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CCN wins, PM biased

Ken Gordon
Ken Gordon

Sept, 29, 2000
By Fulton Wilson

PRIME Minister Basdeo Panday’s decision to omit from further consideration Caribbean Communications Network’s proposal for a cellular licence was biased, unconstitutional, discriminatory and null and void.

That is the ruling of Justice Sebastien Ventour which was delivered yesterday in the Port of Spain High court.

CCN filed the motion on May 29 alleging, among other things, discrimination by the Prime Minister in dismissing CCN’s application for a cellular telephone licence.

The Prime Minister’s decision was taken some time before April 28.

In his 56-page judgment, Justice Ventour quashed the decision by Panday to exclude CCN from being further considered by the Cabinet for the award of a cellular licence.

He also ordered that the Prime Minister be prohibited from further participating in any decision and/or deliberations relating to or in any way connected with CCN’s application for the cellular licence.

The judge also ordered the Attorney General, the respondent in the case, to pay damages to CCN to be assessed by a judge in chambers and the company’s legal costs fit for senior and junior counsel.

He said the Prime Minister’s actions had denied CCN its constitutional right to protection of the law, equality before the law and to equality of treatment from a public authority in the exercise of its functions.

CNN’s attorney Alvin Fitzpatrick, SC successfully argued that Panday’s public utterances about CCN showed actual bias.

Justice Ventour said the Prime Minister’s language betrayed an attitude of mind towards CCN of “unbridled hostility’’.

Panday had declared war on CCN in his 1998 do-them-before-they-do-us speech to UNC supporters.

Ventour said, “He made no pretence nor did he attempt to conceal his dislike for the applicant in his public speeches. At times, the language he used in describing the applicant was impassionate, if not inflammatory.

“Such prejudice or pre-disposition could easily have affected his decision to look with disfavour on the applicant and therefore exclude the applicant from further consideration by Cabinet or by the Prime Minister himself for the award of a cellular licence.”

Justice Ventour said the court believed that Panday, whether consciously or not, was predisposed or prejudiced against CCN for reasons unconnected with the merits of the company’s application for the cellular licence.

He described the Prime Minister’s decision to omit CCN from consideration for the licence as “deliberate and unjustified”.

The judge, however, dismissed the argument that the Prime Minister had shown a preference for selecting Open Telecom because Implementation Minister Lindsay Gillette had signed the proposal in his capacity as chairman of the company and that he was now a Minister of Government and in the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister. Gillette is no longer chairman of the company.

The evidence, Ventour said, showed that Open Telecom had been short-listed by Director of Telecommunications Winston Ragbir before Gillette was appointed to the Government and Cabinet.

“There is no evidence that Minister Gillette has been part of any decision-making body involving Open Telecom and I do not expect that he will even be so involved while being a Minister of Government,” the judge said.

Govt will fight to Privy Council


ATTORNEY General Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj said yesterday that the Government, acting on the advice of its attorney, Dr Fenton Ramsahoye, QC, intended to appeal the CCN cellular licence case.

Maharaj said the Government had made an application that the order be stayed. He added that the Government’s English attorney had been alerted “in case we have to go to the Privy Council”.

Justice Sebastien Ventour ruled yesterday that the Prime Minister was biased in his decision to exclude CCN from consideration for a cellular licence. He quashed the decision.

The Attorney General said that Ramsahoye advised him that the judge’s ruling was “patently wrong, that there was no legal basis for the judgment and that the judge erred in law”.

He said the Government believed that it must be accountable to the court to ensure that it did not act in excess of the law. But, he stressed, that the rule of law demanded that steps be taken if it was thought that the judgment was wrong.

Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Lindsay Gillette said he had not yet read the 56-page judgment. “That is the ruling of the courts,” he said, declining any further comment.

“You all keep saying that I am Minister responsible for Telecommunications.” But he was not, he said. “As Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, I have dealt with many issues.”

A blow for justice

CARIBBEAN Communications Network’s CEO Craig Reynald sees the decision on its constitutional motion as reinforcing the right of individuals to expect fairness in their dealings with the State.

The ruling was delivered by Justice Sebastien Ventour yesterday.

The motion concerned Prime Minister Basdeo Panday’s decision to omit from final consideration CCN’s proposal for a licence to provide cellular transmission.

“In our view, the decision underscores the right of everyone to expect fairness and an absence of bias in their dealings with the State,” Reynald said yesterday.

From the outset, and in writing, CCN has emphasised the importance of transparency in the evaluation of proposals for the provision of a national cellular service, he said.

CCN considered it eminently reasonable that the Ministry of Telecommunications should elect to appoint an expanded Licensing Committee containing the expertise required for ensuring a proper technical and financial evaluation of all the proposals for something as critical as a national cellular service, Reynald said.

