THE Government has been successful in its multi-million dollar civil asset forfeiture claim in Miami, linked to the construction of the Piarco Airport terminal building 22 years ago.
A Miami jury found businessman Steve Ferguson liable for multiple claims arising from the fraud perpetrated in connection with the redevelopment of the Piarco International Airport in the late 1990s and early 2000s, former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi told Newsday late Wednesday night.
Al-Rawi was the corporate representative of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the government’s civil lawsuit. He was restored as TT’s representative after a US appeals court, in February, affirmed the disqualification of Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, and Miami law firm Sequor Law, from representing TT.
Wednesday’s verdict means TT will get triple the damages it sought automatically under the US Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) law. TT will also get prejudgment interest of at least US$25 million with the final judgment expected to be in excess of US$100 million.
This is the only trial of corruption and bribery charges arising out of the airport project as none of the matters in the local courts have yet moved to trial stage.
Al-Rawi, who has been in Miami since the trial began on March 6, told Newsday the jury deliberated for approximately two hours.
Government began US litigation in 2004 as it sought to recoup US$37 million from those accused of corruption. Before the court were Ferguson, former UNC minister Brian Kuei Tung and US businessman Raul Gutierrez Jr.
They were the only three defendants left in Government’s civil case from the original matter by former attorney general John Jeremie, SC. The case originally involved 23 defendants.
Kuei Tung, a former minister of finance under the Basdeo Panday administration, and Gutierrez, the former principal of Calmaquip Engineering Corporation – which provided specialised equipment at the airport – were previously held liable in the racketeering case.
Calmaquip was formerly head quartered in Miami.
Al-Rawi said the jury found all three men liable for US$32,385,988 each in damages suffered by TT and granted the RICO claims made by the State.
Miami-Dade Circuit judge Reemberto Diaz presided over the announcement of the verdict which came in at around 6 pm at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street in Miami.
When the State filed its fifth amended complaint in April 2007, there was a total of 56 defendants, which included 11 businessmen, 12 corporate entities, and 33 “in rem” (or property) defendants which comprised bank accounts and tangible assets.
The State maintained that Ferguson, Kuei Tung, and Gutierrez conspired with others to corrupt the bidding process on two construction packages, as well as the maintenance contract for the airport.
In April 2016, the court granted summary judgment against Gutierrez, concluding he was liable for fraud and violations of Florida’s RICO statutes. Gutierrez pleaded guilty in 2006 to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and transportation of stolen property in violation of US federal law related to his involvement in the Piarco project.
In October 2019, the court entered a default judgment against Kuei Tung for refusing to attend his deposition to answer questions about the case. The default resulted in liability against Kuei Tung for the same claims. The court also determined Kuei Tung liable for conspiracy to commit fraud.
The jury trial began on March 6 and after two days of jury selection, opening statements were delivered by each party two days later.
The State was represented by its US legal team from the Miami firm White & Case LLP, which took over when Sequor Law was disqualified. It advanced evidence over ten full days. The three defendants followed with four days of presenting their own evidence. Closing addresses began and ended on Wednesday after which the jury retired to deliberate.
At the trial’s conclusion, Al-Rawi said the jury found “by clear and convincing evidence,” that Ferguson had violated Florida’s RICO statutes, and was also liable for fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.
The jury also found that the defendants caused over US$32 million in damages to the TT, he added.
“The net effect of the verdict is that the State is the beneficiary of the trebling of damages automatically, and is also entitled to prejudgment interest of at least US$25 million. The final judgment will be well in excess of US$100 million,” Al-Rawi said.
“In the coming weeks, proceedings will be set to enter final judgment in accordance with the verdict. The State will pursue its recovery of the award in due course,” he said.
On the same day the trial started in Miami, Director of Public Prosecutions Roger Gaspard, SC, discontinued one of four preliminary inquiries involving fraud and corruption charges arising out of the airport construction project.
That case – dubbed Piarco 3 – involved former prime minister Panday, his wife Oma, former government minister Carlos John and businessman Ishwar Galbaransingh. The other inquiries are still “active,” the DPP told Newsday.
Leading the team for White & Case were attorneys Raoul Cantero, managing partner of the Miami firm, James Robinson and Ryan Uloa.