Trinidad: PM On Witness Stand In Defamation Suit Filed By Moonilal

(CNC 3) – Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley was in the witness stand yesterday in a defamation suit brought against him by Opposition MP Dr Roodal Moonilal.

In the lawsuit, which was filed three years ago, Moonilal claimed Rowley sullied his character in statements alluding to corruption by persons associated with the United National Congress (UNC) at the Eden Gardens Housing Development in Freeport. The alleged comments were made at a People’s National Movement (PNM) media reception on January 8, 2020.

Moonilal is also contending that irresponsible journalism by the Trinidad Express contributed to his public image being tarnished.

Rowley’s legal team, led by Douglas Mendes, SC, argued that the Prime Minister did not specifically identify Moonilal as a “UNC operative” but maintained the Oropouche East MP had questions to answer in his former position as housing minister and head of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC).

In opening statements before Justice Carol Gobin in the Port-of-Spain Civil Court, Larry Lalla, SC, said the ordinary reader would not have dissected Rowley’s statement and examined it in the context of how he might have intended.

While two separate lawsuits have been filed by the Attorney General in relation to Eden Gardens, Moonilal has not been sued in those matters, which are still pending before the court and are sub judice.

Lalla expressed concern that Rowley and his team might attempt to use this matter for “an improper purpose”, which could see Moonilal named as a party to the AG’s matter later on. He also sought to show that the Express Newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, Omatie Lyder, and senior political reporter Anna Ramdass did not do diligent checks to verify that information received from Fixing T&T’s Kirk Waithe about messages between himself and Rowley were legitimate.

Under cross examination by Mendes, Moonilal denied giving any directive or recommendation to the HDC regarding the Eden Gardens project. He said he had asked them to consider the tract of land which had “potential for development” and adjoined lands awarded to former Caroni (1975) workers as part of their VSEP package.

Moonilal admitted that he visited the proposed site with HDC officials during his tenure, but insisted, “I gave absolutely no directive.”

“I suggested the HDC and the Ministry of Housing consider the site,” he added.

Pressed to say what instructions he had given, Moonilal was unable to recall directing former HDC managing director Jearlean John to prepare a note for the board to purchase the parcel of land.

Regarding the proposed cost, which included a $52 million price tag by chartered valuation surveyor Linden Scott and Associates Ltd, as well as a $180 million tag submitted by the Commissioner of Valuations at the Ministry of Finance, Mendes asked Moonilal why he had not queried the staggering difference between the two quotes.

Moonilal said he had done his duty by submitting both figures to the Cabinet and participating in discussions.

When asked why he had not sought to obtain a third quotation, Moonilal said, “I did not consider it wise at that moment to get another valuation.”

He explained that such a directive could have been interpreted as undermining the Finance Ministry’s representative, who was already considered an independent entity.

When Rowley took the stand around 1.15 pm, Lalla waded into a series of questions about WhatsApp messages he exchanged with Waithe about Eden Gardens and the alleged corruption, which was the basis of the alleged defamation against Moonilal.

Rowley maintained that he had generalised the issue of UNC wrongdoing and that Moonilal still had questions to answer.

However, he clarified, “I was not referring to the minister as an operative.”

He explained his interpretation of the word operative, which he defined as a person or entity benefiting from any deals or projects involving public assets or monies.

Rowley confirmed that he had been contacted by Ramdass about a call by UNC MPs for Camille Robinson-Regis to be fired for alleged financial impropriety and said he directed her to contact Waithe for his (Rowley) comments on what he had alleged was the thievery that occurred under the UNC.

He said operatives were, in his opinion, beneficiaries of wrongdoing, and he was not aware of who had benefited but he knew those who had facilitated it.

Witness statements were tendered into evidence from HDC officials Kenesha Lightbourne and Deborah Cheesman, before Lyder was called to the witness stand to defend publication of the article written by Ramdass.

During cross examination by Lalla, Lyder said the allegations of corruption against Moonilal by Rowley were serious and while it may have warranted corroboration by Rowley, Ramdass had acted on his directive to get his responses from Waithe, which she had done.

Lyder rejected Lalla’s claim that the newspaper acted irresponsibly and had only been interested in generating headlines to sell papers.

Confronted with the copy of a related editorial that appeared in the newspaper days later, Lyder said the content was taken from the information gleaned from Ramdass’ story.

The matter resumes today.