As I write, the latest word on Lambirdsgate is that our justice minister has decided to repatriate to earthquake-ravaged Nepal some 30 homeless, heart-broken, penniless and desperate victims of alleged human traffickers and money launderers who for several months had been operating as foreign investors in Saint Lucia, facilitated by local officials, whether or not inadvertently.
I am reliably informed that the announced imminent repatriation is contrary to directives from the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. According to the students, local officials had threatened them only last week that if they refused for any reason to return home with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration, they would suffer the long-term consequences of deportation.
Some had resisted for fear they would later find themselves out of sight and out of mind. Others expressed concern that if they took up the IOM’s offer the police would be without witnesses supportive of their charges: they believe that without them there is every chance the police would be forced to abandon their case—which would spare the government possible embarrassment. And then there were the students who no longer had homes to return to, and whose relatives had been threatened by loan sharks determined to have their pound of flesh by whatever means.
So much for the fleeced. Now for the alleged sheep shearers, lead among them a Bangladeshi native self-described as Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Shams LLB, PhD (Lon)—all qualifications yet to be proved valid— President & CEO of Lambirds Academy, situated at “Dauphin Street, Gross Islet, Saint Lucia, North America.”
Shams came to Saint Lucia for the first time to attend a two-day inaugural Saint Lucia Investment Forum in May last year, according to Emma Hippolyte, the minister in charge of commerce and business development in Saint Lucia, and by the corporate communications officer at ISL, whose CEO is McHale Andrew, answerable to the aforementioned government minister and MP for Gros (not Gross!) Islet.
To the best of her knowledge, Hippolyte has said, Shams attended the recalled investment forum “in response to an open invitation posted on the internet to any potential investor interested in doing business in Saint Lucia.”
The Bangladeshi’s presence at the forum marked the “first interface between Dr. Shams of Lambirds Academy and Invest Saint Lucia,” Hippolyte added.
As noted in an earlier published STAR feature on this matter, the last quoted statement is not altogether kosher. The official record proves there was no Lambirds Academy here at the time of the ISL forum.
As for the date of the minister’s quoted statement before the House, it was Tuesday, 29 April 2015—by which time the police had found good reason to not only shut down Lambirds Academy but also to hit its CEO and associates with at least eight counts of human trafficking, forty-six counts of obtaining by deception, money laundering, fraud and so on.
On the occasion of her House statement, Hippolyte explained without question why she had taken the unusual step of personally approving a particular application without the knowledge of her ministry’s Trade Licensing Advisory Board.
“On 2 June 2014,” she recalled, “an application for a trade license was lodged at the Ministry of Commerce on behalf of Lambirds Academy Inc.” On the same day she had also received “a copy of that same application with a cover letter from Invest Saint Lucia . . . The investor was apparently in urgent need to transact business and the trade license was needed in order for this to occur.” She did not say who had signed the all-important cover letter.
With all kinds of speculation swirling over its shadowy connection with Lambirds, ISL decided recently to clear the air via a press release that might easily have emanated from the mind of a defense lawyer with no case.
In part, it read: “Whilst every citizen has a right to enquire and to be rightfully concerned about this matter, ISL is of the firm view that we must not be too quick to draw invalid references and to accept, without more, baseless accusations and false conclusons.”
Moreover: “As it stands, the charges against the agents of Lambirds Academy are still allegations, which are to be decided by a jury and it is indeed improper to try this matter in the court of public opinion . . . It can be categorically stated that Invest Saint Lucia did NOT specifically invite Lambirds Academy to Saint Lucia, but Lambirds accepted a general invitation, issued online and in the local, regional and international media, to attend the inaugural Saint Lucia Investment Forum in May 2014.”
Further: “There was never and has not since been any attempt by Invest Saint Lucia to hide the facts or obfuscate information related to the matter. Invest Saint Lucia’s only interest has been to ensure that the established processes for investment facilitation and establishment are followed and indeed, not only have we steadfastly maintained that position but had on several occasions communicated to Iftekhar Shams the need to abide by the established rules, regulations and laws applicable to the establishment of his business.”
Did the “established rules” also require Shams to be in Saint Lucia legally? Did ISL confirm he held a valid visa?
