ST. JOHN’S, Antigua & Barbuda: The government has launched an investigation into the repayment of a multi-million dollar loan to a Japanese company by the former Antigua Labour Party (ALP) administration.
ALP leader Lester Bird, however, has called the move a “witch hunt” designed to distract citizens from the nation’s real problems.
Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer recently announced a Commission of Inquiry will begin investigating, on August 6, whether officials misappropriated money allotted to repay Tokyo-based IHI Corporation.
James Jacob Spigelman, the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Australia; has accepted the appointment to be the sole Commissioner. United Kingdom barrister Kirsty Brimelow, who specializes in international law, regulatory and financial crime, will be appointed as the counsel to the Commission.
Spencer says the decision to launch the commission was taken after extensive consultations with experienced and knowledgeable jurists.
“This inquiry will examine the circumstances relating to the repayment, by the government of Antigua and Barbuda, of the US$29,750,000 loan from IHI to the Antigua Public Utilities Authority,” he said in an address to the nation.
“The inquiry is expected to be completed most expeditiously, with its findings reported to the Governor General by December of this year.
“The Commission of Inquiry is expected to determine whether, and to what extent, repayment monies ostensibly intended for IHI were diverted into the possession of, or used for the benefit of, other persons or corporations; to trace the whereabouts of these funds, whether in Antigua & Barbuda or elsewhere; and to determine whether the persons or corporations involved acted improperly or unlawfully. It will also examine whether persons who were then in public office are guilty of misconduct,” Spencer said.
The Prime Minister added that people found to have been involved in any wrongdoing could face criminal charges.
“The Commissioner’s report should include recommendations concerning possible criminal offences that may warrant further investigation and possible prosecution; reforms that should be made to prevent or deter corruption in respect of public funds or public office; and the steps that might be taken by the international community to combat the laundering of funds derived from any corrupt activities via international banking arrangements,” he said.
The convening of the Commission of Inquiry comes as the nation faces international scrutiny resulting from the Sir Allen Stanford financial scandal and the subsequent indictment of former head of the Financial Services Regulatory Commission, Leroy King.
Spencer insisted that the time had come for his government to take decisive action to protect the country’s reputation.
“As our country grapples for its financial survival in a crisis brought on by both external and internal factors, we must be honest enough to admit that we cannot go outside seeking solutions, help-ups and hand-outs from other countries and institutions, without being prepared to take corrective action inside and punitive action where and when needed,” he said.
Bird, however, criticized the Spencer administration for spending money on the Commission of Inquiry when there are other more pressing matters that need to be addressed. He said the United Progressive Party (UPP) government has spent millions during the legal battle but has given no account of the funds.
“From the outset, this matter has been a political witch hunt and remains so now, except that it is getting worse. The civil cases they have instituted are all coming to nothing, and they have nothing to show for it except the vast sums of taxpayers’ money they have spent – for which they have not accounted.”
Bird said that the “reason that the Spencer regime is now setting up a Commission of Inquiry is because they want a circus to distract the attention of the people of this country from the real problems confronting our nation.
“Those problems…include a stagnated economy; more than 15 per cent unemployment and underemployment; increasing poverty; high crime; a huge debt that the UPP accumulated; failure to pay public servants on time; and the prospect of an IMF program that will see more taxes, wage reductions and more dismissals in the public service,” he added.