By Melanius Alphonse
Caribbean News Now associate editor
CASTRIES, St Lucia — Long-standing allegations of corruption involving government ministers and other officials in Saint Lucia and a South Florida businessman have attracted the attention of the widely-read Florida newspaper, The Miami Herald.
In a lengthy article on Monday, Herald reporters Adiel Kaplan and Aaron Leibowitz described how Antonio Assenza, who came to the United States from Venezuela in 1990, became tangled up in a corruption scandal involving a proposed $157 million redevelopment project at Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) in Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia, in 2009.
In 2014, the government of Saint Lucia requested assistance from the United States in relation to a criminal investigation into suspected bribery regarding the airport redevelopment project.
The targets of the investigation were initially said to be Assenza and Guy Joseph, Saint Lucia’s current minister for economic development, housing, urban renewal, transport and civil aviation.
However, from court documents filed in US federal court in Fort Lauderdale, which although meant to be kept under seal were instead filed publicly in the Southern District of Florida, the investigation also focused on Andre Edgar, a businessman in Saint Lucia, and Sean Matthew, former head of the Saint Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA).
According to Saint Lucian authorities, in 2009 SLASPA requested proposals for the development of a new airport, which was an estimated $157 million project. After evaluating the submitted proposals, SLASPA was to present its recommendation to the Saint Lucian Cabinet, which would make the final determination.
With input from Matthew, as then head of SLASPA, and others, Assenza and his local company Asphalt & Mining (St Lucia) Company Limited (A&M) submitted a proposal for the project. Prior to and during the request for proposal process, Assenza, Edgar, Joseph, and Matthew were in regular communication with one another via telephone.
The volume of calls increased at key points in the bidding period, including before and after Assenza’s pitch meeting with SLASPA. In total, some 200 calls were made between Assenza, his business partner and three government officials – Joseph, Matthew, and then tourism minister, now prime minister, Allen Chastanet – in the months leading up to the initial contract award in 2009. The majority of the calls were made before the request for bids was even announced.
The investigation did not find any calls to the other two bidders during that crucial time.
When asked by the Herald about the calls, Assenza noted that the majority did not involve him personally and, besides, he had proper cause to communicate with the government because he was separately working on other public roads projects on the island. Indeed, the investigation found most of the calls involved Assenza’s partner, a Saint Lucian businessman who was close friends with Joseph.
In fact, A&M had been awarded two substantial so-called “direct purchase” contracts previously at the behest of Joseph as the responsible minister without any advertising or any competitive bidding. One contract to rehabilitate the Babonneau Highway in Saint Lucia was valued at EC$12.24 million (US$4.5 million), while the other to rehabilitate the Desruisseaux Road was valued at EC$10.55 million (US$3.9 million).
Both contracts were later revealed to be significantly overpriced.
Nevertheless, the volume of the calls overall “increased at key points in the bidding period, including before and after Assenza’s pitch meeting with the Port Authority.”
In August 2009, the Port Authority recommended that another competitor be awarded the bid, with Assenza’s bid ranked last out of the three proposals received.
In September 2009, Matthew met with the Saint Lucian Cabinet to present the development plans. A high volume of calls between Assenza, Edgar, Joseph, and Matthew occurred around Matthew’s presentation to the Cabinet. A few days after the meeting, Joseph provided the Port Authority with additional details about A&M’s proposal.
In October 2009, Matthew and SLASPA recommended further negotiation with A&M.
SLASPA then wrote to all three bidders notifying them that their bids were unsuccessful and, under instructions from the Cabinet, issued a new request for proposals. A&M submitted a new proposal.
In January 2010, the Port Authority recommended A&M as the winning bidder. In February 2010, the Cabinet approved the award to A&M.
As part of its winning bid, A&M agreed to provide US$23,550,000 interest-free counterpart financing for the project. Saint Lucia planned to obtain the rest of the financing for the project from Deutsche Bank. In July 2012, Deutsche Bank notified SLASPA that they could not move forward with their portion of the financing, in part because Assenza failed the bank’s due diligence requirements. The project did not proceed at that time due to lack of funding.
Saint Lucian investigators believed that the facts are indicative of a criminal agreement between Assenza and public officials in the government of Saint Lucia regarding the project.
Based upon the date of the initial request for assistance by the Saint Lucia attorney general on November 12, 2014, and the amended request on December 15, 2015, it seems clear that the investigation was launched locally during the previous administration of then-prime minister, Dr Kenny Anthony.
In fact, during a public address at a political rally in late 2015, Anthony asserted that, shortly before general elections were due to be held in 2011, Joseph approached then-prime minister Stephenson King and offered him a bribe of $5 million if King would sign, as prime minister, the contract with A&M for the redevelopment of Hewanorra International Airport.
King reportedly refused to sign the proposed contract or accept the proffered bribe, and Joseph has denied that the incident took place at all.
However, the allegations against Joseph have also been extensively aired on local television by one of his former ministerial colleagues, Richard Frederick.
Frederick claims, as then-minister for housing, urban renewal and local government, he was also offered a bribe of $1 million by Joseph for facilitating King’s signature as prime minister on the proposed contract, which was to be awarded to A&M on a “direct purchase” basis without any advertising or competitive bidding.
No one has been charged with any offence in Saint Lucia and Assenza denies doing anything wrong and said he has not been contacted by Saint Lucian authorities.
“I would be most surprised if the government of Saint Lucia continued to support the investigation,” Anthony told the Herald in an email.
In fact, following the public release of the documents filed in US federal court, Prime Minister Chastanet, who is also named in the documents, promised to “investigate the investigation”.
That said, it is understood from US sources that an independent investigation by federal authorities has been triggered by the compelling “probable cause” provided by the Saint Lucia government in its request for legal assistance.
This has apparently become a source of some anxiety for Joseph and Chastanet, to the point where they have reportedly solicited the assistance of a well-known Caribbean businessman with interests in Saint Lucia and connections in South Florida to persuade Florida politicians in Washington to delay, deflect or otherwise impede any such federal investigation, something that is extremely dangerous ground for them to venture into because even a discussion along these lines could amount to attempted obstruction of justice.
Meanwhile, the on-again, off-again redevelopment of HIA is once again consuming the time and attention of policymakers, the business community and the people of Saint Lucia.
In an address to the Parliament on March 21, 2018, Stephenson King, minister for infrastructure, ports, energy and labour, said, “The current administration intends to bring the airport project back to the gates of execution before the end of this year.”
More in Part 2