Huntley libel case dismissed!

STAR publisher Rick Wayne (l) former ambassador Earl Huntley (r)

It was in November 2004 that Prime Minister Kenny Anthony released the findings of a one-man investigation into what the press referred to as “the Helenites Affair” and the day’s government as “the circumstances surrounding the attempted transfer of title to the property situated at 438 East 49th Street, Brooklyn, New York and the facilitation of a mortgage of US$150,000 on the said property.”
The man chosen by the prime minister to conduct the probe was a retired judge named Albert Matthew who had famously determined in favor of Sir Fred Phillips when a concerned citizen challenged his ability to conduct without prejudice an inquiry into the alleged sourcing and misuse of UNDP funds by Dr. Charles Flemming, at the time Saint Lucia’s permanent representative to the United Nations.
The 2004 Kenny Anthony government had also charged Matthew with determining whether the behavior of the parties in the Helenites matter constituted criminal misconduct, acts of corruption or other acts of impropriety, misfeasance or illegality, and to make appropriate recommendations. By all Matthew learned from interviewing foreign affairs personnel, the government had decided for various reasons to purchase the building situated at the above-mentioned New York address, declare it in trust and place it in the hands of trustees in New York who would manage the property.
The accountant at the Saint Lucia mission in New York told Matthew the government’s intention was “to ensure the Saint Lucian community would continue to have a place to meet and maintain connections.” Moreover, that upon registration of title in the name of the government, tax exemption status would be acquired from the U.S. authorities and a trust established to handle the operation of the building, “thereby relieving the government of the day-to-day financial obligations for the building’s maintenance.”
As too often happens with even the best-laid plans, the government’s intentions in relation to the so-called Helenites Building, for several reasons including negligence and incompetence, went awry. For one, there was the recurring matter of unpaid property taxes. Some US$31,000 had to be paid by, of all people, a debt collector who, having acquired a lien on the property, now threatened foreclosure. It was in such circumstances, noted Matthew in his report to the prime minister, “that the transfer—not merely an attempted transfer—was made to Michael Bartlett [a Saint Lucian and long-time New York resident] and the facilitation of the mortgage over the property occurred.”
For the purposes of his investigation, Matthew quoted information supplied him by the former U.N. ambassador Earl Huntley, under whose watch the transfer of title had occurred: “A member of one of the associations who had a long history with the building [Michael Bartlett] offered to raise a loan to pay the lien and repair the building for rental. The proceeds from the rental would be put toward the loan. This would involve the transferring of the title to the property to him, so that the loan could be raised. I agreed to do this on the clear understanding that it would be a temporary transfer and that the government of Saint Lucia would continue to remain the legitimate owner of the property.”
As it turned out, the loan sought amounted to US$150,000, to be used as payment for back taxes, repairs to the center and for clearing up earlier title screw-ups. According to information Matthew received, “the lending period was from 29 April 2003 to 29 April 2005 and required the interest of US$2000 a month to be paid during the period. . . The mortgager pays only interest during the two-year period and what is known as a balloon-mortgage rider requires the principal of US$150,000 to be paid on the termination date.”
The lender turned out to be a loan shark, hardly a reputable banker. A member of the Saint Lucia consulate explained that when a foreclosure notice was served on the mission in 2002, “numerous banks and mortgage firms were contacted, to no avail. Because of its diplomatic immunity regular lending institutions were unwilling to loan money to the government of Saint Lucia. Members of the Helenites Association had also refused to help out, all except Michael Bartlett.”
Matthew received from the accountant at the Saint Lucia mission a breakdown of how the borrowed US$150,000 was used. The borrower, having paid outstanding tax and other bills, was left with “about US$53,000 which was given to the accountant and placed in the building account.” (At the time of his investigation, Matthew noted in his report, the accountant was making monthly US$2000 payments from the proceeds of the rental of the Helenites Center for various activities.” The problem was that such rentals would “not be able to provide for the balloon payment of US$150,000 due next April.”)
As outrageous as are the details of the Helenites story, no aspect is more shocking than the fact that the government of Saint Lucia was never informed, not about the transfer of the title and certainly not how the loan would be spent. Indeed, Huntley told Matthew there was no need to seek the prime minister’s permission for what he had done with Michael Bartlett, since as U.N. ambassador he had plenipotentiary powers to act on his own.” To which Matthew had said: “I am of the view that the ambassador was misguided. The ambassador is an agent of his government and as such he must act in accordance with instructions on all matters pertaining to the disposal of the property of the government.”
Moreover: “It is an elementary principle in English law that a person cannot give away or dispose of what he has not got.” Wrote the ex-judge, “There can be no reason why the ambassador should cause a loan to be made without the authority of the government of Saint Lucia. If an ambassador has the powers as claimed [by Huntley] then he would have the authority to sell Saint Lucia without reporting.” (The unsettled Grynberg matter comes to mind at this point, but that’s for another show!)
Matthew found that Huntley’s actions in the Helenites matter amounted to “impropriety and misfeasance.” Nevertheless, he stopped just short of saying the involved individuals were guilty of “corruption”—which Matthew defined as “reprehensible behavior or conduct from which a party gains or expects to gain financial or other reward.”
As I say, there might well never have been even a one-man investigation but for the related stories in the STAR that generated several questions, both here and among the Saint Lucian community in New York. Finally Earl Huntley had convened a press conference at which he attempted, to no avail, to put the public mind at rest. It was only after the particular press conference that the government announced its one-man inquiry.
Huntley’s press conference also drew numerous comment from STAR bloggers, at least one of which formed the basis for a libel suit against the publishers of this newspaper, lodged shortly before Huntley declared his interest in running as the Labour Party’s 2006 candidate for the Gros Islet seat, then held by Mario Michel. Alas, his political ambitions received a slap in the face. He was badly beaten in a run-off with Alexis Armstrong.
Yesterday, Justice Rosalyn Wilkinson dismissed Huntley’s suit and ordered him to pay costs. Full details in Saturday’s issue!

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