyer-client privilege operate in the same way when the State is the client?

To show official stances on these issues across administrations, this week’s article examines the legal opinions relied upon by the State in the Invaders’ Bay episode and the legal fees paid in the CL Financial bailout.

Invaders’ Bay

In 2011, the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development advertised a request for proposals for development of Invaders’ Bay, which is a 70-acre parcel of reclaimed waterfront State land in west POS.

Several civil society groups protested that this process was a breach of the Central Tenders’ Board Act, which required Ministries to seek tenders via the CTB. The then Minister, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, obtained legal advice which he claimed vindicated the Ministry’s procedures. The Minister refused to disclose that legal advice, citing legal professional privilege, which sparked the JCC’s litigation to obtain those opinions via the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA).

The JCC prevailed in the High Court on 14 July 2014 and the Ministry appealed. The Appeal Court gave its majority ruling on 28th October 2016 to order disclosure. The State indicated its intention to appeal to the Privy Council, given the potential impact of that Appeal Court ruling on the State’s ability to rely upon legal professional privilege.

Now I am reliably informed that the State has not filed an appeal and there is no such filing shown on the Privy Council website. The fact that the State has not filed an appeal must mean that the Appeal Court ruling stands, so when are those legal opinions to be published? I also think that the Appeal Court decision sets important limits on the State’s right to claim legal professional privilege as a way of concealing legal opinions in matters of high public interest.

Legal Fees in CL Financial bailout

On 1 July 2016, the PM, Dr Keith Rowley, made an important statement to Parliament giving details of the legal fees paid during the Colman Enquiry –

…Madam Speaker, as at May 2016, the total cost to taxpayers of Trinidad and Tobago of the Commission and the attorneys who were retained to assist in the Commission was $78,488,943.30 as of May 2016. There may be additional outstanding claims as indicated by some of the individuals involved. The fee breakdown as at May 2016 is as follows:
Shankar Bidaisee ………………………. $7,192,000.00
Gerald Ramdeen ………………………… $5,855,468.00
Varun Debideen ………………………… $4,955,000.00
Celeste Jules ……………………………….. $2,155,500.00
Israel B. Khan SC ……………………….. $989,000.00
Wayne Sturge …………………………….. $567,600.00
Lemuel Murphy …………………………. $250,000.00
Sir Anthony Colman QC …………….. $9,130,618.02
Peter Carter QC ………………………….. $23,393,808.54
International Limited ……………….. $2,712,213.48
Edwin Glasgow QC …………………….. $12,147,007.20
Ian Marshall ………………………………. $827,239.73
Marion Smith McGregor QC …….. $8,313,488.40
(pgs 36 & 37)

In April 2018, following my Appeal Court success, I requested the names, amounts paid and dates of payments to various professionals in the CL Financial bailout.

The Ministry refused to disclose those details, first citing a fear of crime, before going on to claim that if those details were published those firms and professionals would be reluctant to work for the State in the future.

I pointed out that the PM disclosed the names and amounts in July 2016, so the Ministry was invited to indicate what possible objection or change in circumstances could be cited in support of their refusal. In addition, given its sheer size, one can scarcely imagine that there are many firms or professionals able to decline work from the State.

The Ministry then attempted to invoke provisions of the FoIA related to disclosure of personal information which would allow affected parties 3 months to seek the protection of the High Court in cases where the decision was taken to publish those details. When I pointed out that the Act only creates those rights if the decision is taken to publish, the Ministry reversed its position by now deciding to publish. Please note, in the midst of all this emerging imbroglio about attorneys’ fees and advice, that the Ministry’s legal team was led by eminent Senior Counsel.

In our most recent court hearing, that eminent SC raised concerns on my continuing to comment on these issues while those were being litigated, using the sub-judice arguments and so on. Of course the Ministry recently sent me those requested details, since none of the affected parties/firms took the option to go to Court.

