Letters & Opinion

‘Rovergate Goes to Court’

(A column of the United Workers Party)

This month we have been witnesses to the classic differences in the handling of criminal matters involving members of the United Workers Party and the St. Lucia Labour Party.

Marcus Nicholas did not waste the court’s time in the case of fraud brought against him. He admitted his crime and was jailed for six months. Before sentencing, he told the court: “I take full responsibility. I am sorry that I put the court and country in this position and accept full responsibility”.

The media was quick to make the point that Nicholas was “the second UWP member” to be jailed for a criminal offence in recent months.  The truth is that at the time of his offence, Nicholas had long ceased to be a member of our party. He never sought our assistance and neither did we offer him any in facing the charges against him.  To his credit Nicholas stood up like a man, admitted that he had done wrong and accepted the consequences.

But compare the fate of Nicholas with that of members of the SLP who have also been involved in criminal court activity. In Nicholas’ case did the hierarchy of the UWP attempt to exonerate him because of his prior association by interfering in the judicial process? The leader of the UWP was never present in court during his hearing to see “that justice was done”, to attempt to intimidate the judge/magistrate at any stage of the proceedings, or to seek to influence the outcome of the case in any way. Neither did any UWP member or the party itself declare that they were “standing with” Nicholas in support or solidarity. The case against Nicholas ran its course in the court system.

Now, compare the UWP’s behaviour with that of the SLP and note that Nicholas was not in government at the time of his offence. Earnest Hilaire, on the other hand, was Saint Lucia’s High Commissioner in London. In addition, Hilaire is a former Permanent Secretary and has a doctorate as well.

Remember too, that during the Stephenson King administration, the then leader of the opposition. Kenny Anthony, successfully sought  Judicial Review in the courts of a Cabinet decision to grant duty free concessions to a tourism entity owned by Dr. Keith Mondesir , then  a member of the government.  Mondesir now appears to be associated with the SLP?

But did someone say something about “Two St. Lucia’s?”  It brings into focus the continuing saga of “Rovergate”. Last week, the Leader of the Opposition sought the leave of the High Court to apply for a grant of Judicial Review of the decision by the Customs and Excise Department to withdraw the prosecution of Minister Ernest Hilaire over the importation of a Land Rover Sport vehicle.

The decision to discontinue the case in December 2021, despite a public outcry for answers, has been shrouded in secrecy, with the Comptroller of Customs yet to offer any explanation, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, by letter dated January 4, 2022, posed several questions regarding the withdrawal of the case.

The application by the Leader of the Opposition makes the case that the Comptroller of Customs Mr. Sherman Emmanuel and Customs Inspector Mr. Paul Noel unlawfully caused three charges against Hilaire to be withdrawn. The application  presents a strong, incriminating case of serious violations of the rules of natural justice, violations of due process of law and delinquency in the administration of the Customs Control and Management Act.

The application requests that the decision to withdraw the cases be quashed and that the prosecution be reinstated on the basis that Hilaire has failed to comply with the directive of the Comptroller of Customs to produce documents for the said vehicle. Among the several reasons given for seeking the relief of the courts was that the two individuals did not have the authority under the Customs Acts to withdraw the case; that the Director of Public Prosecution had taken over the Customs case, hence the power to discontinue proceedings was a decision of the DPP.

The application also highlights conflicts of interest in the fact that the Customs Comptroller breached the principles of natural justice by obtaining legal advice, as he must have, from the Attorney General who, before his appointment as Attorney General, had previously served as Hilaire’s lawyer in the same case. A public declaration of recusal by the Attorney General would preserve the concept of the independence of his office. It is further noted in the application that the current Comptroller and the Customs Inspector failed to render the evidence gathered from former Comptroller of Customs Mr. Peter Chiquot which was admissible and provided a realistic prospect of conviction.

The application lists in great detail all the known facts associated with the case, dating back to April 2015 when a Land Rover Discovery Sport was purchased in England and registered in the name of the Saint Lucia High Commission in London, hence a state asset. The Land Rover was then imported into Saint Lucia by Hilaire and was given a Customs pre-delivery, pending submissions of documents to perfect the entry.

Years passed by with the vehicle on pre-delivery, when in 2018, Customs requested a supplier’s commercial invoice which Hilaire through his attorney refused to provide to the Customs Department in order to close the entry. After almost two years of correspondence back and forth between the Customs Department and Hilaire produced no results of the requested documents, the Customs Department in consultation with the Office of the DPP, brought three charges against Hilaire.

Addressing the filing of the High Court application, Leader of the Opposition Allen Chastanet, explained the importance of the resolution of this case.

“We have exhausted all efforts to get answers in the matter,” noted Chastanet. “It would seem that the Customs Department, the Attorney General and the Prime Minister, who was present in court when the case was withdrawn, don’t feel they owe the public of Saint Lucia an explanation. Now, we turn to the Judiciary to allow a review of this matter; to look at all the breaches, inconsistencies, irregularities and even the conflicts of interest that led to this case being withdrawn. The public deserves answers. As I have said before this case has implications for us all, not to mention the reputation of our institutions.

“At this point this application to the High Court is our only recourse to figure out the sordid details of what transpired and the deals that appeared to have been made in this case,” noted Chastanet. “This case should have been decided by the courts in the first place. Justice must be seen to be done.”

Finally, we note an eerie similarity in the Marcus Nicholas and Ernest Hilaire cases. In sentencing Nicholas, the judge noted that he was a political and public figure and added that as such Nicholas should have known better. He then sentenced him to jail. Nicholas’ offence was seen as defrauding a government agency, the Inland Revenue Department. Hilaire is also a political and public figure—as we said earlier, a former High Commissioner– and his actions in Rovergate are being challenged as an attempt to defraud another government agency, the Customs and Excise Department.

If Hilaire is found guilty, would he not be expected to suffer the same fate as Nicholas?  Do we not understand now why Hilaire and the St Lucia Labour Party are so determined that this case should not be decided in the courts?

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