By Andre Bagoo Saturday, October 20 2012
LAWYERS yesterday continued their fightback against Attorney General Anand Ramlogan after he claimed in the Senate on Wednesday that certain attorneys have collected high levels of legal fees — in one case $17.7 million — from the Central Bank over the last five years.
Senior Counsel Reginald Armour wrote Senate Vice President Lyndira Oudit calling for the Hansard to be corrected, while Ian Benjamin, another lawyer whose name was called, broke his silence, lambasting Ramlogan for giving “wrong and grossly exaggerated” figures to the Senate.
A third attorney, John Mair of Mair and Company, also queried whether Ramlogan violated secrecy provisions of the Central Bank Act and raised constitutional questions over whether Ramlogan crossed the line by obtaining information relating to the Central Bank’s hiring of lawyers. The developments came after a fourth attorney — Elena Araujo — on Thursday also denied Ramlogan’s claims.
In response to the mounting opposition, Ramlogan yesterday would only say, “I have no comment to make.” Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar did not respond to queries over whether any action would be taken against Ramlogan, who faces a motion of censure next week, as well as fresh Opposition questions filed in the Senate on the Section 34 fiasco. Persad-Bissessar made no statement on the matter in Parliament, instead announcing the country’s improved international regulatory rating.
On Wednesday, Ramlogan, in breaking down what he termed the “gold rush” for State work under the PNM and under former Central Bank Governor Ewart Williams, read a list of lawyers who got briefs including: Armour ($17.7 million), Araujo Law ($11.5 million), Benjamin ($9.3 million); Lydia Mendonca and Co ($4.2 million); Pollonais, Blanc, de la Bastide and Jacelon ($3.4 million); Sherry-Ann Bachew-Rudd ($2.5 million) and Mair and Company ($1 million).
Ramlogan did not give details of the briefs involved, nor compare these fees to industry standards or specify whether they may have been related to work in the public interest.
Armour yesterday wrote Oudit, who presided over the Budget debate in the Senate on Wednesday, calling for the Hansard to be corrected.
“I have written to the Vice President of the Senate with the respectful request that the false record be corrected,” Armour said in a press statement issued yesterday.
In the Senate, Ramlogan had said, “When people talking and people jumping up, and people say they standing up on principle, the principle is what you must focus on, I want to tell you today about the money behind principle. Mr Reginald Armour for the period October 2007 –July 2012, a grand total of $17.7 million from the Central Bank!”
Armour yesterday said, “That statement is false in every material particular. I have not been paid fees in the sum of $17.7 million by the Central Bank of Trinidad and Bank of Trinidad and Tobago for the period October 2007 to July 2012 or at all.”
He continued, “The sum of $17.7 million stated by the Attorney General misrepresents by a multiple of more than four, the actual sum paid to me by the Central Bank. Fees paid to me by the Central Bank for legal advice and representation for the period 2008 to July 2012 only. I have done no work for the Central Bank in the year 2007 and accordingly have been paid no fees by the Bank in that year.”
Armour said his fees were in line with practice and he had applied a discount to the matters in which he took instruction – which he did not detail.
“In work done by me for the Central Bank, I have always utilised the 20th December 2007 Practice Guide to the Assessments of Costs, issued by Mr Justice Roger Hamel-Smith, Chief Justice (Acting),” Armour said. “Further on that 2007 cap, at the request of the Central Bank in every case, I have applied a discount.”
Benjamin, of Bethany Chambers, in relation to his alleged take of $9.3 million, said, “The fees for Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago are completely wrong and grossly exaggerated.” He declined to give correct figures.
A document which appears to be a Central Bank analysis of legal costs, which had been released by the Attorney General’s own ministry on Wednesday afternoon, puts Armour’s total at $3.7 million. The document states Armour billed $239,500 for October 2007 to September 2008. Armour, in his letter to the Senate Vice President, states he was not paid any fees for the year 2007. Fees began in 2008.
The same document puts Benjamin’s total at $4.8 million, as opposed to $9.3 million. Mair and Company’s total was placed at $800,000. Ramlogan stated it was $ 1 million. Araujo’s fees totalled $4.1 million, and not $11.5 million.
Mair yesterday declined to comment on whether the level of fees quoted was accurate. But amid questions over the extent of involvement of the Attorney General in the process by which the Ministry of Finance retains lawyers, Mair queried how the Attorney General obtained access to confidential information on legal fees from the Central Bank, information which would fall under the Minister of Finance.
“The question is how did he get a lot of confidential information,” Mair said. He cited Section 56 (1) which stipulates that, “every director, officer and employee of the Bank shall preserve and aid in preserving secrecy with regard to all matters relating to the affairs of the Bank.”
Mair argued that the Attorney General has no role in approving the legal fees of Central Bank attorneys.
While the Central Bank is often meant to function independently of the Executive, it is nonetheless subject to executive directives from the Minister of Finance, who sits in Cabinet. The Minister of Finance — but not the Attorney General — may ask the Central Bank Governor to perform certain actions in line with, “the monetary and fiscal policies of the Government.”
Mair said, “I have never heard of the Attorney General having anything to do with the payment of legal fees in relation to the Central Bank.”
The Constitution stipulates that the Attorney General has overall responsibility for the administration of legal affairs. By practice the Attorney General, as adviser to Cabinet, is understood to have something of a “roving brief” over certain aspects of ministries. Yet, the structure of ministries, with permanent secretaries who act as accounting officers of first instance who approve legal briefs, implies some degree of autonomy from the Ministry of the Attorney General.
In addition to the question of the accuracy of the figures quoted by the Attorney General, there was discussion yesterday over whether million-dollar legal fees — of any quantum — can be justified.
Senior Counsel Gilbert Peterson argued the State must be prepared to bear the cost of pursuing white-collar crime, even if this means expensive legal and investigatory fees. He noted that Ramlogan had on Wednesday also said Canadian forensic investigator Bob Lindquist was paid $82 million in investigatory fees.
Speaking at the Third Caribbean Public Procurement Conference held at the Hyatt Regency, Port-of-Spain, Peterson said, “the fact is if we are serious about stamping out and punishing out perpetrators of white-collar crime, we have to be tolerant of the fact that it will cost a lot of money.” He noted white-collar criminals have the resources to hire vast legal teams and to challenge proceedings endlessly. “We must equally arm the State,” Peterson said.
However, some at the conference noted that while much has been spent on expensive legal proceedings and investigations in relation to recent matters, there has not been a single conviction for white-collar crime in this country to date.