Mon | Jun 26, 2017

Ian Boyne | Lightweight logic from legal heavyweights

Published:Sunday | May 7, 2017 | 5:00 AM
Frank Phipps
Valerie Neita-Robertson
Valerie Neita-Robertson
Joshua Polacheck
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Frank Phipps and Valerie Neita-Robertson, as two of the country's most senior and respected lawyers, sent precisely the wrong signals last week when they shot off their reflexive, glandular and unreasoned letters to the editor in response to mutterings about corruption in the legal profession. United States Public Affairs official Joshua Polacheck had a high-profile week previously in which he was heavily quoted in the media, issuing warnings to lotto scammers and those lawyers and business people who might be facilitating them. They were going to be needled by the US, Polacheck warned and they would be dealt with like common criminals, as indeed they ought to be, if found guilty.

The eight Jamaicans who were dragged off for US extradition recently and who were not allowed to hide their faces had the kind of public shaming and humiliation designed to dampen the pull to lotto scamming. It was clear that the US had orchestrated the high-level publicity and public shaming, dramatising that the country was deadly serious about punishing lotto scammers and protecting its people.

Polacheck went further. He not only intimidated lotto scammers and those thinking of joining the lucrative crime by emphasising that many were getting up to 25 years in US prison, he sounded a warning to any lawyer or business person who might be aiding and abetting these criminals that he could be extradited, too.

People don't take the Jamaican authorities seriously, but when the US talks, people know they are not 'jestering'. Jamaicans know you don't mess with Uncle Sam. They not only take away visas from prominent Jamaicans whom they disfavour and the US is our paradise but they will fling you in jail, whoever you are: notorious, 'untouchable' don like Dudus or business scammer like Mr Olint.

So if there were any corrupt lawyer complicit in lotto scamming, he would be quivering in his boots when Polacheck barked recently, knowing the expertise of US intelligence gathering and its ability to get whatever it wants from states that depend on its largesse. I am convinced that Polacheck was not speaking idly when he issued his warning about lawyers and business people.

 

Profession of honour

 

Off charged Frank Phipps, QC, with a letter of righteous indignation to The Gleaner ('US attack on lawyers derogatory'), incensed that his most noble profession could be impugned.

"I take strong exception to an American official casting aspersions at the profession that I hold dear. To entertain suspicion of several local attorneys' involvement in the deadly multimillion-dollar advance fee or lottery scam does not justify the derogatory statement that could cause lawyers looking askance at each other and members of the public wanting to know who they can trust with their business."

Well, I have news for Mr Phipps, QC. Many members of the public already knew before Mr Polacheck spoke that there were scoundrels and crooks in the legal profession. They didn't need an American official to tell them that. In fact, I wonder whether Mr Phipps has been keeping up with the news recently and whether he was aware that a prominent colleague was recently struck off the roll but by his own professional body. Does he know of another prominent lawyer who has recently been in the news, too and not for his charitable deeds? Mr Phipps' letter was most ill-timed.

There are a number of Jamaicans who have horror stories to tell about thieving, corrupt lawyers. It is too late now for Mr Phipps to try to convince them that his is a profession of angels on earth.

There are corrupt lawyers, criminals themselves, just as there are corrupt pastors who are criminals. No profession is exempt from having corrupt practitioners, and Mr Phipps' attempt to scold the Americans is entirely misplaced and grossly ill-advised and misguided. If he were hoping to tap into some xenophobic impulse, his ruse failed. People saw through it. Polacheck was strategic. I think he has his information and he wants to scare off some lawyers who want to get in on the action. He did the right thing to blow the whistle. We need to unite against corruption and send clear signals, isolating the criminals, including white-collar ones.

If we are going to deal with corruption in Jamaica, our prominent voices must not give an uncertain sound. There must be a chorus of condemnation to all forms of corruption, and if we can't join the shaming campaign, we should at least keep quiet. Yes, warn against abusing people's rights, but the courts will finally decide.

Frank Phipps' letter is irrational, reckless and vacuous.

"The legal profession in Jamaica exists to uphold the rule of law."

Duh, so is the police force. And so are our politicians who take a solemn oath. Mouthing platitudes like Phipps takes us nowhere, but just muddies the water.

 

voices of renunciation

 

Honest, decent attorneys like Mr Phipps should add their voices by saying unequivocally that if any member of their profession is, indeed, aiding and abetting lotto scamming, the full weight of the law should descend on him.

Arguing pedantically that

"if there are facts that lead to evidence of wrongdoing, these must be followed to a lawful end" is simply diversionary. Polacheck is sounding a warning based on his intelligence gathering. He is cleverly telling people, we are on your tracks! Excellent strategy. He has not libelled anyone. Lawyers themselves cast aspersions routinely on the police force (but, of course, they have no QCs.)

People talk about corrupt customs officers, corrupt cops, and corrupt people at the car depot. We talk about immoral, corrupt pastors and every day we malign politicians as a group. We talk about disc jocks in media who take payola. That's "casting aspersions" at a group of people. But the legal profession is some sanctified, special group among whom we dare not imagine a corrupt soul, right?

The Broadcasting Commission has a public campaign against payola, though no disc jock has ever been convicted. Is that "casting aspersions" without evidence? Keep up the pressure, Polacheck. Good thing you are not intimidated by an elite group which terrifies our politicians. Shine your light on corruption wherever it is found.

Phipps' statement that "what is discomfiting is for the representative of a friendly country to fire a shot across the bow of a friendly neighbour" is absolute nonsense and a canard. Valerie Neita-Robertson's arrogant and insulting reply to journalist Patria-Kaye Aarons' column ('Sometimes justice is too blind') is another example of unvarnished special-interest pleading.

Neita-Robertson ends her lengthy piece with a set of irrelevant and obfuscating issues. And these are among our top, celebrated attorneys. In a profession where logical reasoning is supposed to be prized and premium These lawyers should be writing letters saying that if any member of my profession is, indeed, helping lotto scammers, I urge them to stop it. They should be adding their voices to Polacheck's, blowing the whistle on any corrupt or would-be corrupt member of their profession.

Is the legal profession the only one with certified saints in Jamaica? Can I get a witness out there that that is, indeed, so?

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.