A UNITED STATES appeals court has affirmed the disqualification of Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, and a Miami law firm, from representing Government in the multi-million-dollar civil asset forfeiture case linked to the construction of the Piarco Airport terminal building 22 years ago.
On Wednesday, Judges Eric Hendon, Monica Gordo and Alexander Bokor, sitting in the Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal, affirmed the April ruling of Circuit Court judge Reemberto Diaz who approved a motion to disqualify Armour and Sequor Law from representing the Government.
The motion before Diaz was filed by attorneys for former government minister Brian Kuei Tung – who Armour once represented in TT – to strike out the lawsuit and disqualify the AG and the law firm. Also supporting the motion was businessman Steve Ferguson. Both men were represented by attorneys in the US court.
In the two-page ruling, obtained by Newsday, the judges referred to cases on the disqualification of counsel which leaves it to the “sound discretion of the trial court,” once made within the confines of applicable law and expressed or implied findings, supported by evidence.
The judges opined the burden of proof was met to support the disqualificaton of Armour and Sequor Law.
This latest for the AG, came on the same day he sought to explain the State's failure to defend itself in a malicious prosecution lawsuit brought by nine men acquitted of the murder of businesswoman Vindra Naipaul-Coolman. With no defence, the State was ordered to pay over $20m in compensation to the nine.
Efforts to elicit a response from the AG to his second loss in the US courts on the Piarco Inquiry matter proved futile.
The AG filed an appeal on June 1, after he and Sequor Law were disqualified. A motion to expedite hearing of the appeal was denied, and it was heard on January 17.
Armour said he disclosed his apparent conflict of interest to Sequor Law, at his initial meeting on March 30, two weeks after his appointment as AG, and was relying on the firm’s legal advice.
He nevertheless still signed-off on several related matters, including an agreement for a co-operating witness to testify against the Piarco accused in criminal proceedings in TT, and settlement of invoices of the law firm, among other matters.
In a sworn affidavit, Armour claimed he was “walled off” by the law firm after he disclosed he had been one of Kuei Tung’s lawyers. He described himself in that affidavit as a junior lawyer – basically a note-taker – who had a minimal role in Kuei Tung’s defence. But public records conflicted with Armour's recollection.
On June 20, Armour admitted to a memory lapse when he filed his affidavit on April 24, and was prepared to correct the record on April 27, while the US court was sitting to hear the motions, even though he was on vacation in Europe at that time.
An examination of the court’s transcript of April 27, 2022, did not reflect any attempt to correct the court record by the US attorneys representing TT, although former attorney general Faris Al-Rawi attended the hearing as the substitute client representative for TT after Armour recused himself.
The US judge rejected the motion to strike out the entire lawsuit.
Contacted on Thursday, Al-Rawi said he was at a meeting of Cabinet and promised to call.
The government has since hired another law firm to prosecute the case, and Al-Rawi will oversee it.
Some $30 million of taxpayers’ money, spent on fees to Sequor Law, is unrecoverable, according to government sources.
The appeal hearing
At the appeal hearing on January 17, Kuei Tung’s attorney Michael Garcia Petit and Ferguson's counsel Rodolfo Sorondo Jr argued that Armour had represented the former minister for several years in the criminal case in TT courts, from 2003-2008.
In response to the State’s claims that Armour had been “walled off” from the case by Sequor Law, they argued that the wall was not established before April 15, 2022.
The lawyers argued there was an overlap in the cases in the TT and US courts as the latter started a year after the prosecution began in TT.
“We believe confidential information was shared and clearly we have the appearance of impropriety in this case.”
Neither man agreed with the State’s contention that Armour was a nominal representative,
insisting he was intimately involved in the litigation and would have been curious to know why TT’s attorneys in Miami wanted to “drop some counts” with over “US$100 million on the table” as being claimed in the lawsuits against those who were implicated in the airport expansion scandal.
They maintained it wasn’t a question of Armour imparting secrets but he would have known of Quei Tung’s strategy and tactics and “could have revealed everything.”
They also rubbished the contention that the AG was walled off from the litigation.
US attorney Raoul Cantero, of the US firm White and Case, who took over litigation for the Government, asked for the order against Sequor Law to be reversed, insisting that while Armour would have approved a settlement, he shared no confidential information with the law firm.
He said over the course of the 18 years, there have been seven attorneys general in the case and there were laws which would prevent any lawyer from using information not obtained during discovery. He said the Florida law provided for disqualification and sanctions from the Florida Bar but Armour was not a member nor was he authorised to practice in that state.
Cantero said there was no evidence Armour shared confidential information with Sequor Law as Kuei Tung’s former attorney.
“He did not file pleadings or make representations. He only identified representatives for mediation, paid bills and coordinated witnesses to show up at trial.
“Since April 15, he recused himself from the case and was screened off.”
In his ruling, the order of Judge Reemberto Diaz stated that after hearing arguments and reading submissions, “the court finds that both Attorney General Reginald Armour and Sequor Law are disqualified from continuing to represent Plaintiff Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (“RTT”) in this case”.
The court noted that Armour represented Kuei Tung between January 2003 and January 2008 in criminal proceedings in Trinidad and that Ferguson was also a defendant in those criminal proceedings.
It said that on March 16, Armour was appointed AG and on March 30, Armour, on his first conference call with Sequor Law, indicated he had previously defended Kuei Tung in the parallel criminal proceedings.
The order noted the law firm continued to engage the AG on the matter, discussing management issues and logistics, including the dropping of certain claims, designating representatives to attend mediation and trial and having him consider and execute a settlement agreement with a defendant in his capacity of Attorney General.
Armour was also included on the witness list for TT as the State’s representative. The order pointed out that neither the State nor Armour asked Kuei Tung to consent to his former attorney's involvement in the case nor did the former client provide his consent.
The order noted that the Florida Rules of Professional Responsibility expressly prohibit an attorney from serving as counsel on behalf of a client who is directly adverse to a former client in the same or substantially similar proceeding.
Sequor Law was automatically disqualified under the rules from acting as TT’s counsel because of Armour’s prior legal representation of Kuei Tung for five years in the criminal prosecution in Trinidad “ which are the same or substantially similar to the civil action”
“Sequor Law was working with and for Mr Armour, who was prohibited from representing RTT in a matter directly adverse to his former client,” the order stated.
No findings of misconduct were made against Sequor Law and the judge gave TT time to get new lawyers to represent it in the civil claim before him which was expected to go to trial in September, last year.