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Antigua-Barbuda investigating local involvement in bribery scandal
Published on August 11, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version

Former Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Casroy James

By Caribbean News Now contributor

ST JOHN’S, Antigua -- Following a recent call by local media for “public inquiries” into allegations against unnamed “ministers and high officials” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne has confirmed that local law enforcement authorities are investigating the involvement of local officials in the massive Odebrecht bribery scandal.

He said the Office of the National Drug and Money Laundering Control Policy (ONDCP) is the competent authority carrying out the probe.

Browne said the ONDCP “operates independently of the minister of finance.”

The prime minister also said he had “no difficulty” making the findings of the probe known although he did not indicate the exact scope of the investigation.

The allegations of bribery surfaced last year in an Eastern New York District Court filing in which it was suggested that unnamed persons, claiming to be linked to the Antigua and Barbuda government, were involved in corrupt activities related to the Brazilian multinational, Odebrecht SA.

The court documents did not name the two individuals, describing them only as “a consular official” and “an intermediary to a high-level official”. A bribe was allegedly paid in exchange for the officials’ promise not to provide international authorities with banking records revealing illicit payments from Odebrecht.

In the largest foreign bribery case in history, Odebrecht, along with a Brazilian petrochemical company, Braskem SA, pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a combined total penalty of at least $3.5 billion to resolve charges with authorities in the United States, Brazil and Switzerland arising out of their schemes to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials around the world.

According to press reports, Odebrecht purchased Meinl Bank (Antigua) Ltd in or about 2010 or 2011 and used the bank as part of Odebrecht’s complicated scheme to bribe government officials in various countries.

The court documents state that an employee of Odebrecht attended a meeting in Miami, Florida, with the agent of a high-level government official in Antigua and agreed to pay US$4 million to the government official for help in concealing banking records that would evidence illicit payments to international authorities.

Former Antigua and Barbuda ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Casroy James, admitted to attending the meeting in Miami at the invitation of honorary consul to Brazil, Luis Franca, which he said was related to Meinl Bank’s involvement with a citizenship by investment programme (CIP) project.

Franca was appointed under the previous United Progressive Party (UPP) administration as Antigua and Barbuda’s honorary consul to Brazil and James was officially appointed as Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the UAE in July 2016.

Browne fired Franca as honorary consul as soon as the allegations became known and asked James for an explanation. James later resigned from the post of ambassador to the UAE effective March 31, 2017.

Meanwhile, following the recent conviction in US federal court in New York of Chinese billionaire Ng Lap Seng on bribery charges involving Antigua and Barbuda’s former UN representative, John Ashe, the Antigua Observer, in an editorial entitled “Who are the interlocutors?”, called for “public inquiries” into related allegations against unnamed “ministers and high officials”.

The ministers and high officials in Antigua and Barbuda implicated in the Ng/Ashe bribery scandal are in fact former prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, and former finance minister, Harold Lovell, now in opposition.

Baldwin Spencer (L) and Harold Lovell

Giving evidence in the case in New York, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) identified connections between Ng and members of the former United Progressive Party (UPP) administration in Antigua and Barbuda.

Among the statements made by the FBI agent in a sworn deposition is that, on June 8, 2014, Ashe told a representative of one of Ng’s companies that he is “going to Antigua on Thursday to vote and would need to take something for the PM. Hope I can have the $26 K in cash before then”.

Earlier, in an email dated July 26, 2012, to other defendants, Ashe asked for US$300,000, stating that “these funds were intended as a show of good faith” to allow him “to start the conversation” with his interlocutors in Antigua.

The FBI agent revealed in his deposition that approximately US$100,000 was sent to then-prime minister Baldwin Spencer in Antigua shortly after Ashe received the requested US$300,000.

Subsequently, one of the persons was appointed as “economic envoy and head of the Antigua and Barbuda Investment Office in Hong Kong” on March 6, 2013. Two others were appointed as “Advisers to the Office of the Prime Minister” on October 29, 2013.

During August 2012, in another email to the persons later appointed as “advisers to the Office of the Prime Minister”, Ashe stated that “you may recall the minister of finance is a high school classmate of mine” and therefore would facilitate establishment of offshore banks. The minister of finance in the then UPP administration was Harold Lovell, who is now political leader of the UPP.

Immediately after, Ashe went to Antigua for 48 hours and reported to the “advisers” that he “had the initial resources in hand which have now been fully utilised”. Which, he continued, “certainly served the intended purpose of focussing minds… I have been given the green light to fully engage”.

In a continuing relationship with one of the so-called “advisers to the Office of the Prime Minister”, Ashe said in an email dated April 6, 2014, that “a senior Antigua national security minister” had signed a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese security company. According to the testimony of the FBI agent, “during the same period”, Ashe sent the then prime minister [Spencer] approximately US$170,000.

The current administration recently noted that it had inherited several holders of diplomatic passports issued by the outgoing Spencer/Lovell administration. Several of those appointments have been revoked, including Francis Lorenzo and Luiz Franca, both of whom have since been exposed as part of the massive Odebrecht bribery scheme.

“The John Ashe scandal and the Odebrecht debacle revealed the kind of arrangement that was made when the Spencer/Lovell administration appointed several foreign-born diplomats, including these two and one other,” the government said in a statement.
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