“We were, therefore, baffled by the Cabinet’s approval of the recommendations from another evaluation conducted by the Director of Telecommunications (Winston Ragbir) and which omitted the CCN proposal on what we considered to be spurious grounds,” he added.

The CCN chief executive said given the Prime Minister’s public utterances regarding CCN and “the grounds on which our proposal was eliminated and our confidence in our own proposal for a quality national cellular network, we took steps to seek redress in the court”.

Justice Ventour’s detailed judgment reinforces CCN’s confidence in the integrity of the country’s legal system and in the court “as a place where the aggrieved person or institution can expect justice”, Reynald said.

CCN’s objective in establishing a state-of-the-art cellular service in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean, remains, he added.

Why CCN filed motion

JUSTICE Sebastien Ventour ruled in favour of CCN yesterday in its constitutional motion.

CCN successfully argued that the Prime Minister showed bias in removing CCN from the shortlist of candidates recommended by the Licences Committee on Telecommunications. CCN had applied for a licence for cellular telecommunications system. The following is the timeline and background to the dispute.

February 1999

Director of Telecommunications in the Ministry of the Office of the Prime Minister Winston Ragbir formulates and makes a request for proposals (RFP) for a cellular telecommunications service, setting out the criteria via the press.

It is in response to Government’s commitment to liberalise the market for domestic voice telephony via cellular technology. Ragbir was following instructions from Dr Rupert Griffith, Minister of Information, Communication and Distance Learning in the Office of the Prime Minister, who was responsible for telecommunications.

The deadline for submitting proposals was May 28 which was extended to June 30, last year.

July 7, 1999

Ragbir receives 13 proposals. He makes an evaluation of the proposals and submits a report to Griffith in which he stated that three companies met the criteria. In order of ranking, they were: Open Telecom Ltd (of which Implementation Minister Lindsay Gillette was the former chairman); Caritel Ltd and T&T Digicell Ltd. CCN did not qualify for further consideration.

Griffith had appointed a Licensing Committee on October 9, 1998 to advise on the grant of licences, including special licences under Wireless Telegraphy Ordinance.

The committee comprised: Prof St Clair King, as chairman; Dr Ashton Parris, retired professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering; economist Dr John Prince, who was also permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communication and Distance Learning; and Tira Green who was subsequently replaced by Clair Blake, a representative from the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel.

August 1999

Griffith meet members of the committee and asks them to undertake an evaluation and assessment of several proposals which the Ministry had received in response to the RFP for cellular licences. Dr Fritz Ringling, a foreign consultant, was retained by Griffith to advise the committee which was given guidelines. The committee completed its evaluation by mid- August.

But then Star Telecommunications Ltd (StarTel) took Ragbir to court after its proposal was refused because it was submitted after the deadline.

During that case, consideration of the cellular licence proposals was stopped but individual assessment of the proposals had already been completed by the Licensing Committee.

October 1999

Prime Minister Basdeo Panday takes over the responsibility for the Telecommunications portfolio. King told him about the work of the committee which had been stopped, following an undertaking given by Ragbir and Griffith not to proceed further with any consideration of any cellular licence proposals until StarTel’s case had ended. The Prime Minister did not respond to King.

October 20, 1999

Lindsay Gillette is appointed a Government Senator in the Office of the Prime Minister and on November 4, he holds a meeting with members of the committee to discuss outstanding licences that were to be approved.

March 9, 2000

StarTel’s case is determined.

March 22, 2000

Prince submits the committee’s report to the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Minister responsible for Telecommunications. The report has short-listed Caritel, T&T Digicell and CCN.

But between March 10 and 22, the Prime Minister got consultancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) to review the evaluation process completed by Ragbir.

April 13, 2000

PWC submitted its report to the Prime Minister which stated that results of the evaluation of the proposals reflect fairly the application of the criteria used to assess the proposals and that Open Telecom, Caritel and T&T Digicell met the criteria.

April 28, 2000

The Prime Minister publicly announces that PWC recommended Open Telecom, Caritel and T&T Digicell be granted cellular licences.

May 16, 2000

CCN writes a letter to Ragbir, asking him to say why CCN failed to meet the requirement of the RFP and another to Griffith, asking why CCN was not considered as one of the short-listed proposers. CCN asked for a reply by May 19 but there was none.

CCN then caused an independent evaluation of its proposal to be carried out by Omnitel, an international communications consultant corporation based in Finland. The firm concludes that CCN had complied fully with all the requirements stated in the RFP.
CCN then filed the constitutional motion.

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