A Canary in Lambirds cage!

For several weeks the MP for Gros Islet, also minister of commerce and trade, had ignored press invitations to comment on the Lambirds Academy scandal. Little did we suspect she was saving herself for ears better tuned to her frequency.

Gros Islet MP and commerce minister Emma Hippolyte on her way to the April 29 parliamentary session—doubtless with Lambirds on her mind!

Gros Islet MP and commerce minister Emma Hippolyte on her way to the April 29 parliamentary session—doubtless with Lambirds on her mind!

Alas, regular reviewers of her shtick on the steps of the Castries market were less than flattering: the consensus was that the MP came across as judge, jury and executioner—which could account for the repeat performance on 29 April, at a different venue that also guaranteed no embarrassing interrogations.

The minister’s references to Lambirds Academy were delivered in the form of a written Statement to Parliament, not open to debate. Not that there ever was a chance of one ensuing: lately the House opposition has been in lockjaw mode!

For several minutes the MP droned on about the functions of her ministry, Invest St. Lucia and the Trade License Board, as if indeed she were a schoolmarm addressing kindergartners. She came at last to the issue at hand. “Having set the legislative authority, structure and conditions for the issuance of a trade license,” she said, “I will now outline seriatim the facts surrounding the issuance and renewal of a trade license to Lambirds Academy to conduct trade in Saint Lucia.”

But first she wanted her audience to know why she thought it necessary to stage a repeat performance of her market-steps act: this time around her intention was “to bring clarity, not to prejudice or compromise the on-going police investigations and court cases.”

At this point a certain gentleman from Denver, Colorado came to mind: two or three years ago the mere mention of his name during a budget debate had been enough for the House Speaker to order the opposition MP Richard Frederick to make no further reference to the American oil millionaire, on the ground that he was then, as now, involved with the government of Saint Lucia in a matter before the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes!

The commerce and trade minister recalled that on 4 May, 2014 Invest St. Lucia had held an investment forum attended by one “Dr. Shams of Lambirds Academy, in response to an open invitation posted on the Internet to any potential investor interested in doing business in Saint Lucia.”

To the best of her knowledge, the MP said, “this was the first interface between Dr. Shams of Lambirds Academy and Invest St. Lucia.”

Additionally: “On 2 June, 2014 an application for a trade license was lodged at the Ministry of Commerce on behalf of Lambirds Academy Inc.” On the same date, the minister had received “a copy of that same application with a cover letter from Invest St. Lucia recommending that I approve the trade license . . . The investor was apparently in urgent need to transact business and the trade license was needed in order for this to occur.”

The following day she instructed the chairman of the Trade License Board to call an “urgent meeting” to review the special application. The “urgent meeting was necessary to enable the investor to proceed with facilitating the other requirements for setting up a business in Saint Lucia, such as a bank account and the commencement of processing for approval by the Ministry of Education.” That meeting, the MP informed the House, “was not convened.” So, on 6 June the minister “reviewed the trade license application, with its relevant supporting information,” and with no input from the Trade License Board, approved it.

Since the Statement to Parliament was never debated, I now take the opportunity to ask a related couple of questions: Why did the commerce minister, referencing Invest St. Lucia’s 4 May investor forum, connect Dr. Shams with Lambirds Academy when at the indicated time there was no such establishment in Saint Lucia?

Who lodged and received the trade license application “on behalf of Lambirds Academy Inc?” Who signed the “cover letter from Invest St. Lucia?” What was so unusual about the particular application? Don’t other applicants for trade licenses also have to meet certain requirements “such as setting up a bank account?”

What was the “supporting information” that accompanied the application approved by the commerce and trade minister on 6 June?

By the minister’s account, before instructing the secretary of the Trade License Advisory Board to issue a license in the name of Lambirds Academy Inc, she had held “further discussions” with the chairman of the board “and a decision was taken to have the application undergo a further review,” this time by the board. The commerce minister did not say why this last review was necessary—or why she had chosen to approve the application without the board’s involvement.

On 10 June, 2014, “at a duly convened meeting of the Trade License Board, the application was considered. The board requested further information on the area of consultancy services, as well as verification of accreditation by the Ministry of Education.” Also, “all the relevant supporting information regarding the due diligence on the company.”

Two days later Invest St. Lucia submitted correspondence addressed to the Permanent Secretary, Titus Preville, “indicating that the PS of the Ministry of Education supported—in principle—the establishment of Lambirds Academy Inc and that Invest St. Lucia was working with the Ministry of Education to ensure Lambirds Academy Inc meets the requirements outlined in the Education Act of 1999.”

On 12 June the chairman of the Trade License Advisory Board recommended that his minister approve the Lambirds license, and she did.

