Government picks Ramesh to lead Paria CoE legal team

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj

THE Cabinet has chosen former attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj SC as lead counsel for the commission of enquiry (CoE) into the tragic deaths of four divers at a pipeline at Pointe-a-Pierre belonging to Paria Fuel Trading Company Ltd, said Energy Minister Stuart Young at Thursday’s post-Cabinet briefing at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s.

Young said, “Cabinet has decided to appoint Mr Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj to be lead counsel to the commission and he is to be assisted by attorneys-at-law Mr Ronnie Bissessar and Miss Vijaya Maharaj.”

Ramesh Maharaj told Newsday on Thursday that he would serve impartially to help to shed light on the tragedy.

The commission will consist of former head of Jamaica’s Appeal Court Justice Cecil Dennis Morrison QC (chairman) and local sub sea specialist Gregory Wilson, while Cabinet searches for a third member in the form of an investigator with international experience in oil and gas industry investigations.

Young said the quorum will be two members, so as not to retard the work of the commission which he wants to report within six months.

Five men were doing repairs on the pipeline when they were sucked in, with only one surviving, the tragedy sparking grief nationwide. Sub contractor LMCS had urged more rescue attempts but Paria said a multi-agency team of experts on the scene had warned against putting more lives at risk.

Previously, at last Thursday’s briefing, Young said that under his ministry’s authority a five-person committee would investigate and report within 45 days. The committee consisted of attorney Shiv Sharma (chairman), engineer Eugene Tiah and sub sea specialist Gregory Wilson, plus two nominees due from BP and Shell.

However, the Opposition questioned Tiah’s impartiality based on a past attorney-client relationship with Young and asked BP and Shell to withdraw from the participating in the committee owing to their energy relationships with government.

Cecil Dennis Morrison

Dr Rowley replaced the committee with a CoE, speaking at a Conversations with the Prime Minister event at Bon Air on Tuesday night.

On Thursday, Young hit the Opposition’s attacks on Tiah as the Energy Chamber’s nominee to the first committee and on chamber members including energy giants BP and Shell.

He said, alongside the CoE, statutory bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Authority and the police would continue their own investigations. A coroner’s investigation was also possible, he said. “All investigations are taking place.”

Young said his ministry and the Office of the Attorney General would draft the CoE’s terms of reference (TORs.) He said the commission would sit in public, and would be provided with staff. He set down guidelines for the CoE which looked identical to those laid down for the now-defunct Sharma committee.

These were basically to establish the scope of works of the repairs, the circumstances of the divers’ loss of life and what actions were taken afterwards.

He welcomed Paria’s assurance of co-operation and asked all other parties to do likewise.

Young said the PM’s decision to have a CoE was based on an “interference with the national psyche” and wild allegations thrown around, after the tragedy.

He could not estimate a cost but noted how the scope/workload of past CoE’s had escalated, as attorneys began examining many issues.

Asked if Cabinet had relented too quickly to shift from a ministerial investigation to a CoE, Young said the PM had acted decisively, even as an opinion poll had shown 79 per cent support for a CoE. He said the search for a third commissioner would go “as far as possible.”

Asked if evidence had been secured at the site of the tragedy such as by photography, he could not give specifics but said he strongly suspected this was so and recalled being provided with some photos.

Newsday asked Maharaj how he felt to be named as lead counsel.

“Well I think it is an important issue. It is a matter of public interest. I don’t want to say anything much at this stage but I look forward to the undertaking. I have a good team and I think it is important for the public to know exactly what has happened in this matter and I’m glad to be part of the process for the public to know and that there would be openness, transparency and accountability.”

Newsday asked if it was unusual for a PNM Government to have chosen a former AG in a past UNC government as CoE lead counsel, and if this was a good or bad thing.

Maharaj said, “This is a national interest. It is a matter that affects the State of Trinidad and Tobago and it transcends politics.

“In the discharge of my duties as a lawyer, I do not see which side of the coin, whether it is a political party… I will discharge my responsibilities on the basis of the national interest.”

Newsday asked if he had been involved in any CoE before.

“I was involved in two commissions of inquiry. One in respect of the Prime Minister of Grenada when there was a CoE appointed in respect of the PM in Grenada. There were allegations made against him. There was another one (CoE) with respect to the PM of St Vincent in which there were allegations made against the PM of St Vincent.

Gregory Wilson

“I was retained by the Prime Minister to act on his behalf, in Grenada and in St Vincent.

“When I was AG, I was responsible for having a CoE appointed in the administration of justice.”