According to ISL’s release: “The requisite due diligence protocols were followed and returned nothing adverse either in relation to Lambirds Academy, which had already established a presence in the USA, or to its agents . . .”
So who are those people who have been “trying this matter in the court of public opinion?” As ISL correctly notes in its release, the public has every good reason to be concerned about our country’s overseas image, sullied as already it is by IMPACS-related internet publicity, to say nothing of allegations of countless examples of official corruption also on the internet, placed there by mindless politicians and their unthinking hacks. And while it remains for the police to prove their case in court, that does not mean the public should shut its eyes and mouth in the face of seeming impediments in the way of justice.
It cannot be a comfort to the public mind when the ISL issues misleading information about Lambirds. The proffered explanations for going over the heads of the Trade License Advisory Board are cause for pause: the applicant for a trade license “was apparently in urgent need to transact business.” Isn’t every potential investor, foreign or local? Is an applicant’s impatience more important than due diligence?
Consider the following, also from ISL’s press release: “When advised by a senior officer of ISL, after communicating with the Ministry of Commerce etc., that the said Board had not met in months and was unlikely to meet in the near future, Invest Saint Lucia . . . resubmitted the application directly to the Minister for her consideration.”
Doubtless with good reason, ISL underscored the last quoted word consideration.
What precisely does ISL mean by “the said Board had not met in months and was unlikely to meet in the near future?” How did ISL come by that disturbing report? In any case, the minister claimed she had received the two applications (one with a cover letter) on the same day!
Again the record torpedoes ISL’s allegation. The Trade License Advisory Board met on 21 January; 13 March; 8 April; 10 June; 8 July; 26 August; 14 October; 9 December—all in 2014.
Let us not forget the investment forum was a two-days-in-May affair. A trade license meeting was at the time scheduled for and did take place on 10 June 2014.
The voodoo prediction that the board “was not likely to meet in the near future” sounds a lot like a shepherd bleating to his sheep.
A little homework, by which I mean due diligence in relation to Shams’ presence at the forum, might well have revealed his conversation with a certain informed public official, with whom he discussed his plans for a medical school. The official was taken aback. She told Shams of the government’s decision to put on hold applications to operate such facilities here—at which point Shams suddenly developed a new interest in things culinary. As for a Lambirds Academy in the US of A: how did ISL come by that bit of information? Was the source Shams himself? Shams’ brother? When was the discovery made? Did anyone determine whether Lambirds USA was actually the residence of a Shams relative? What is the history of Lambirds USA, which features in the academy’s advertisements published in such places as India, Africa, Nepal, the Philippines and right here in Saint Lucia where clearly anything goes?
For now I need say only that the answers to my questions will prove how effective has been our due diligence over the years and the price paid for such effectiveness.
Again for the record: Dr. Shams was turned away the first time he sought a visa to permit him to visit Saint Lucia. Did ISL’s “due diligence” uncover that? Which raises another point: the White Paper on economic citizenship prepared by Vaughan Lewis, with a little help from friend and colleague McHale Andrew, rightly places much emphasis on our country’s security.
After all, we live in particularly dangerous times. Yet the ISL (one more I and we’d have an ISIL recruitment center right here in Saint Lucia!) release sarcastically points out its invitation did not go out only to Dr. Shams, that it was an “open invitation on the internet.”
Yes, open to all and sundry: conmen, pimps, snake-oil salesmen, ISIL recruiters, money launderers, toute moon—apparently with no time-wasting background checks.
It may be worth noting that one of the other non-nationals now facing serious charges related to Lambirds came to Saint Lucia as “a dependent.” His presumed “wife” was at the time a student at AIM-U, now about to have its own skirts lifted to the sky.
The particular Indian gentleman not only was allowed to stay here way past his officially allotted time, but he also worked at the school where his “wife” was a student. Did he bother to acquire a work permit? Visa extensions? When was he granted his trade license (if at all he was)?
Did anyone check whether he was here legally? Did no one smell a rat when days after arrival in Saint Lucia, courtesy ISL, Shams emerged as a director in his fellow Indian’s now suspect business? Does ISL know who cooked up the Lambirds callaloo?
A most important question remains: What does McHale Andrew know that he has not told? A press conference would go a long way toward cooking this particular goose!