Smart Lee MP Caught in PNM Slips

This is not the first time that a TT politician has been caught with his hand in the tooloom jar. What might have caused a marked separation –  in the case of the United National Congress (UNC) MP –   was the amount of money and who was seen driving the car.

According to the Trinidad Express on September 16

Opposition MP David Lee is facing two criminal charges, one of misbehaviour in public office, and the other for conspiracy to defraud. The charges were in connection with the purchase of a $2.3 million Mercedes-Benz and whether the $1.4 million in tax exemptions derived may have benefited a party financier.

Lee is now free on $1 million bail.

This story is of great value in the context of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s announcement on October 14, 2020, that Cabinet would consider “capping tax exemptions for public office-holders buying new vehicles at $350,000, with the exception of judges”.

Admitting he was concerned about the abuse of vehicle tax exemptions, the PM said: “In terms of exemptions for motor vehicles, I too am concerned because if these exemptions are being used for the purpose for which they are meant, I have no problem; but if they are being used to facilitate other people, in the way that they have been, then they require to be looked at.”

The PM also said “when colleagues of the Opposition Leader bought a vehicle for $2 million and the vehicle gets $1 million in tax exemptions and the vehicle is for the use of somebody else, we need to look at exemptions”.

In wrapping up the budget debate, Finance Minister Colm Imbert called on Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar to ask Lee whether he used the tax exemption privileges to purchase in 2019 “the most expensive car of all Members of Parliament, probably in the history of this Parliament, Madam Speaker, a four-litre Mercedes-Benz AMG G 63 valued at $2.3 million”.

Imbert said then that Lee had accessed a benefit of $1.4 million in tax and duty concessions—four times more than the benefit accessed by most other MPs for a vehicle. He said Lee hardly ever drove the car to Parliament, if at all.

Imbert said this luxury car was imported out of New Zealand and not from a local agent.

“It begs the question as to whether such an approach to such an expensive car purchase voids the requirement for submission of a declaration of source of funds to the (Financial Intelligence Unit),” he said.

In an interview with the media, Persad-Bissessar said Lee “has not broken any law. He has done nothing illegal. That was a facility afforded according to the law at that time. It is still the law”.

It is being alleged that Lee was not using the vehicle and a party financier may have benefited.

Reminding her live and virtual audience the matter of whether he bought the vehicle for someone else was raised years ago, Persad-Bissessar charged, “They are using this as a distraction to change the narrative.”

She raised questions of her own, about the transfer of a vehicle between former AG Faris Al-Rawi and Roger Kawalsingh, documents relating to which are not lodged at the licensing office, or the alleged purchase of a Maybach by another minister for a contractor.

This was the response by Minister of Energy, Stuart Young, to Oropouche East MP, Dr Roodal Moonilal, who called for a moratorium to be imposed on government officials who have purchased luxury vehicles even amid the pandemic.

Dr Moonilal was speaking at the United National Congress Virtual Report on Monday where he challenged Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to ban Ministers from accessing major tax exemptions to import high-end cars.

Back in October 2020, Dr Rowley promised to review the tax exemptions on vehicles granted to parliamentarians, with an aim of capping it at $350,000. However, this has not happened.

In fact, Dr Moonilal produced documents from the Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) showing the cost of vehicles bought by both Young and Health Minister Terrance Deyalsingh.

Young purchased a Mercedes Benz GLE 450 while Deyalsingh bought a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado TXL. The duo reportedly received VAT and motor vehicle tax exemptions totaling over $1 million.

Speaking at a post-cabinet news conference on Thursday, the Energy Minister dismissed critics as he responded to requests for an update on the government’s plan to review the current tax exemptions on vehicles.

“I see that this conversation has reared its head with me at the forefront of it. No, the answer is [that] proposals were made. They continue to be before a cabinet sub-committee (sic). I’d just like to say it’s a little unfortunate and the person who moved the motion, if I may call it that, the Member of Parliament for Oropouche [East], Roodal Moonial, I found it so ironic and so hypocritical of him, and, I mean, he was calling my name so I’m allowed to respond – the identical vehicle is what he drives (sic).”

He further questioned how Dr Moonilal was able to purchase his vehicle.

“Where does he get the money to afford these things? Because as far as I know… I don’t know what work he does, what he does professionally, since he left office as a Minister in 2015.”, besides, he said while in the ruling administration.

Former Prime Minister the late Patrick Manning faced a similar line of questioning when, as the new MP for San Fernando East (People’s National Movement), he bought a car and sold it to a reputed drug dealer for a profit.

The difference between all these cases and Lee’s is that the MP for Pointe-a-Pierre has been slapped with criminal charges for Fraud and Misbehaviour in Public Office – both of which carry serious implications for jail time.

Meanwhile, UNC activists continued to throw their support behind Lee.

Public Regards officer UNC National Women’s Arm Marisa Ramlogan told Guardian Media, “There is a process and it will be going to the courts. I believe in justice and at the end of the day, let the courts decide.”

She added: “He provided all the information and we stand in support of him. There is a matter with the former Attorney General and today we heard the Police had dropped the matter. I want to see what happens with this case against Mr Lee,” Ramlogan said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Couva North Constituency Executive Orlando Nagessar said it stood in support of David Lee and his “trumped-up charges.”

“One has to wonder if these charges are deliberate, calculated and well timed as it was only earlier this week David Lee exposed the Government on energy matters. This has been the normal tactic of the Government as an attempt to distract and hoodwink the population on the failure of this administration and issues affecting our country,” Nagessar said.

