Miami ruling hurts state’s case against Piarco accused

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

The Piarco Airport terminal building, the project at the centre of corruption allegations against former politicians and businessman. – ROGER JACOB

The Florida civil asset forfeiture case arising out of Piarco airport corruption investigation has been managed by eight attorneys general under both the PNM and UNC administrations over the last 18 years and is regarded as one of the single largest investments by taxpayers to get justice for TT.

The developments on May 2, in a Miami court weakens the state’s position if left unchecked and will cost taxpayers millions more as the government has hired one of the leading US law firms to take over the case after the previous law firm and Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, were disqualified. Armour had represented former minister Brian Kuei Tung as a defence attorney in the parallel criminal proceedings in TT and was now involved in directing the US law firm representing the state against Kuei Tung. The judge found Armour’s limited interaction with the law firm was sufficient to disqualify them both.

The government has since appealed the ruling and retained one of the top US law firms to take over the matter. White & Case is described as an elite international law firm based in New York. It has 46 offices in 31 countries worldwide and is regarded as one of the top ten law firms worldwide in terms of revenue.

The Florida case

The government is hinging its bets on overturning the May 2 ruling on appeal, which has not yet been listed for hearing. The Florida case, filed in 2004 under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (Rico), claims the defendants conspired through bid-rigging, bribes to public officials, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering to obtain contracts to build a new terminal building at the Piarco Airport at hyper-inflated prices.

Under the US$40 million (TT$280 million) lawsuit, the government, if successful, can claim up to three times that amount in damages from the defendants in compensation, including seizing properties in Florida owned by the defendants, as well as compensatory damages and legal costs.

The case has been dragging on in the US court for over 18 years, and was on the verge of being fixed for trial before Armour was appointed.

Government sources said the US civil case represents a laser-like pursuit against alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Piarco accused which commenced in 2004. Default judgment has already been entered against Kuei Tung and the civil trial against Ferguson and others seeking US$40 million in fines can be trebled under the Rico statue.

Government sources said the matter was at risk of being thrown out as one of the oldest cases before the Miami circuit court and accused the former UNC administration of doing little to push it along during 2010-2015.

Between 2015-2022, the matter was pursued and the trial was set for May 2. Kuei Tung filed the motion to disqualify the AG, the law firm and strike out the claim on April 13.

On the related criminal charges pending in the local courts, one set of charges laid in 2002 and completed in the magistrates court, which mirror the allegations in the US civil lawsuit, has been challenged in the Privy Council, which is yet to make a ruling. Another wave of criminal charges, left unfinished after a magistrate retired, is also under challenge by the defendants against a move by the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions to join the two sets of proceedings.

Armour, a successful senior counsel and former attorney for Dr Rowley, was appointed attorney general on March 16, replacing Al-Rawi, who was shifted to the Rural Development and Local Government Ministry, in a surprise Cabinet shake-up.

AG’s response

In his initial response to the accusations, on June 4, Armour said he had disclosed his potential conflict of interest to the team of US attorneys at the first opportunity, as he had once represented defendants in the Piarco case on March 30.

Steve Ferguson, former Maritime executive. –

In an affidavit filed before the US court, Armour claimed he was a “junior attorney” with a minimal role limited to “legal research and to taking notes.”

His sworn affidavit appears to be in conflict with the public record, court transcripts and newspaper articles reporting on the yet-to-be-determined criminal complaints against former government ministers, businessmen and contracting firms.

The public record shows Armour, then a senior counsel,
was one of the leading attorneys in the case between 2003-2008 and had also represented some of the defendants in a related commission of enquiry into the $1.6 billion airport project in 2002.

He was made senior counsel in 2003.

He served as president of the Law Association from 2015-2017.

The Florida court’s ruling

On March 30, two weeks after his appointment, Armour said in his affidavit that the director of civil litigation at the AG’s office, Tenille Ramkissoon, and himself were briefed by two lawyers from a Miami-based law firm, Sequor Law, on the status of the Florida case against Kuei Tung, former insurance executive Steve Ferguson, and other defendants.

He said he held subsequent video conferencing meetings with Sequor Law on April 10 and 14 “concerning case management issues.” Those discussions included Armour signing off on a US$4 million settlement agreement with Florida accused Ronald Birk, who has agreed to testify against his co-accused in the criminal matter in TT and settle the outstanding invoices to the law firm as the matter was fixed for trial. A record of legal fees disclosed in Parliament showed between October 2015-June 18, 2001, TT$13.6 million was paid to Sequor Law. There is no public record of fees paid between 2004-September 2015, after the firm, then named Astigarraga Davis, was retained by former PNM attorney general John Jeremie.