VIDEO: World Press Freedom Day Mid-Day lecture

My 2018 talk to the Guyana Press Association on World Press Freedom Day covered issues such as the special responsibilities of the Press, the Global Information War, the role of ‘FANG’, BREXIT and the election of US President Trump…all new ground for my public work…

gpa-wpfd-posterAfra Raymond was the guest speaker of the Guyana Press Association at its Mid-Day Lecture on Thursday 3 May 2018, at Moray House in Georgetown, Guyana on World Press Freedom Day. He spoke on the theme, “Keeping Power in Check: Media Justice and the Rule of Law.” Video courtesy Guyana Press Association.

Programme Date: 3 May 2018
Programme length: 00:40:00 and 00:19:53

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VIDEO: Sandals Tobago and You: What you Need to Know – An analysis

tobago-mou-posterAfra Raymond was at the Scarborough Public Library in Tobago on 13 December 2018 to speak on his successful Freedom of Information request to see the Memorandum of Understanding between the T&T government and the Sandals Group to develop and run a Sandal/Beaches resort in Tobago. His analysis of the MoU was discussed and Q&A followed.

Programme Date: 13 December 2018
Programme Length:  01:40:58

CL Financial bailout – the Information War, part two

‘The Upholder is worse than the Thief’

—from the defunct Trinidad & Tobago value system, decades ago…

The previous article outlined the issue of the form of information and examined the claims by the Ministry of Finance that the CL Financial accounts were somehow misplaced. This article will return to the question of form and then examine the issue of the publication of the names of the persons/entities who benefited from the CLF bailout.

Vishnu Dhanpaul_1_0
Vishnu Dhanpaul, PS of Min of Finance. Courtesy Central Bank of T&T

The Ministry’s PS is now taking the position that only hard copy correspondence will be recognised and apart from the absurdity of that position, one needs to examine that claim seriously. That PS actually confirmed his email address to me before I started this series of exchanges, yet he is now taking the position that my emails do not exist. As I showed last week, it is clear that my emailed message on the Ministry’s pattern of delivering letters to my office, even when those were addressed to my home, was received and understood. Yet even that letter of 31st July 2018 did not acknowledge the other contents of my emails.

It is simply incredible that the PS at the Ministry of Finance, in 2018, is prepared to persist with this pattern of communications. This, at a point when we are supposedly reaching for ttconnect, e-commerce, a Single Electronic Window and who knows what else. Well I tell you. Continue reading “CL Financial bailout – the Information War, part two”

Land for Everybody?

My letter to the Editor was published in the Trinidad Express on 3 June  2015 as “Protecting our patrimony.”

The Editor,

The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and I am reliably informed that it is due to be approved at today’s sitting (Wednesday 3 June 2015).

Given the continuing absence of the Opposition PNM from our Parliament and the sporadic coverage in the media, it is important that the main points of these new proposals be exposed –

  • Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
  • The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to to be allocated in this new process.
  • Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected.
  • The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted?
  • Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or even all property. Which means that the real beneficiaries could remain unknown. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.

Just remember that Minister Seemungal was the one who refused to provide details on the terms under which SIS occupied certain State lands at Couva, claiming that those details were private. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements. As I wrote recently in the ‘Our Land’ series, the new rules for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, make it seem that the real name should be ‘Land for Everybody’.

We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.

Afra Raymond
JCC President

Property Tax Facts

Property Tax is back and the controversy has naturally returned since the ‘Axe the Tax‘ movement was a signal moment of unity in the anti-PNM campaigns of 2009/2010.

In my opinion, the anti-Property Tax movement was an important measure of the extent to which our national discourse is now irrational and baseless.  The disenchantment with the Manning administration and the thirst to have them removed seemed to occupy more time than any substantial discussion as to the merits of the proposed Property Tax.

Now, as then, I hold the view that our nation’s Property Tax regime is long-overdue for reform and updating.  I support the proposals to do so and we will have to wait for more detail to analyse these proposals further.

