Deputy THA chief secretary gets green light to challenge ‘audiogate’ search warrant

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Dr Faith BYisrael – Photo courtesy THA

DEPUTY Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Dr Faith BYisrael has been given the green light to challenge the legality of a search warrant executed by police at her Belle Gardens, Tobago, home in July 2023.

On January 8, Justice Frank Seepersad granted BYisrael leave to pursue her claim. The matter will again come up for hearing on February 6.

In an oral ruling, Seepersad agreed with the submission by BYisrael’s attorney, Christlyn Moore, that there was no prejudice to the Police Commissioner or the justice of the peace who signed off on the warrant nor was there any detriment to good administration if the deputy chief secretary was allowed to pursue her claim.

It was the position of both Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher and JP Jameel Watch that BYisrael not be allowed to advance her lawsuit since it was filed six months after the warrant was executed on her home and not three months as prescribed by the Judicial Review Act and the civil proceeding rules.

Seepersad said in October, within the three months, BYisrael, in a pre-action letter, had asked for the particulars of the oath given by WPC Weaver-Ali to Watch but there was no response from the commissioner. He said BYisrael had good reason to wait for that response and when none was provided, filed her claim on January 5.

“The court noted that on the face of the warrant, there was a bold assertion that this elected official was employed for the sole purpose of establishing a propaganda machine.”

He said that given the nature of that statement juxtaposed with the discussions in the public domain and purported leaked conversations – of which he took judicial notice – the court’s inherent mandate was to ensure that independent institutions were protected against undue influence or interference.

“It is in the public interest, in this court’s view, for this matter to be litigated to ensure there was no political influence or directive being issued to the commissioner or was compliance with that request…

The integrity and independence of institutions must be fiercely guarded. The issues raised are of significance importance that directly relates to the preservation of institutional integrity.”

In her application, BYisrael, the Secretary for Health, Wellness and Social Protection in the THA, suggested the search warrant was unlawfully procured and, therefore, the search of her home was illegal.

The application said the warrant contained an allegation that BYisrael was suspected of committing a conspiracy to defraud the State.

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

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.”

Her application alleged the warrant, including the one executed on her home, was part of an investigation which was “unavoidably coloured in politics.”

She also insisted she did not have the power to hire anyone on contract to work in the assembly.

The application also contended 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.

After the warrants were executed on the homes of the high-ranking THA officials, including the chief secretary and his deputy, Augustine addressed the audio recording and the police searches at a special plenary session on July 19, 2023.

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.

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

In an about-turn, Abdullah supposedly admitted the entire plot was a farce less than one month later, including the claim that he met with Prime Minister Rowley.

On July 20, 2023, Dr Rowley held a media conference confirming a police investigation against members of the assembly, the application said as it gave a detailed account of Augustine’s address to the assembly and the contents of the recordings.

In addition to BYisrael’s claim, there are two others before another judge 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.

The only aspect of BYisrael’s claim she will not be able to pursue is the relief to have the warrant withdrawn as it was now academic since it had been executed on July 17, 2023.

Also representing BYisrael are Joshua Hamlet and Adanna Joseph-Wallace. The commissioner was represented by Anya Ramute-Mohan, a legal officer for the police service. Watch is expected to be represented by attorneys from the Attorney General’s office but he told the court no one had yet been appointed.