He added: “The people of T&T continue to ask for answers with regards to matters involving, Minister Faris Al-Rawi and Roger Kawalsingh, Prime Minister Keith Rowley’s interference in the selection of a Police Commissioner, Minister Camille Robinson Regis’s $143,800 cash deposit in RBL and the list goes on,” Nagessar said.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Lee said he is innocent of all charges and is awaiting his day in court to prove it.

“At no time did I contravene, conspire, or seek to defraud the state or its institutions through the access of exemptions for the purchase of a vehicle which all Members of Parliament are allowed,” he said.

We have not accessed any records showing an MP being sent to jail in Trinidad and Tobago for fraud while in office.

So that while this may be a radical step in a different direction in the case of how the country deals with errant MPs, it is left to be seen how far Rowley and Team PNM will get in this land where it can take decades for a case to be heard or, as the old people like to say,

TIME LONGER THAN TWINE!

Calls are also  being made for Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar to remove Pointe-a-Pierre MP David Lee as deputy Political Leader Opposition Chief Whip and MP for Pointe-a-Pierre.

Up to Press time, Persad-Bissessar has not commented on whether she intends to act against the MP who has won his seat twice. 

Before the charges were laid, Persad-Bissessar had spoken out in defence of Lee insisting that he had done nothing illegal.

Last August, she urged the police to charge Lee if they had evidence against him.

At that time she said it was an attempt to “nasty people’s names,” warning that the UNC had enough good lawyers to successfully defend Lee.

Meanwhile, there have been mixed views from Lee’s constituents about the matter. 

Constituent Clive Roodal said it was possible that Lee was being targeted by the police and the Government.

However, he described Lee as a failed MP who should resign.

“We could never know if this is the reason but personally I think he should resign as MP because he does nothing for the people of Claxton Bay. Two times we protested and we did not see him at all,” Roodal said.

Savitri Kalipersad claimed Lee was being targeted because he was speaking out against the Government.

“He is our MP and has served us well. The PNM wants to stop him from speaking out so they have these charges with the hope that he will stop talking but the plan will backfire and he will win his case in court,” Kalipersad said.

Scrap iron worker Ramesh Ramsaroop called on Lee to resign saying too many politicians were failing the people.

“Poor people are suffering out here and these politicians don’t care about us. Resign now and let someone else take over because you should not be there,” Ramsaroop said.

He added that scrap iron workers had staged protests all over Claxton Bay and Barrackpore and Lee failed to show support.

Meanwhile, on social media calls were also made for his resignation.

Teresa Lynch wrote: “I eagerly await a statement by the Opposition Leader Kamla Persad- Bissessar of not only his removal as the opposition (UNC) Chief Whip but also his resignation as Member of Parliament.”

Candice Maharaj wrote: “David Lee must resign as Deputy Political Leader of the UNC, Opposition Chief Whip and MP for Pointe a Pierre, as many MPs who have been accused of corruption and misbehavior in public life have done before him. It is the right thing to do, but by his track record, that will not happen and Kamla Persad-Bissessar must remove him immediately.”

It is alleged that Lee conspired with another person to defraud the State of $1,416,292.65 for the purchase of a Mercedes Benz AMG g63 Wagon motor vehicle.

That exemption was granted on May 23, 2019, and included $293,094.02 in Value Added Tax (VAT), $298,650 in motor vehicle tax and $824,548.63 in Customs duty.

Meanwhile, UNC activists continued to throw their support behind Lee.

Public Regards officer UNC National Women’s Arm Marisa Ramlogan told Guardian Media, “There is a process and it will be going to the courts. I believe in justice and at the end of the day, let the courts decide.”

She added: “He provided all the information and we stand in support of him. There is a matter with the former Attorney General and today we heard the Police had dropped the matter. I want to see what happens with this case against Mr Lee,” Ramlogan said.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Couva North Constituency Executive Orlando Nagessar said it stood in support of David Lee and his “trumped-up charges.”

“One has to wonder if these charges are deliberate, calculated and well timed as it was only earlier this week David Lee exposed the Government on energy matters. This has been the normal tactic of the Government as an attempt to distract and hoodwink the population on the failure of this administration and issues affecting our country,” Nagessar said.

He added: “The people of T&T continue to ask for answers with regards to matters involving, Minister Faris Al-Rawi and Roger Kawalsingh, Prime Minister Keith Rowley’s interference in the selection of a Police Commissioner, Minister Camille Robinson Regis’s $143,800 cash deposit in RBL and the list goes on,” Nagessar said.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Lee said he is innocent of all charges and is awaiting his day in court to prove it.

 “At no time did I contravene, conspire, or seek to defraud the state or its institutions through the access of exemptions for the purchase of a vehicle which all Members of Parliament are allowed,” he said.

Saying the evidence will show that the transaction was done within the confines of the law, Lee revealed: “To this very day, the vehicle is owned by me, the vehicle remains in my name, the vehicle’s insurance is in my name, the loan agreement is in my name as all documentation supports the fact that I am the owner of the vehicle in question.”

Saying he has always been transparent with the ownership of this vehicle, Lee said: “I have recorded it each year since its acquisition on my annual declaration to the Integrity Commission. Put simply, I have been charged for a vehicle that I am the legal owner of, but this is an issue I am confident, given the proof, will be vindicated in our nation’s courts.”

Despite the charges, Lee said he will continue to do his job

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