Here are a few of the basic facts on Property Tax.

The size of the Property Tax Take – Proportionally

The Estimates of Revenue disclose that in 1995 property tax was 2% of tax revenue and in 2009 it was expected to be a mere .18%.  Property tax, when last collected, contributed a small fraction of the amount it did 15 years ago.  The official projections for the Property Taxes proposed by the PNM were for that revenue to increase to $325M in 2010 – even at that level, the contribution would have barely exceeded 1% of the national tax revenue.

The Draft Estimates of Revenue (2014) published in the recently-approved budget are unclear and I have requested an official clarification before making any detailed comments on those.  As an example the Total Tax Revenue 2014 is estimated (at p. vii) to be $46.8Bn, with ‘Taxes on Property’ comprising $3.914M, which is a tiny proportion of the total, about 100,000th of 1%.  The accompanying chart, on that very page, shows Property Tax at 1% of the total.  There is more to say, but I am awaiting the requested information, hopefully before next week’s deadline.

The key point here is that property is a vibrant engine of wealth in our country and has been so for many decades, every successful person knows that.  Given that fundamental, it is obvious that property has to be properly taxed if any kind of economic justice is to emerge. The historically paltry percentage of revenues raised via Property Taxes is solid justification for a comprehensive mapping of who owns what and the where.  This is a flourishing sector of the economy, so proper taxes are long-overdue.

The size of the Property Tax Take – Absolutely

Total Property Tax 1993-2009. Click image to see expanded version. category_expand

*The PNM’s 2009 proposal was to abolish both the L&B Taxes and the House Rates, with the replacement Property Tax anticipated to earn $325M in the year 2010 – from Ministry of Finance, Estimates of Revenue 2010 (at pg v )

The figures tell a story, since they depict an unexplained decline in Property Tax revenue from $132.16M in 1994 to $83.44M in 1995 and modest increases to $95.08M in 2001, before restoration to $129.65M in 2002.  L&B Taxes were payable outside of Municipalities, while House Rates were payable within the 5 Municipalities – POS, San Fernando, Arima, Point Fortin and Chaguanas.

According to the official records, the real decline in Property Tax income in that period occurred in non-Municipal areas, with L&B Taxes falling from $109.38M in 1994 to $60.38M in 1995, never rising above $64M, before restoration in 2002 to $94.08M.  In clear contrast, House Rates in the corresponding period rose steadily from $22.78M to $35.97M.

I am an outsider examining these aspects of the Property Tax challenge from the published record and one wonders just who is responsible for this level of sheer recklessness.  After all, 45% of the revenue from L&B Taxes vanished in a mere 12 months and in any properly-managed organisation that would send alarm bells ringing.  Over the seven fiscal years 1995-2001, an annual average of $50M in Land & Building Taxes went unpaid – which makes a total of about $350M in missing revenue, at a minimum. What was the reaction within the Board of Inland Revenue?  What steps did they take to identify and eliminate this leakage?  Was there any tax evasion?  Was anyone charged for that criminal offence?

These are essential questions to be resolved if we are to master the challenge of the proposed Property Tax  system.

The Local Government element

2009 Municipal Corporations funding. Click image to see expanded version. category_expand

Both PNM and Peoples Partnership proposed to send the Property Taxes direct to the Consolidated Fund.  The effect of that would be to reduce Municipalities to having just over 2% of their funding free from Central Government controls.  That critical element must form part of any discussion on Local Government reform.

Next week, I delve into the question of income tax on rental income and the likely levels of tax on your property.

VIDEO: Time to Face the Facts about Caribbean Corruption – 26 May 2013

This is the interview on Caribbean Corruption for ‘Time to Face the Facts‘ which was broadcast out of Barbados-based Caribbean Media Corporation on Sunday 26th May 2013.

The audience was regional via cable and global via their Facebook page. The interviewer is Jerry George and the format was a live call-in. Video courtesy Jerry George

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3: