October 26, 2017
Photo: Guy Joseph (L) and Antonio Assenza
FORT LAUDERDALE, USA (Caribbean News Now) – As reported on Wednesday, the government of Saint Lucia has requested assistance from the United States in relation to a criminal investigation into suspected bribery regarding a major airport redevelopment project.
The targets of the investigation were initially said to be Antonio Assenza, a US businessman based in Florida, and Guy Joseph, Saint Lucia’s current minister for economic development, housing, urban renewal, transport and civil aviation.
However, from court documents filed in US federal court in Fort Lauderdale, which although noted as being under seal are in fact readily accessible online, the targets of the investigation also include Andre Edgar, a businessman in Saint Lucia, and Sean Matthews, former head of the Saint Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA).
The details are contained in an application to the court for the appointment of a commissioner to collect evidence from witnesses and to take such other action as necessary to comply with an amended request for assistance in a criminal matter from the government of Saint Lucia submitted on December 15, 2015, following an initial request on November 12, 2014.
According to Saint Lucian authorities, in 2009 SLASPA requested proposals for the development of a new airport, which was an estimated $157 million project. After evaluating the submitted proposals, SLASPA was to present its recommendation to the Saint Lucian Cabinet, which would make the final determination.
With input from Matthews, as then head of SLASPA, and others, Assenza and his local company Asphalt & Mining (St Lucia) Company Limited (A&M) submitted a proposal for the project. Prior to and during the request for proposal process, Assenza, Edgar, Joseph, and Matthews were in regular communication with one another via telephone.
The volume of calls increased at key points in the bidding period, including before and after Assenza’s pitch meeting with SLASPA. In August 2009, the Port Authority recommended that another competitor be awarded the bid, with Assenza’s bid ranked last out of the three proposals received.
In September 2009, Matthews met with the Saint Lucian Cabinet to present the development plans. A high volume of calls between Assenza, Edgar, Joseph, and Matthews occurred around Matthew’s presentation to the Cabinet. A few days after the meeting, Joseph provided the Port Authority with additional details about A&M’s proposal.
In October 2009, Matthews and SLASPA recommended further negotiation with A&M.
SLASPA then wrote to all three bidders notifying them that their bids were unsuccessful and, under instructions from the Cabinet, issued a new request for proposals. A&M submitted a new proposal.
In January 2010, the Port Authority recommended A&M as the winning bidder. In February 2010, the Cabinet approved the award to A&M.
As part of its winning bid, A&M agreed to provide US$23,550,000 interest-free counterpart financing for the project. Saint Lucia planned to obtain the rest of the financing for the project from Deutsche Bank. In July 2012, Deutsche Bank notified SLASPA that they could not move forward with their portion of the financing, in part because Assenza failed the bark’s due diligence requirements. The project did not proceed at that time due to lack of funding.
The Saint Lucian authorities believe that the facts are indicative of a criminal agreement between Assenza and public officials in the government of Saint Lucia regarding the project.
As part of the investigation, authorities in Saint Lucia are seeking subscriber information, billing invoices, and call details for a specified AT&T phone number.
The application was made ex parte, consistent with the practice of the United States in its domestic criminal matters. The relevant treaty under which Saint Lucia is seeking assistance from the United States itself contemplates the need for confidentiality with respect to all aspects of the execution of a request.
Specifically, the treaty provides that the requested state (in this case the US) shall use its best efforts to keep the request and its contents confidential if such confidentiality is requested by the requesting state (Saint Lucia). In this matter, Saint Lucia has asked the US government to keep the request confidential.
Because subpoenas utilized in US criminal proceedings (i.e. grand jury and criminal trial subpoenas) are issued without notice to any person other than the recipient (i.e. no notice to targets or defendants), orders and commissioner subpoenas issued in execution of a treaty request and the applicable treaty likewise should require no notice other than to the recipients. Accordingly, the court authorized the commissioner to collect the evidence requested without notice to any person other than the recipients of subpoenas.
Similarly, because Saint Lucia seeks assistance during a criminal investigation and has specifically asked the US government to keep the request confidential, the court authorized the commissioner to order AT&T not to notify any person of the commissioner’s subpoena and its contents, and issued an order sealing the government’s application and the court’s order for two years from the date of the order.
In this case, it was argued, such orders would be appropriate because the request relates to an ongoing criminal investigation in Saint Lucia. Disclosure of the investigation could provide the subject of the investigation with an opportunity to destroy records or other physical evidence in his or her possession and could seriously jeopardize the investigation. It could also give the subject an opportunity to flee, change patterns of behaviour, or notify confederates.
As noted, notwithstanding the requested and ordered confidentiality, the relevant court documents are readily accessible to the public through the federal on-line court system.
In the light of the date of the initial request for assistance by the Saint Lucia attorney general on November 12, 2014, and the amended request on December 15, 2015, it now seems clear that the investigation was launched locally during the previous administration of then-prime minister, Dr Kenny Anthony.
In fact, during a public address at a political rally in late 2015, Anthony asserted that, shortly before general elections were due to be held in 2011, Joseph approached then- prime minister Stephenson King and offered him a bribe of $5 million if King would sign, as prime minister, the contract with A&M for the redevelopment of Hewanorra International Airport.
King reportedly refused to sign the proposed contract or accept the proffered bribe, and Joseph has denied that the incident took place at all.
However, the allegations against Joseph have been extensively aired on local television by one of his former ministerial colleagues, Richard Frederick.