Sat | Dec 2, 2023

Court blocks judge’s bid to dismiss conflict-of-interest claim

Published:Tuesday | February 7, 2023 | 1:48 AMTanesha Mundle/Staff Reporter
Attorney-at-law Hugh Wildman.
Attorney-at-law Hugh Wildman.

A last-minute effort by the lawyer representing Chief Parish Judge Chester Crooks to dismiss a “conflict-of-interest” matter being pursued by former Education Minister Ruel Reid and Professor Fritz Pinnock against the judge, via judicial review, failed on Monday after the Supreme Court rejected the strike-out application.

The two claimants were granted permission to challenge Crooks’ decision that they had a case to answer in the multimillion-dollar fraud case before the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court.

Reid and Pinnock, the former Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) president, are contending that Crooks should not have ruled in the matter as he had admitted to a conflict of interest. They want the court to quash his ruling.

Crooks, after handing down the ruling in February 2021 and ordering that the matter proceed to trial, had recused himself, stating that there is a possible conflict of interest as one of the accused was known to him personally.

It was later revealed that the supposed conflict of interest was in relation to his attendance at Munro College while Reid was head boy.

However, at the start of the judicial hearing, attorney-at-law Lisa White, of the Attorney’s General Department, urged Justice Cresencia Brown Beckford to strike out the claimants’ case during a preliminary point in law.

She argued that the defendant was acting in the remit of his jurisdiction and that in the absence of any allegation that he acted improperly or without jurisdiction, the appropriate recourse would have been to appeal his ruling.

Given the nature of the application, White said, the option would have been open to the claimants to renew their application before a different judge in the Parish Court.

She also submitted that there was no formal order from the judge for the court to consider and that the defendants, in their affidavit, did not state what the conflict of interest was or how it has prejudiced their case.

White, in urging the judge to dismiss the case, argued that the matter was an academic exercise.

“These proceedings serve no useful purpose but to delay the criminal matter in circumstances where the claimants have an alternative recourse,” she added.

Her arguments were endorsed by Financial Investigations Division’s (FID) lawyer Shawn Steadman. The division is an interested party in the claim.

Attorney-at-law Hugh Wildman, who is representing both claimants, countered her argument by insisting that the alternative remedy cannot be considered after leave has been granted. He questioned why the defendant did not appeal the decision when leave was granted.

“Nothing she said has any merit. It is not for the claimant to say what was in the judge’s mind when he said he had a conflict of interest,” Wildman said.

Following their submissions, Justice Brown Beckford ruled against the application while indicating that she would give her reasons later in writing.

Meanwhile, Wildman, in his substantive submissions maintained that the judge made an error when he embarked on the ruling with knowledge that he had a conflict of interest

According to him, the judge may have intended to have an honest and fair hearing but his expression evidenced an “apparent bias”.

“It is not the fact that they know each other, but the fact that he had a problem that is the issue. If he had said nothing, nobody could have taken issue with it, but the fact that he said something means it was operating on his mind,” the lawyer argued.

Wildman will continue his submission today.

Reid, his wife Sharen, their daughter Sharelle, along with Pinnock, and Brown’s Town division Councillor Kim Brown Lawrence, were arrested by law-enforcement agencies in 2019 in connection with a major fraud and corruption probe by the FID involving transactions at the CMU.

The charges include conspiracy to defraud, misconduct in a public office at common law, and breaches of the Proceeds of Crime Act.