ATTORNEY GENERAL Reginald Armour, SC, faces a possible vote of no confidence over the negative outcome of a US court order in the almost two-decade-old Piarco Airport corruption case.
A group of concerned lawyers is trying to get the support of a majority of the members of the Law Association at an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.
Sunday Newsday learned a petition is being drafted, and a vote of no confidence against Armour, the titular head of the legal fraternity, could be used as leverage to oust him from office for alleged ethical breaches of the Legal Profession Act.
The lawyers have chosen this route as Sophia Chote, SC, the current president of the association, and Rajiv Persad, the vice president, once represented some of the accused in the Piarco airport corruption case. It is open to an aggrieved client or a third party to seek the permission of the disciplinary committee of the association to lodge a complaint against Armour.
On May 2, US judge Reemberto Diaz “automatically disqualified” Armour and the US law firm 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 prior involvement as a defence attorney for people charged in related criminal proceedings in TT. Over TT$20 million spent by taxpayers to retain the Florida law firm is not recoverable.
The judge made no finding of misconduct against the law firm and granted the government 30 days to get new lawyers. According to an official transcript of the hearing, the judge took just 40 minutes to make his ruling and did not seek to test the evidence apart from what was deposed in affidavits filed by the defendants and the AG.
The government has since retained the US firm of White and Case, which has represented TT in energy-related matters in the past, and assigned former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi to deal with the matter.
On June 1, the firm filed an appeal against Diaz’s decision on the basis that “it is patently wrong.” Millions more of taxpayers’ money will now have to be spent to pay the new law firm.
The judge also rejected an application by the defendants to strike out the lawsuit.
A new date for the trial of the civil case has been fixed for September.
Over the past week, the Opposition has raised the ante by calling for Armour to resign or for the Prime Minister to fire him over possible ethical breaches of the Legal Profession Act and a claim of perjury. But the AG refused to be baited to respond any further as he awaits the outcome of the appeal in the US.
On June 4, in response to media questions on the court ruling, the AG issued a three-page statement saying he had recused himself from the matter. After criticism by the Opposition and calls for him to step down on June 6, he issued another statement on June 8, opting not to say any more.
In his June 4 statement, he said he had avoided public comment on the matter “so as to avoid any possibility of the defendants in the Miami case purporting to rely on anything said by me to claim putative prejudice and or any other purported prejudice which could be used strategically to continue to delay this longstanding trial being determined on the merits of the issues involving fraud.”
Sunday Newsday also messaged Armour via WhatsApp on three separate occasions last week seeking further comment on the issues raised by the Opposition, as well as the proposed legal petition but there was no response.
There was also no response to WhatsApped questions sent to Dr Rowley seeking comment. He is in Los Angeles, US, where he attended the ninth Summit of the Americas.
Sunday Newsday contacted former attorneys general and several senior counsel seeking comment on the unenviable position the AG has found himself in, after the US court did not accept his testimony that he had been “walled off” from the details surrounding the case when he disclosed he was once a lawyer for the defendants.
Attorney Larry Lalla, a former temporary judge and UNC senator, pulled no punches.
“The Attorney General has maintained silence on the issue, using as his reason for his silence the fact that the disqualification ruling by the judge in the Miami Dade court has been appealed.
“But in my view, silence is not an option, because the issue facing him has nothing to do with the correctness of the ruling of the judge.
“The issue facing him is whether he misled the Miami Dade court under penalty of perjury by what he said in paragraph three of his affidavit…he said, ‘My role as a junior lawyer in the preliminary enquiry was limited to minimal legal research and taking notes.’
“From that affidavit, and from various newspaper reports which are easily available online, for example the 2004 report by Guardian reporter Avalene Harris, where she reported on the preliminary enquiry, and she reported, ‘Cross-examination continued yesterday with Cpl Joanne Archie being grilled by Reginald Armour, SC, representing former finance minister Brian Kuei Tung’ …it appears the attorney general stated an untruth in his affidavit.”
Lalla was asked if it was not possible that an advocate might not recollect something like that.
“If he did that, and he did that under penalty of perjury, there are serious consequences for us in TT. Because it now means that we have an attorney general sitting in the Cabinet of the country over whose head a foreign jurisdiction could be holding a sword of Damocles, which cannot be allowed to happen. We cannot have a compromised attorney general sitting in the Cabinet making decisions affecting the lives of citizens of TT, and at the same time facing the potential of penalty by a foreign jurisdiction.
“Further, you cannot have the titular head of the bar of TT being faced with such an allegation…setting such an example for law students…setting such an example for citizens of the country. Because if the priest could play, who is we? It is absolutely wrong. And silence by the attorney general, silence by the prime minister, silence by the legal profession of TT on this issue is untenable.”
Lalla said he believes the proposal to allow Al-Rawi as the client representative for the Florida case under Section 76 (2) and Section 79 of the Constitution “is in conflict with the Constitution.”
The AG derives responsibility for the administration of all civil legal proceedings from Section 76(2). Section 79 allows the Prime Minister to advise the President to assign another minister responsibility for any business of the government, including the administration of any department of government.
Garvin Nicholas, who served a short stint as attorney general under the UNC, said, “My position is that he should not have to be told that there was such an obvious conflict of interest, his justification of being a junior only compounded the issue and his silence suggests an unwillingness to be transparent and only serves to darken the cloud that now hangs over his involvement in this matter.
“I don’t expect him to resign, given the track record of this government for accepting responsibility for nothing.”
Interim political leader of the National Transformation Alliance and former commissioner of police Gary Griffith, in a WhatsApp response, said, “Public trust and confidence is critical in any arm of government but none more so than the office of the Attorney General. Whilst we will not exacerbate the situation, on reading the ruling clearly there is much for the AG to answer to, and his remaining silent does little to engender public trust and confidence and is at best very troubling indeed.”
In a previous statement, former independent senator and law association president Martin Daly, SC, said the AG can re-assign cases, but mishandled the situation.
“Section 76(2) of the Constitution is expressly subject to section 79. This would permit the AG to have the particular matter re-assigned provided there was compliance and the terms of section 79.
“But, if the newspaper reports are accurate, the matter seems to have been badly handled by Armour having even a preliminary conference with the attorneys in the US, by the ‘note-taker’ assertion and the potential exposure arising out of statements on oath in an affidavit in the US proceedings.
“Another trust and confidence issue has arisen with respect to the office of the AG. If the newspaper reports are accurate, serious and embarrassing mistakes have been made and these mistakes may complicate the validity of the re-assignment of the matter.”