Acquisition of prime ocean front lands for prices fixed below market value landed top officials in the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP), including Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo, in the hands of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) on Tuesday. And although the PPP top officials had initially tried to dodge investigators they were hauled in amid high-drama for questioning.
Jagdeo along with former Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon, former Natural Resources Minister, Robert Persaud and General Manager of the Gold Board Lisaveta Ramotar – who is the daughter of former President Donald Ramotar – were all arrested by SOCU earlier in the day.
Later that afternoon, several other persons including private sector executive Ramesh Dookhoo, Marcia Nadir-Sharma and Ghansham Singh–son of former Labour Minister Dr. Nanda Gopaul – showed up at SOCU’s Camp Street office, as they too were wanted for questioning.
They were all released after the hours of interrogation. The common denominator between these individuals, with the exception of Ramotar and Nadir-Sharma, was that they all acquired prime seaside land at Plantation Sparendaam and Goedverwagting, more commonly known as “Pradoville Two,” below market value under the PPP government. They were reportedly arrested under the offence of conspiracy to defraud the state of revenue.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that Nadir-Sharma, who served in a top position at the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), was made to answer questions related to irregularities at that agency during her stint. Prior to the arrest on Tuesday, Head of SOCU, Assistant Commissioner Sydney James had indicated that several members of the PPP who served as former Ministers were wanted for questioning by the agency.
However, Attorney-at-Law Anil Nandlall, who is representing all former Cabinet members told James that his clients would not be meeting with investigators at SOCU’s Camp Street headquarters. He offered that they would meet at the Office of the Leader of the Opposition on Church Street.
In addition to those arrested and brought in for questioning on Tuesday, the law enforcement agency had written to former Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee, former Minister of
Education Priya Manickchand, former Minister of the Public Service Dr. Jennifer Westford and former Minister of Housing and Water, and Tourism Irfaan Ali, all of whom acquired land at Pradoville two.
Those individuals are expected to make their appearance at SOCU’s office today for questioning. But although some of these individuals being questioned are not members of the PPP, Nandlall, who served as former Attorney General (AG) under the PPP said that he believes these investigations are “politically motivated.”
“…I’ve been saying from the beginning that these investigations are politically inspired; they are politically directed and they are deeply flawed in law,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Asked if he foresees charges in the future, Nandlall said he is unsure, and offered that if they reach the stage of criminal charges, they will be challenged on the ground of their legality, since to him, this is a “manifestation” of politicians directing the operations of law enforcement which is prohibited by law.
Pradoville Two lands were distributed in 2010 and during that time, then President Bharrat Jagdeo, bought 0.4603 of an acre for $2.3M and 1.5 acres for $7.5M. However, as President then, he would be immune from criminal charges for any actions conducted in his official capacity as President–an office he held from 1999 to 2011.
Cognizant of this, Jagdeo activated the immunity clause of the Constitution and refused to answer questions related to actions during his time as President. “They asked me a few questions related to the Pradoville transaction and I made a short statement. They asked me questions in my official capacity and I have immunities on those so I refused to answers those questions,” he said.
Jagdeo also admitted that he was questioned in his private capacity and not his official capacity, but offered to investigators that he prefers not to make a statement at this time. He went on to state that SOCU “can choose to do what they want to do,” and that if charges are brought against the named individuals, they will contest them in court.
“If they [SOCU] believe that any of these acts will intimidate us or make us scared of exposing the wrongdoings of this government they’re wrong about it,” Jagdeo said. The former President also confirmed that he was “arrested,” but argued that the actions of the law enforcement agency constituted “witch-hunting” and was being directed by the government. “…we believe it is a witch-hunt… Clearly SOCU has been receiving instructions from the political directorate. I sympathise for the people who work here because they are under severe political pressure,” he added.
Brought in to the agency under similar circumstances was former Cabinet Secretary, Dr Roger Luncheon, who said that his line of questioning dealt with matters related to Pradoville Two, NICIL, the Guyana Water Incorporated (GWI) and the Guyana Power and Light (GPL).
Dr Luncheon related that, “the atmosphere was fairly friendly and I don’t think there was any cause for either party, myself or themselves, to become extreme where those questions and answers are concerned.” Unsure of SOCU’s next move the former Cabinet Secretary said he is not sure if charges will be laid against him. “All I can speak to are the investigations that involve myself and as far as that is concerned, I don’t see any scope for me to be charged subsequent to the conclusion of this investigation,” an optimistic Luncheon told reporters.
On the other hand, former Private Sector Commission Chairman, Ramesh Doohkoo who also acquired a parcel of land at Pradoville, decided to visit SOCU’s office after realising individuals were being arrested. He was accompanied by his lawyer Sanjeev Datadin. Dookhoo explained to reporters that he was contacted by SOCU on Friday and asked to report to the office for questioning, but his lawyer informed the agency that it was not possible since he (Dookhoo) had pressing matters to attend to.
However, the private sector executive said that on Tuesday, he realised, “all of these things started happening; I heard all these people were arrested and so I stopped what I was doing and I came down.”
When asked if believes he acquired the land below market value, Dookoo said, “well you know, it’s subjective and I don’t think it’s for me to say. I don’t really wanna get into that…I buy a piece of bushy land with one house on the land right.”
A seemingly frustrated Dookhoo then told the media, “Boy I wish I could give up the piece of land; the amount of embarrassment I’ve suffered from [Kaieteur News, Demerara Waves] I wish I can hand back the land and forget this unpleasant experience that I have had.”
Dookoo refused to divulge how much he paid for the land, noting that the price is public knowledge.
Robert Persaud, who was also accompanied by his lawyer Mark Waldron, along with Lisa Ramotar, Ghansham Singh and Marcia Nadir-Sharma opted not to engage the media. Singh would later tell members of the media to “go home and have dinner” when asked if he had any comment to make.
It was the Bharrat Jagdeo administration that made a decision authorising the NICIL to privatise state lands. That agency reportedly spent in excess of $200M to develop Pradoville Two without the knowledge or approval of the National Assembly and other relevant bodies.
Other persons who benefitted from the lands include; Compton Bourne, former Head of the Caribbean Development Bank and UG Chancellor; Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Shalimar Ali-Hack; Presidential Advisor Rear Admiral Gary Best; and Florrie Loretta Ramnauth. Special Prosecutor Trenton Lake, Michael Somersall, Hewley Griffith, Lawrence Harris, Patrice Henry and Compton Richardson were selected by the government to prosecute the Pradoville case.