Brian Kuei Tung, former finance minister in UNC and PNM administrations. –

In a press statement on June 4, Armour said he left for a pre-planned family vacation in Europe on April 12 and Al-Rawi was appointed to act as attorney general. The day before he left, a notice was filed in the Florida case listing Armour as the person in charge of the civil litigation. Armour returned to work on May 1, a day before the judge gave his written ruling.

On April 13, Kuei Tung filed a motion to strike out the entire lawsuit and disqualify both Armour and Sequor Law, on the basis that he had discussed “sensitive attorney-client privileged information” with Armour.

Ferguson and businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh filed affidavits in support of Kuei Tung’s motion detailing Armour’s involvement in the case. In September 2012, both Ferguson and Galbaransingh have successfully challenged extradition orders to the US where they are still wanted on parallel criminal charges. Several of their co-accused in the US pleaded guilty and have already served their time as well as paid compensation to TT.

The allegations of corruption in the Piarco case led to a fallout in the Basdeo Panday administration after then attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj hired forensic investigator Bob Lindquist to investigate the claims. The PNM general election campaign in 2000 focussed heavily on the Piarco case and eventually led to a change in government in 2002.

In the court’s ruling, the judge held Armour represented Kuei Tung between January 2003 and January 2008. He said even though Armour disclosed to Sequor Law that he once represented Kuei Tung in parallel criminal proceedings at their first conference call on March 30, the law firm “continued to discuss the case management issues and logistics” with Armour, “including the dropping of certain claims” filed by the government, and executed a settlement agreement with another defendant (Birk).

“The Florida Rules of Professional Responsibility expressly prohibit an attorney from serving as counsel on behalf of a client who is directly adverse to a former client in the same or substantially similar proceedings…The rules also prohibit a law firm from representing a client who is directly adverse to the interest of a former client of another lawyer with that firm.

“The Court finds that Sequor Law is automatically disqualified under these rules from acting as (TT) counsel due to Mr Armour’s prior legal representation of defendant Kuei Tung for five years in the parallel proceedings which are substantially similar to the civil action brought by (TT) before this court. Sequor Law was working with and for Mr Armour, who was prohibited from representing (TT) in a matter directly adverse to his former client,” the ruling said.

Court transcripts from the April 27 hearing said Al-Rawi was present.

At a press conference on Thursday, Opposition MP Saddam Hosein agreed that it would be imprudent for Armour to say much more other than he resigns if the Law Association is being asked to investigate his conduct.

Piarco Airport cases at a glance

The accused

Brian Kuei Tung – finance minister Brian Kuei Tung, in both the UNC and PNM administrations;

Sadiq Baksh – former works minister (UNC administration)

Tyrone Gopee and Ameer Edoo – former chairmen of the Airports Authority

Peter Cateau – former client representative in the Ministry of Works at the airport project

Amrith Maharaj financial director of Northern Construction Ltd

Steve Ferguson – former Maritime insurance executive

Ishwar Galbaransingh – chairman of Northern Construction Ltd

Fidelity Finance and Leasing Company, Northern Construction Ltd, Maritime General Insurance Ltd

Piarco II

The accused are charged in the Piarco II case along with president of Calmaquip Engineering Corporation Raul Gutierrez Jr, of Florida; the principals of Birk Hillman – consultants in the airport project – Eduardo Hillman-Waller, Ronald Birk, also of Florida.

In 2007, Gutierrez, Hillman-Waller and Birk pleaded guilty to similar charges in Florida and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to six years. They also agreed to pay US$4 million each in compensation to TT.

They are accused of conspiring between January 1, 1995 and December 31, 2001, to obtain contracts and payments totalling $1.6 billion during the construction of the new airport.

Piarco I

In a related case, referred to as the Piarco 1 enquiry, the accused have been committed to stand trial before a judge and jury but they have challenged the committal proceedings before the Privy Council which is yet to make a ruling.

Those charged are Kuei Tung; former PNM national security minister and attorney Russell Huggins; former Nipdec chairman Edward Bayley; Maritime executives John Smith, Ferguson and Barbara Gomes; Galbaransingh and Maharaj; and businesswoman Renee Pierre, then Kuei Tung’s companion. They are accused of conspiring to convert more than $19 million under false pretences from the Airports Authority.

The offences are alleged to have occurred in the US, TT, The Bahamas and elsewhere between September 1, 1996 and December 31, 2005.

Smith was murdered in July 2011 and Bayley died after a prolonged illness in 2006.