Even though the three men arrested in the Lambirds Academy controversy have been charged with human trafficking—not with fraud—the local media continue to refer it as “the Lambirds Academy Scam” and Lambirdsgate.
“That’s because the authorities have a greater chance of proving fraud,” one lawyer told the STAR this week. “Of course that does not mean the police have what they would need to make the charge stick.” The same source added that the cops will have a particularly difficult time establishing a successful human trafficking charge.
The STAR has been reliably informed that several well-regarded Saint Lucians were involved in the establishment of Lambirds at Gros Islet, and with the recruiting of students via the Internet.
Might a fraud charge extend to these well-placed individuals? Other serious questions have been raised about the due diligence undertaken by the various local agencies that legitimized the school, as well as other businesses and schools given the green light before Lambirds.
The education minister Robert Lewis this week seemed finally to break his resounding silence on Lambirds, which came to light last month. Not that the minister’s comments were volunteered. Lewis spoke only after camera-wielding reporters cornered him on his way to Tuesday’s parliamentary session. According to the education minister and former lecturer at Monroe College, Lambirds was not accredited by his government.
Referring to an earlier “interview” with an unidentified radio station, Lewis chided reporters whom he said seemed unaware of the fact that a Lambirds-related document bearing his signature concerned only work done by his ministry’s technocrats.
“The determination regarding eligibility is made by the technical persons in the ministry,” he said. “That determination is conveyed to the minister only when the officer is satisfied the institution has met all the criteria outlined in the Education Act, sub-section 98. This was the procedure which was applied in the case of Lambirds Academy.”
Lewis confirmed that before permits were granted the Asian operators of Lambirds, background checks were made by his officials of his ministry concerned only with “the educational aspects” of the operation.
Lewis has over the last several months developed a reputation for making statements that amount to buck-passing. On this occasion he seemed to be attempting to shift the focus from his ministry to the registrar of companies, who had also signed a certificate for the Academy. Lewis also pointed an accusatory finger at Invest Saint Lucia. The department had invited the Academy operators to set up business here, he said.
Earlier this month Iftekhar Shams, one of the three Asian nationals charged with human trafficking in the Lambirds fiasco, told reporters: “I came here as an investor. Invest Saint Lucia invited me, got me my visa and assisted me with getting all the licenses.” He also named among his facilitators the prime minister Kenny Anthony, his deputy Philip J. Pierre, Lewis, and the commerce minister Emma Hippolyte.
The STAR learned on Thursday that the government was in the process of helping the affected Lambirds students return to their native India and Nepal. But the students complain they will be going home broke and disappointed, having spent thousands of borrowed dollars in pursuit of promised education and jobs in Saint Lucia. Some of them were expected to give evidence in court next month. According to a legal source, their return home before a court case gets underway could adversely impact the police case.
Several suspicious minds here believe the students are being hurriedly dispatched in an effort to save officials further embarrassment. It is conjectural whether they will be compensated before the students are bundled away.
And, as we were about to go to press we received a call from one of the students threatening suicide if there are attempts to throw them out of the country with little chance of them recovering their money. Said the student; “we are being sent back to our families and country in shame and disgrace and
with nothing to show for our trip to Saint Lucia. This is becoming very unbearable. We think the best thing to do is to end it all.”