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Jerome Lynch –

Jerome Lynch, KC, chairman of the Paria Commission of Enquiry (CoE), on Wednesday said the commission had received letters from from lawyers representing Heritage Petroleum and Paria Fuel Trading Company accusing its commissioners of displaying “apparent bias.” Lynch “wholeheartedly” rejected the allegations.

The letters also suggested the commissioners be recused from the enquiry.

Speaking at a virtual media conference on Wednesday, Lynch also apologised to the families of the victims of the Paria tragedy for the latest extension of the CoE report’s deadline.

On February 25, 2022, divers Rishi Nagassar, Kazim Ali Jr, Fyzal Kurban, Yusuf Henry and Christopher Boodram were sucked into a a 30-inch underwater pipeline belonging to Paria Fuel Trading Co Ltd on which they were doing maintenance work. All died except Boodram.

The CoE was originally due to submit its report to the president in May. But in a statement on May 5 it said it had written to President Christine Kangaloo seeking an extension until August 31.

On Wednesday, Lynch said there had been some media speculation that the delay resulted from either political or company interference “in some way.”

He said, “I can state categorically that that is not the case. If there were even a whiff of such an approach, I would make that very public indeed.”

Lynch said the Government, particularly Energy Minister Stuart Young, had done all it could to facilitate and expedite the report.

“I am confident they will wish to publish it in short order once it is concluded and submitted. We place no blame on anyone else’s door for this delay.

“I have decided that we will take a little more time and add additional safeguards to ensure fairness to all and limit the potential for any further litigation aimed at thwarting the legitimate aims of this inquiry.”

He said the commission had received letters from lawyers representing workers from Kenson, one of the companies involved in the enquiry, on August 2. On Tuesday, it received letters from lawyers representing Heritage Petroleum and Paria.

“Both suggested they have been unfairly treated and that the commissioners, I suspect, primarily me, have displayed an apparent bias and that we should be recused,” Lynch said.

“I do not deal with the merits of those complaints now, as they have yet to be fully articulated.”

A press conference, he said, was not the right forum to make such decisions.

He added, “While I wholeheartedly reject those allegations, I would have thought that if there was to be an application for recusal on the grounds of apparent bias, it is normal in the first instance for that to be made before the tribunal engaged in the process.”

He said there had been no request for the CoE to resume sitting to hear such an application, and no such application has been put before the commission.

After the conference, a reporter submitted further questions on the bias claims, asking Lynch if he was friends with Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, and Gilbert Peterson, SC.

Lynch was also asked whether they previously worked together on a corruption case in the Turks and Caicos Islands against the former premier Michael Misick and whether his personal ties might be seen as a conflict.

In a response posted along with the question on the commissions website, Lynch admitted that he was friends with Armour.

He added, “We co-defended in a long-running trial in Turks and Caicos and both being away from home struck up a good relationship, socialising together, and I may be responsible for him learning to play golf.

“I fail to see how that can have any effect on my ability to act fairly and impartially in relation to a public enquiry where neither he nor his department are party to the proceedings.

“I have not discussed the matter with him at all and he has not sought to do so with me.

Lynch added that Peterson SC was unknown to him “other than by reputation until I commenced this CoE.

“During the hearings, apart from exchanging pleasantries, we had no extra-judicial contact. He is now instructed in the Michael Misick matter, which has yet to start following the death of the former judge.”

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Newsday was unsuccessful in obtaining letters from Heritage Petroleum and Paria Fuel Trading Company asking the commissioners to recuse themselves.

When contacted, Peterson referred Newsday to the commissioners.

Earlier, Lynch issued an apology to the divers’ families for the latest extension of the report’s deadline.

“That apology is extended to everyone awaiting the final outcome of this report. It is clear from the families and others that they have already formed the view that they hold Paria responsible,” Lynch said.

“We do not have the luxury of pre-judging. We must approach this in an unbiased, objective way, examining all the evidence before reaching our view of the facts and what that means for the people involved.”

Lynch recalled that in August, the divers’ relatives issued a statement on the new deadline, saying they struggled to deal with the burden of the loss of their loved ones.

Lynch quoted from the statement about the permanent destruction of their livelihoods, flashbacks, sleepless nights and haunting images of what happened.

The families criticised the request for an extension, saying it was an “unwelcome, insulting and unjust development.”

Lynch said the commissioners, staff, and other involved agencies were “well aware” of the August 31 deadline and should have been working so as to ensure they met it.

“The undertaking of responsibilities associated with this commission report cannot be seen as simply a job, but rather viewed as a critical component in the delivery of justice.”

He said the commission understood the families’ deep sense of frustration at the further delay.