On 16 June Lambirds Academy was granted a license to trade “only in education and training.” What else did the application include that was approved personally by the minister—without the input of her board? Who conducted the investigation of Dr. Shams that had proved satisfactory to the commerce and trade minister, her permanent secretary, the education minister and his permanent secretary, not to say Invest St. Lucia? How extensive was it? What did it reveal? Was evidence supplied the commerce and trade minister that the education ministry supported the establishment here of Lambirds—even “in principle?”

On 19 December, 2014 Lambirds Academy Inc successfully applied for a renewal of its trade license. It was granted on 23 January, 2015.

According to the commerce and trade minister, an application from Lambirds for incentives dated 8 October, 2014 was being processed “when we heard of the arrest of Dr. Shams and others.”

By the MP’s account, on 9 March, 2015 the Cabinet of Ministers appointed a sub-committee to review “the matter.” The sub-committee comprised the ministers of education, national security, and commerce—the same officials who had approved the Lambirds applications, having determined them “urgent.”

Three days after its formation the sub-committee met with ACP Frances Henry and constable Mason and were supplied “the reasons why the four individuals were arrested and charged.”

What was so special about this case that warranted the intervention of Cabinet? Since the police had acted on the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions, why were they being investigated by a Cabinet-appointed sub-committee comprising potential witnesses?

On 23 March, 2015, in the absence of the commerce and trade minister, the police called on her ministry with a search warrant. By all accounts they were not well received. The officers returned the next day, again while the minister was elsewhere. Recalling the event for the benefit of parliament, she said the cops “requested the Lambirds Academy file.”

She went on: “I was informed that the police threatened to break down the door of my office to retrieve the said file,” at which point the minister’s secretary handed it over. The police had also copied e-mails from her computer.

The commerce and trade minister was not amused. At least twice she called the acting police commissioner “and objected to the ministry being treated as a hostile witness.”

Obviously, the minister had no idea what she was talking about but evidently the acting police chief did not bring her up to speed. A hostile witness is one who is antagonistic to the party calling him or her, is unwilling to tell the truth, and may have to be cross-examined by the party. In any event the court alone determines when a witness should be treated as hostile.

It is worth noting, however, that the commerce and trade minister saw herself as a potential witness in the Lambirds court case—albeit one with unique powers that permitted her to demand explanations from a police commissioner with regard to how his officers performed their duties. Evidently the acting commissioner was not forthcoming. “To date,” the MP reported to parliament, “no one has spoken to me.”

“On 30 March, 2015,” she added, “the Cabinet of Ministers took a decision to conduct an independent enquiry on the matter in due course.” She welcomed this decision, she said while keeping to herself what she meant by “in due course.” Also the individuals chosen to conduct the unscheduled inquiry.

Her statement ended this way: “Mr. Speaker, to the best of my knowledge these are the facts concerning Lambirds Academy as I know it [sic]. I acted within the authority of the law at all times. I acted on the advice of the technical staff/public officials.

“Equally, officials from Invest St. Lucia and the various ministries could only make recommendations based on the information at hand, none of which, at the time, gave any valid and compelling legal reason for denying Lambirds Academy the licenses it required in Saint Lucia.”

Presumably nothing that fell out of the commerce and trade minister’s mouth at the recalled sitting of parliament will prejudice the case against Dr. Shams and his cohorts, whom the police have charged with money-laundering, human trafficking and fraud and who recently were granted bail. Nevertheless, I cannot help wondering whether the urgency of the Lambirds applications was as important to Shams as to the officials who set speed records granting them.

Meanwhile, the seasoned and meticulous permanent secretary at the commerce and trade ministry has been banished to the Labour Department in favor of Ms Allison Plummer, earlier attached to the prime minister’s office until her transfer to Philip J. Pierre’s ministry.

The government is yet to announce the fate of some 60 students from India, the Philippines and Nepal who were lured to “St. Lucia, North America” by Lambirds Academy advertisements and agencies in their part of the world. (It has not been established whether the promos started before the government granted Shams his license to trade here.)

The alleged victims of human trafficking have been offered return tickets and threatened with deportation should they insist on staying here until the resolution of the Lambirds court case, perchance to recoup tuition and other fees totaling over US$480,000 that reportedly they had deposited in various Lambirds bank accounts.

If in due course the Lambirds matter should come before a judge, and if indeed “officials from Invest St. Lucia and the various ministries” are called as witnesses, they will doubtless put to good use the final lines in the commerce minister’s 29 April Statement to Parliament.

Further complicating matters for the commerce minister and her Cabinet colleagues is the recent Nepal catastrophe that killed close to eight thousand people and rendered millions homeless. Saint Lucia’s prime minister has appealed to Saint Lucians to show compassion toward the stranded students currently housed at the Pastoral Center and at private homes in Castries.

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