Attorney’s account stays frozen until trial

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

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ATTORNEY Varun Debideen’s account will remain frozen until a claim filed by a Tacarigua-based company seeking to recover $7 million paid to a contractor for a construction project that did not materialise goes to trial.

Earlier this week, Justice Frank Seepersad dismissed Debideen’s application to have the freezing order, issued on November 1, discharged.

In his ruling, the judge said at this stage, there is no clarity as to why $7 million belonging to Advance Hose and Marketing Ltd, of Ridgewood Heights, Tacarigua, was deposited into the account of contractor Cordell Philbert or the way

the money was to be used.

Advanced Hose and Marketing Ltd sought the injunction, claiming it had transferred $7 million to Philbert for a potential construction project in Guyana.

As it seeks to recover its $7 million from Philbert, the company first applied for disclosure of banking information which allegedly showed Philbert transferred $6 million to Debideen’s Scotiabank account and additional sums, of $182,000, $20,000, $122,650, $100,000, $100,000 and $100,000, to an unnamed individual.

The company filed its claim against six people and two banks. Last week, claims against two of them and the banks were discontinued. The amended claim now only names Philbert, Joash Ramjattan, his company Za Limity Engineering Consultancy and Debideen.

Ramjattan is Debideen’s client. The amended claim alleges after the construction project was cancelled, Advance Hose demanded the return of the $7 million advanced to Philbert. The claim alleges Philbert, Ramjattan and Debideen colluded to defraud the company or misappropriated the transferred sum.

Debideen has denied wrongdoing and said he was only following the instructions of his client, Ramjattan.

He said Philbert transferred the money to his account as a loan Philbert made to Ramjattan to pay a multi-million-dollar judgment debt.

In his ruling, Seepersad also questioned the alleged loan agreement between Philbert and Ramjattan for $24 million, allegedly prepared by Debideen.

Seepersad said as a prudent attorney, Debideen should have enquired about the source of funds, mindful of the obligation to report suspicious financial transactions.

He said there was information before the $7 million was deposited into Philbert’s account, his bank balance was $74.17 and the 30-year loan agreement was unsecured and provided no interest.

He also pointed to Philbert’s assertions that the attorney was supposed to hold the money in escrow for safety to ensure the investor’s money was safe for the project in Guyana.

“There are fundamental conflicts with respect to significant and material factual issues which cannot be resolved at this stage.”

Seepersad also said he was concerned that the company was without its funds and that a portion of the money has been transferred to someone with whom the company has no contractual or personal relationship, as well as that some $2.6 million was retained by Debideen and “a significant portion” used.

The judge said from the evidence so far, there was a clear line between Philbert, Ramjattan and Debideen and “this loan agreement at this stage causes the court a significant degree of disquiet as it seemingly defies common sense and on its face is devoid of commercial logic.”

He said at this stage, he was also concerned whether Debideen acted prudently and whether he should have evaluated the arrangement between his client and the contractor.

“The allegations made against the defendants are serious. Fraud is far too prevalent in this society and a careful and vigilant stance has to be adopted by the court.

“Unfortunately, the candour and nobility which was once associated with the practice of law, no longer applies and with regret, the court cannot view a lawyer’s word as being sacrosanct.”

In considering the public’s interest in ensuring that attorneys adhere strictly to the ethics of the profession and comply with all the obligations imposed by the Legal Profession Act, Seepersad also said continuing the freezing order will not cause Debideen “irremediable prejudice.”

The freezing order prevents Debideen from removing, disposing of, or diminishing the value of his assets up to the value of $6 million.

The court’s order only allows Debideen to remove any unencumbered assets outside the $6 million figure and also provides him with a $10,000-a-week spending allowance for ordinary living expenses and legal advice and representation.

Those parts of the order which called on Debideen to give information to Advanced Hose’s attorneys of all his assets in TT exceeding $1 million, whether in his name or jointly owned, giving the value, location and details, have been stayed.

In asking for the discharge of the freezing order against him, Debideen’s attorney Tom Richards, KC, maintained there was no pleaded allegation or evidence against his client.

“The allegation of wrongdoing is unsustainable. He needs a good arguable case to continue the freezing application…There is no allegation that he breached any laws.

“We say that an injunction will not be just and equitable.”

Richards maintained that a freezing order against an attorney was “an extraordinary, nuclear step” which could have a huge impact on his client’s professional reputation.

The case has been adjourned to January 29 for a case-management hearing, as attorneys for all four remaining defendants have been given until January 8 to file their defences.

Advance Hose is represented by attorneys Jagdeo Singh, Leon Kalicharan and Karina Singh. Keera Bazzey represents Philbert; Narendra Latchman and Andrew Ramsubeik represent Ramjattan; and Kent Samlal, Umesh Maharaj and Narissa Bala represent Debideen.