Deputy Chief Secretary challenges ‘Audiogate’ search

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Deputy Chief Secretary Dr Faith BYisrael. – Photo by David Reid

DEPUTY Chief Secretary Dr Faith BYisrael is challenging the search warrant served on her at her Belle Gardens, Tobago, home in July 2023.

A judicial review application challenging the validity of the warrants obtained under the Interception of Communication Act was filed on January 5.

On Monday, Justice Frank Seepersad will hear BYisrael’s application for leave. The Secretary for Health, Wellness and Social Protection in the Tobago House of Assembly is represented by attorneys Christlyn Moore, Joshua Hamlet and Adanna Joseph-Wallace.

The search on BYisrael’s home followed several searches of high-ranking THA officials in a probe into a controversial voice recording involving Chief Secretary Farley Augustine and another person.

Augustine’s home was also searched.

In the leaked clip, a man and woman, alleged to be senior THA members, were heard discussing using THA funds to pay workers “lucrative” salaries to spread political propaganda to “shape the narrative.”

According to BYisrael’s application, on July 17, 2023, a warrant was served on her at her home at 5.35 am. The application said the warrant contained an allegation that BYisrael was suspected of committing a conspiracy to defraud the State.

The application further said the conspiracy disclosed by the warrant – referred to as the Windward warrant – allegedly disclosed that BYisrael was hired by the assembly from November 2021 to the present and was “paid state funds for the sole purpose of carrying on an alleged propaganda machinery.”

BYisrael’s lawsuit named the Police Commissioner and Justice of the Peace Jameel Watch, who signed the warrant, as defendants.

The deputy chief secretary is seeking the court’s permission to pursue her claim for declarations relating to the actions of the police officer who obtained the warrant to search her home.

She wants the warrant quashed and an order for the commissioner to disclose the oath of WPC Weaver-Ali, who obtained it from the JP.

The application said the Windward warrant was one of multiple warrants issued against members of the THA and people connected to the assembly as part of an investigation which was “unavoidably coloured in politics.”

The application referred to the THA Act and said the assembly had the power to hire people on contract but had no control or influence over the hiring of civil servants. However, it said, BYisrael lacked the power to select anyone working for the assembly and was “unlikely to be involved in the selection process.”

“The publicly available circular memorandum dated April 6, 2023, sets out the terms and conditions for the support staff. The memorandum says that the support staff have no contract with the State. Their employment ends concurrently with the term of their assigned assemblyman. Their selection is approved by the assembly itself rather than a particular assemblymen.”

The power to appoint civil servants is vested in the chief administrator, a senior public official.

The application said when the police executed the warrant, they banged heavily on her front door before searching her bedroom, suitcases, drawers and cabinets in her home.

The warrants were also raised at a special plenary session on July 19, 2023, when Augustine addressed the audio recording and the police searches and displayed some of the warrants and a production order for sought employment, accounting and internal documents from the chief administrator.

The production orders also sought information connected to the national executive of the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), who may have been employed at the THA. Augustine and BYisrael were members of the PDP before they resigned in December 2022.

Augustine also addressed a separate audio-visual recording of so-called whistleblower Akil Abdullah confessing to being coerced to accuse the central government of orchestrating a plot to undermine the current administration in Tobago.

BYisrael’s application gave a detailed account of Augustine’s address to the assembly and the contents of the recordings.

In the recordings, Abdullah initially claimed to be offered $270,000 in a meeting with government officials to “destroy” Augustine and other THA officials.

In an about-turn, Abdullah would supposedly admit the entire plot was a farce less than one month later.

BYisrael’s application also referenced the media conference held by the Prime Minister on July 20, 2023, at which he said there was a police investigation against members of the assembly.

“The July 19, 2023, plenary session of the THA and the July 20, 2023, press conference are relevant because the first respondent/ intended defendant pursued their investigation around that time. They indicate the quality of evidence – in light of a refusal to share the Weaver-Ali oath – that was available to the first respondent/intended defendant.

“Additionally, it shows the evidence which was available to the second respondent/intended defendant when he exercised his judicial discretion to grant the Winward warrant.”

The application also referred to legal authorities involving search warrants and said the Winward warrant failed to uphold the legal principles set out in law.

It also said the alleged offence mentioned in the warrant was unsustainable in law since there was no statute or common law definition of the term “propaganda” to create a criminal offence.

BYisrael’s lawyers also argued that the warrant and its scope were irrational and disproportionate and issued on defective information.

On October 5, 2023, BYisrael complained to the commissioner about the warrant and asked that she terminate it or disclose evidence used on oath to obtain it but there was no response.

The application also said there were ongoing criminal and civil claims connected to the warrants and police investigations.

In August 2023, Education Secretary Zorisha Hackett and THA employee Kevon Mckenna were charged by the police’s White Collar Crime Unit for allegedly defying an order of the court by failing to disclose pertinent information regarding the controversial tape.

The Integrity Commission also launched its own probe after an anonymous complaint was lodged with the Commission on June 3 under Section 32 of the Integrity in Public Life Act.