Heat in House over Armour, Piarco case

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Acting prime minister Colm Imbert

THERE were heated exchanges between government and opposition MPs in the House of Representatives on Monday as the latter demanded answers from acting prime minister Colm Imbert about Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC’s disqualification in the almost two-decade-old Piarco Airport corruption case in a Miami court.

On May 2, US judge Reemberto Diaz “automatically disqualified” Armour and the US law firm Sequor Law, hired by the government in 2004, from taking any part in the US multi-million-dollar civil forfeiture case. The ground for this move was Armour’s previous involvement as a defence attorney for some of those charged in related criminal proceedings in TT.

Imbert fielded prime minister’s questions in the House in the absence of Dr Rowley.

He left TT on June 6 to attend the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, California. The summit ended on June 10. Rowley has remained in California.

In a statement on Sunday, the Office of the Prime Minister said, “Dr Rowley is scheduled to undergo routine medical testing in the coming weeks which includes cardiac and prostate analysis.” Rowley underwent the same tests in California in 2019. Imbert will act as prime minister until Rowley returns. No date was given for his return.

Monday was the second sitting of the House for June. Under the House’s standing orders, prime minister’s questions are entertained at its second sitting each month.

Barataria/ San Juan MP Saddam Hosein asked Imbert if Armour was the subject of any investigation by US authorities in relation to his disqualification.

Imbert replied, “I am unaware of any such investigation.”

Hosein asked if Armour had disclosed any alleged conflict of interest he had in the Piarco case to the Cabinet.

Imbert said, “The deliberations of Cabinet are confidential.”

Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal recalled that previous instances where government ministers recused themselves from certain Cabinet deliberations were made public. He asked, “Is the prime minister saying on this matter, the government will remain secret?”

Imbert reiterated, “As I indicated, the deliberations of Cabinet are confidential.”

Hosein asked if Armour had disclosed his alleged conflict of interest to Rowley before he was appointed AG in March.

Imbert said,” I do not have any such knowledge.”

Hosein claimed Armour’s actions have embarrassed TT internationally.

Opposition MPs thumped their desks as Hosein asked, “Is the prime minister in a position to state whether or not the AG will be tendering his resignation?”

Deputy Speaker Esmond Forde told Hosein, “The question does not arise.”

Hosein asked why Rural Development and Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi had replaced Armour as client representative in the Miami case. He also asked about the cost to Government of retaining the US law firm of White and Case. which replaced Sequor Law in the matter.

Imbert said the former was permissible under the Constitution, at sections 76, 78 and 79.

Section 76 (2) makes the AG responsible for the administration of legal affairs in Trinidad and Tobago and legal proceedings for and against the State. In the latter, civil proceedings are taken in the AG’s name, while criminal proceedings are taken in the name of the State.

Section 78 deals with the Prime Minister being unable to perform his duties due to illness or absence from TT and transferring those duties to another Cabinet member.

Section 79 (1) directs the President, on the Prime Minister’s advice, to issue written instructions to assign ” to the Prime Minister or any other Minister responsibility for any business of the government of TT, including the administration of any department of government.”

Imbert said, “There is precedent in the records for this matter, going as far back to the 1981-1986 period.”

On the latter, Imbert said, “Prime Minister’s questions come a few minutes before the (House) sitting. I do not have these details at this time, nor am I aware that this matter has been fully settled yet.”

He suggested Hosein should file this question “in the normal manner as a question on notice, at which time the information can be provided.”

Hosein asked whether the Prime Minister could indicate whether any retainer fee had been paid.

Imbert reiterated, “I repeat my previous answer. This question came a few minutes ago. I am not privy to these details.”

He reiterated his advice to Hosein to pose his question differently.

Moonilal asked, “Is the acting prime minister saying that you did not have enough time to phone the relevant minister or department to get an answer to a simple question?”

Imbert replied, ‘I believe I have answered the question.”

Naparima MP Rodney Charles scoffed, “The Prime Minister stated that he’s not properly briefed, and the question is, why are you here, answering prime minister’s questions?”

Forde disallowed Charles’ question.

National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds was heard describing the Opposition’s questions as “dotish”.

Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh and St Augustine MP Khadijah Ameen complained that Hinds was using unparliamentary language.

As cross-talk between Government and Opposition MPs subsided, Forde told them, “I need no assistance from members on both sides.”

He reminded MPs the sitting was only ten minutes old.

Moonilal promised Forde, “I will try my best to lower the temperature.”

Seconds later, he complained to Forde about being heckled by government MPs.

“You see? I tried my best and this parrot mouth in front of me is making noise.”

Moonilal begged Forde “to please speak to these children in front me.”

Leader of Government Business Camille Robinson-Regis countered, “Mr Deputy Speaker, we will not sit here and be insulted by the Member for Oropouche East.” Government MPs thumped their desks in support of Robinson-Regis.

Forde sought to restore order and directed Hinds to withdraw his earlier remarks.

Hinds asked, “Which one, Mr Deputy Speaker?”

Opposition MPs replied, “All”

Hinds replied, “I retract the statement and…”

Forde cut Hinds off before he could continue, and directed Moonilal to do the same.

Moonilal said, “I retract the statement calling members…”

Forde promptly silenced him: “No. No. No. Just retract (the statement).”

He told MPs he would accept no further outbursts.

“As the presiding officer this evening, I will make the necessary decisions as to how we shall proceed.”