By Melanius Alphonse
Caribbean News Now associate editor
CASTRIES, St Lucia — Following a lengthy article in the Miami Herald on Monday highlighting the involvement of a South Florida businessman, Antonio Assenza, in long-standing allegations of corruption involving government ministers and other officials in Saint Lucia, more details have emerged regarding the ill-fated $157 million redevelopment project at Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) in 2009.
In 2015, the then government of Saint Lucia requested the urgent assistance of the US attorney general in connection with a criminal investigation involving Assenza; former government ministers Stephenson King, Guy Joseph, Allen Chastanet and Rufus Bousquet, former head of the Saint Lucia Air and Sea Ports Authority (SLASPA), Sean Matthew; and Saint Lucia businessman, Andre Edgar.
The focus of the investigation was the attempt to re-develop HIA that involved public officials of the United Workers Party (UWP), which had won the general election in Saint Lucia in December 2006 and formed the national government until it lost the next general election to the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) in November 2011.
During the period from at least March 2008 to November 2011, the then UWP government directly and indirectly through SLASPA, a state-owned agency, was consistently awarding projects to Assenza, who incorporated several companies in Saint Lucia while continuing in his capacity as president of GlobeTec Construction, LLC, a company based in Florida.
GlobeTec Construction, LLC was 100 percent owned by MasTec, Inc. a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange located in Coral Gables, Florida. Effective August 31, 2013, MasTec, Inc. sold GlobeTec Construction, LLC to Assenza for a nominal consideration.
In March 2008, Assenza incorporated Papaya Holdings Limited in Saint Lucia, with Assenza as president and Edgar as vice president, with Assenza owning 800 shares and Edgar and his wife Margaret 200 shares.
In May 2008, Assenza incorporated Asphalt & Mining (St Lucia) Company Limited (A&M) in Saint Lucia with Assenza as president and Edgar as vice president, with Assenza owning 75 shares; Domingo Moya 20 shares; and Papaya Holdings Ltd 5 shares.
Edgar owned a taxi business in Saint Lucia and it is believed that he brought Assenza to Saint Lucia. Edgar and Joseph are said to have “always been tight”, as Joseph was also a former taxi driver in Saint Lucia. Edgar would take Assenza around Saint Lucia in his taxi and, according to one source, “Joseph brought Andre Edgar to the table, they were brought up in the same community together and Joseph needed a neutral person.”
Edgar and his wife Margaret directly owned 20 percent of Papaya Holdings Limited and indirectly owned one percent of A&M.
Stephenson King, the UWP member of parliament for Castries North, was prime minister and minister for finance in the former UWP government and is now minister for infrastructure, ports, energy and labour in the current UWP administration.
Guy Joseph, the UWP member of parliament for Castries South East, was minister for communications, works, transport and public utilities and is the current minister for economic development, housing, urban renewal, transport and civil aviation.
Allan Chastanet was minister for tourism and civil aviation and is currently prime minister and UWP member of parliament for Micoud South.
Rufus Bousquet, former UWP member of parliament for Choiseul-Saltibus, was the then minister for external affairs, international trade and investment.
Sean Matthews was the CEO/general manager of SLASPA.
In his April 2008 budget address for the financial year 2008/2009, King spoke about the preparation of a master plan for the complete redevelopment of HIA. The HIA project, with an estimated cost of US$157 million, would be the largest public works project ever undertaken in Saint Lucia and its financing would impact the country’s debt ratios.
Matthew, as CEO/general manager of SLASPA, was responsible for not only the preparation of the request for proposals (RFP) for HIA, but also the evaluation and subsequent negotiation with the winning bidder.
In January 2009 Joseph and Matthew made their first known telephone calls to Assenza while the RFP was being prepared.
In February 2009, SLASPA issued its RFP to seven companies/consortia, which included Assenza/A&M.
In March 2009, Chastanet made his first known telephone call to Assenza while A&M was preparing its response to the RFP.
In April 2009, SLASPA received responses from three bidders, namely, Assenza/A&M and two others: IMTC and Ashtrom.
