704188
Vincent Nelson, QC

Derek Achong

The State’s cooperating witness in a legal fee kickback case against former attorney general Anand Ramlogan, SC and former opposition senator Gerald Ramdeen has been fined $2.25 million for his role in the alleged conspiracy.

Jamaica-born British Queen’s Counsel Vincent Nelson was slapped with the fines as he reappeared before High Court Judge Malcolm Holdip at the Hall of Justice in Port-of-Spain yesterday afternoon.

Although Nelson’s plea agreement with the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) was accepted by Holdip on June 6 last year, he (Nelson) only learned of his sentences after in-chamber discussions between the DPP’s Office and his attorneys concluded yesterday.

While Holdip noted that he considered the recommendation for a non-custodial sentence in the plea agreement, he decided on the fines based on what he felt was appropriate in the circumstances of the case.

Holdip fined Nelson $250,000 for allegedly conspiring to breach Section 3 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which criminalises corruption through bribery. The maximum penalty for this offence is a $500,000 fine and 10 years in prison.

Nelson was also fined $2 million for allegedly conspiring to breach Section 45 of the Proceeds of Crime Act, which criminalises the concealment of the proceeds of crime. The maximum penalty for this offence is 25 years in prison and a $25 million fine.

In the event Nelson fails to pay the smaller fine within two months, starting from the end of April, he will face three years in prison with hard labour. Nelson was also granted permission to clear the larger fine in 10 monthly instalments, with the default for non-payment being set at five years in prison.

Holdip also placed Nelson on a $250,000 bond to keep the peace for three years.

Holdip initially considered a $6,000,000 fine for the second charge but reduced it by a third because of Nelson’s guilty plea and another third based on the level of cooperation Nelson provided to the T&T Police Service (TTPS) during its investigation.

As part of his sentence, Holdip said Nelson, who has been in protective custody during his visits to Trinidad and Tobago for the investigation and sentencing, was free to return to the United Kingdom while he is arranging to pay the fines.

Holdip was careful to note that Nelson’s plea agreement, the first to be done under the Criminal Procedure (Plea Discussion and Plea Agreement) Act since it was passed by Parliament in 2017, should not be viewed as overly lenient.

“Potential fraudsters must not feel emboldened, by this decision, to perpetrate fraud. They would be labouring under a grotesque misconception,” Holdip said.

“What has to be encouraged is full and frank cooperation by offenders, whatever their motive,” Holdip added.

Shortly before Holdip passed the sentence, DPP Roger Gaspard, SC, requested that he again defer the process and to order Nelson to provide details over his current financial position. Gaspard suggested that the fines should be pegged against the little over $40 million in legal briefs he received from the Office of the Attorney General and several State-companies between 2010 and 2015.

“It should not be cheaper to offend than comply with the law,” Gaspard said.

Gaspard’s suggestion was strongly opposed by Nelson’s lawyer, Tom Allen, QC, who pointed out that his client was only accused of providing “kick-backs” in four of the nine major cases he (Nelson) was retained for.

The four cases involved Petrotrin, the Evolving Technologies and Enterprise Development Company (eTecK), Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) and University of T&T (UTT) and Nelson was paid approximately $30 million.

“One needs to bear in mind that this was for work done that was proper and useful,” Allen said.

Addressing Gaspard’s complaint about his client’s failure to provide financial records, Allen claimed that Nelson’s main asset was a property in the United Kingdom, which he will have to sell to pay the fines.

Allen said his client also could no longer practice since agreeing to cooperate in the case and claimed that most of his liquid assets were depleted in treating his cancer, which was diagnosed in 2016 and has since gone into remission. Allen also noted that Nelson had stopped his wrongdoing before the TTPS began its investigation and had volunteered to assist police at a preliminary stage despite fears over his safety.

The charges against Nelson, Ramlogan and Ramdeen arose out of an investigation into almost $1 billion in legal fees paid to private legal practitioners who represented the State and State companies in legal proceedings during Ramlogan’s tenure between 2010 and 2015.

The lawsuits included several over alleged corruption which occurred under the previous Patrick Manning People’s Mational Movement regime.

The trio are accused of conspiring together to receive, conceal and transfer criminal property, namely the rewards given to Ramlogan by Nelson for being appointed to represent the State in several cases; of conspiring together to corruptly give Ramlogan a percentage of the funds and of conspiring with Ramdeen to make Ramlogan misbehave in public office by receiving the funds.

As part of his plea agreement, the conspiracy to commit misbehaviour in public office charge was dropped in exchange for his guilty pleas for the two other charges and his eventual testimony in the case against Ramlogan and Ramdeen.

Ramdeen and Ramlogan are expected to reappear in court on April 28 for the continuation of their case before Chief Magistrate Maria Busby-Earle-Caddle.