This is not about money. It never was. It was about a principle and standing up for what’s right!” So Robert Leotaud told the STAR on Thursday. Two days earlier, Leotaud and his legal team had finally reached an out-of-court settlement with SLASPA. For two years the two sides had been locked in a legal battle.
Peter Foster QC, who is also House Speaker, represented SLASPA.
On Tuesday SLASPA entered its final round in the court battle minus Sean Matthews who has been a major part of the case. He recently resigned as the authority’s general manager.
It was back in February of 2010, that Trinidadian millionaire Robert Leotaud decided to set up shop here, doing what he loves best. Many times he had vacationed here over the years.
“Trawling the ocean and trawling the village cabarets.” He told the STAR retired millionaires like him don’t want luxury hotels as much as they do a unique experience.
“There’s a special flavor to the real St Lucia that I just fell in love with,” he said. “I wanted to share that. In fact, I thought I could sell it upmarket to people that are not being targeted by the marketing thrusts right now.”
He set up a company called Reel Irie, bought a villa, a van and a boat for touring some of the island’s popular village festivals at night via the sea. He set up a website, reelirie.com, that would expose interested people to himself and his friends as they fished, partied and enjoyed what Saint Lucia had to offer.
It all sounded like a good plan. Nothing was required of government. No investment, no cash. All he needed was a license. And as a CARICOM citizen and under the Treaty of Chaguaramas, to which Saint Lucia is party, Robert could legally operate his business right here. But the best-laid plans can go awry.
This week the STAR learned of a Watercraft Advisory Council within the Ministry of Tourism that had recommended to the relevant authorities that Leotaud be given a license to operate. This was done through council’s chairman Nigel Mitchell.
Maritime consultant Cuthbert Didier also gave the project the go-ahead, as well as other SLASPA representatives on WAC. However, no sooner had someone on the inside leaked that the license was about to be granted, than a number of prominent tour boat operators lobbied against it, with support from the taxi drivers association.
“The thing is,” said Leotaud, “as soon as the propaganda reached the president of the taxi drivers’ association that we were here to take business from them and that we would be operating water taxis, there was trouble. Of course, none of this was true. So in the absence of the real information they started signing petitions and lobbying government ministers.”
Following a TV appearance during which the taxi drivers association denounced Leotaud’s project, the investor arranged to meet with them.
“I think that after that meeting everyone understood that what we were doing would complement the tourism product and the taxi drivers themselves,” Leotaud told the STAR.
He also met with then tourism minister Allen Chastanet, hoping to get his backing. But with elections around the corner, and under pressure from some certain quarters, he never acted.
“Basically I was left to fight my own battle,” Leotaud recalled. And so, despite WAC’s recommendation, SLASPA persisted in delaying the license. When Leotaud first filed suit for the unlawful denial, someone made an executive decision to defend what was wrong.
“SLASPA has the final authority after recommend-ations and approvals by WAC,” Cuthbert Didier told the STAR. “But it would appear that at that point they became the final and only authority on such matters.” he added.
And so began the legal battle. Initially the case was thrown out of court on a technicality. Leotaud re-filed. And after months of further delays, extensions, adjournments and legal bills piling up on both sides, the day of reckoning came on Tuesday.
“I wasn’t prepared to just lay down and let this happen,” Leotaud said after the ruling. “What about the other people who do not have money to fight such matters? I had to be an example for them, to stand for what is right. You can’t be throwing away opportunities for your country like this, especially when you are saying things are bad and people are living in poverty. You can’t carry on like this, then turn around and say that you’re representing the interests of your people.”
And so after three years of legal battles SLASPA finally conceded defeat and settled out of court. The settlement amount was not disclosed by either party. However, the STAR has learnt it was a mere EC$35,000—which Leotaud says he will donate to a local charity.
“It is just so sad to see this is happening,” he added. “If they could do this to me, someone of means, then what chance is there for the ordinary man? As far as I see it, the courts are protecting people from doing what is right.”
Said Didier, who was subpoenaed to give evidence: “The whole matter never made sense. Every day people’s rights are being trampled on. People must begin to stand up for what’s right. This matter, as with many things in this country, was derailed by personality—not by policy!”
Meanwhile the island may have lost a high-value niche business that promised to employ at least forty workers. Still reeling from his experience, Robert Leotaud is undecided about his next move.