In April 2009, Assenza’s response via A&M was accepted, even though it included significant input from two vendors for SLASPA who had previously worked on the HIA project: Heery-S&G and Ty Lin, both based in Florida. The A&M proposal stated: “This design-build proposal is based on the conceptual drawings and the preliminary master plan prepared by Heery-S&G and TY-Lin International.” No other bidder was provided with this information.
In May 2009, Bousquet made his first known telephone call to Assenza while SLASPA was evaluating the responses.
In August 2009, SLASPA chose the IMTC consortium as the recommended winning bidder, with Assenza/A&M in third place.
In October 2009, Matthew and a SLASPA committee recommended A&M but the SLASPA board instructed Matthew to write to all three bidders stating that they were unsuccessful.
In October 2009, the UWP Cabinet instructed SLASPA to resume the RFP process and Matthew invited the previous three bidders to enter “without prejudice discussions”.
In December 2009, Assenza/A&M, with an offer of a US$24 million interest free loan, was the SLASPA recommended bidder to the UWP Cabinet.
During 2009, the Saint Lucia public officials in question made 215 known telephone calls to Assenza and 316 known telephone calls to Edgar, both shareholders and officers of A&M:
Joseph: 153 calls to Assenza and 263 to Edgar
Chastanet: 8 calls to Assenza and 15 to Edgar
Bousquet: 1 call to Assenza
Matthew: 53 calls to Assenza and 38 to Edgar
No phone calls were identified to either of the other two bidders at any time.
In January 2010, the UWP Cabinet approved the award of HIA project to A&M.
In February 2010, King, in an address to nation, stated: “Another major project for 2010 is the upgrading and modernization of the HIA… construction is expected to begin by mid-year.”
In March 2010, Joseph told Assenza and his banker that “SLASPA doesn’t make the decision – the Cabinet does”.
In May 2010, the UWP Cabinet told SLASPA to continue with the “preferred bidder” (A&M).
In June 2010, SLASPA rejected A&M’s latest financial proposal and decided to close the current procurement process but King and Joseph direct SLASPA to continue with Assenza.
In January 2011, Assenza incorporated Airport Development Group Ltd in Saint Lucia, the shareholders being: A&M 5,100 shares; Delant Construction (Saint Lucia) Ltd (Miami, FL) 4,500 shares; and T.Y. Lin International Panama SA (Coral Gables, FL) 400 shares.
In February 2011, King gave another address to the nation and stated: “The preparatory work on upgrading HIA is well on its way and actual construction is likely to commence in July of this year.”
In March 2011, in a government press release, Joseph stated: “Site preparations and commencement of construction works at the airport is expected to begin shortly.”
In June 2011, SLASPA and A&M were told that the transaction financing rating was impossible and SLASPA gave Assenza/A&M a deadline of July 31, 2011, to conclude the negotiation on the financing and to present a final financing proposal.
On November 1, 2011, Deutsche Bank advised SLASPA that it was unable to move forward with the “current consortium” (A&M).
In November 2011, the UWP lost the general election to the SLP led by Prime Minister Dr Kenny Anthony.
Over the years 2008 through 2011, the ongoing support of the Saint Lucia public officials for Assenza was evident given the consistent awarding of projects either directly by the ministry for works or indirectly through SLASPA. Joseph was the minister for works and Matthew was general manager of SLASPA who reported to Joseph.
For example, within three months of the incorporation of Papaya Holdings Limited, the National Development Corporation (NDC), a state-owned agency agreed to enter a joint venture, with NDC contributing real estate and Papaya everything else to construct a hotel. King gave his approval in March 2009 but the project never started.
Another example, within five months of the incorporation of A&M, King made a direct award of a road construction contract to A&M for US$12 million, even though the financial statements of A&M as of December 31, 2008, reported equity of less than US$1 million. The three road projects were eventually completed by A&M through retention of local sub-contractors.
According to one Saint Lucia public official, “A&M was brought in by Minister Joseph, I first heard of them around May/June 2008. No documents exist in the ministry to support the direct awards for A&M in 2008.”
According to the SLP government of Saint Lucia at the time, the objectives of the investigation were to determine if a corrupt agreement existed between Assenza and/or others and one or more public officials in the former UWP government during the period 2007 – 2011.
Stay tuned for Part 3