Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi is adamant that he will not disclose the fees of attorneys who do work for the State.
This is particularly so where these attorneys are involved in criminal matters, matters involving the Department of Justice, Mutual Assistance (Treaty) or the Central Authority, he said yesterday during the Standing Finance Committee (SFC) meeting.
It was the first virtual meeting of the SFC, which involves all members of the House of Representatives. Each of the 41 MPs sat at the home or office and participated in the meeting aimed at considering the supplementation of expenditure of $2.9 billion.
The Ministry of the Attorney General was one of the heads of expenditure examined and therefore he was required to explain the supplementation of $118.9 million to his ministry.
This amount included $51 million for fees according to the Schedule provided to Members relating to the Supplementation/Variation of Estimates for fiscal 2021.
Barataria/San Juan MP Saddam Hosein asked for a breakdown of the number of local and foreign attorneys paid by the State. The Attorney General responded that 120 local attorneys and nine foreign attorneys had been engaged. Hosein asked for a breakdown of what the attorneys were paid, the amounts each received and the matters for which they were retained.
“Madam Chair, I would like to place on record that the request for the supplementation is driven by the fact that we are still in the course of settling $141.3 million in arrears from the period 2010 to 2015, during which $444.4 million was expended and arrears of $141.3 million left,” which meant that the UNC-led administration incurred $600 million in legal fees.
The AG said the PNM Government in the recent past was able to reduce the inherited arrears. He said between 2015 and 2021, a total of $387.985,199.51 was expended by the Office of the Attorney General on legal fees as “opposed to $600 million in 2010 to 2015”. He added that part of the $387.9 million went towards the settlement of arrears.
Ruling for Imbert
Hosein asked about the breakdown for individual attorneys and Finance Minister Colm Imbert interrupted to say that the aim of the meeting was to ask about matters before the Standing Finance Committee (ie expenditure for this fiscal year). Imbert said he “would like to close the door on questions of the nature being asked by the Member for Barataria/San Juan because we could go into a never-ending spiral going back ten and 20 years”.
Imbert asked for a ruling and the chairman, Bridgid Annisette-George, ruled in his favour.
Hosein then asked for a list of the attorneys paid during this financial year, the matters in which they were involved and the sums paid to them.
The Attorney General responded: “I can’t do that. While I have provided information with respect to every attorney who has acted for the Government, we have consistently stated that because certain matters involved ongoing works where we need first of all, consent for disclosure and we have written to all the attorneys for consent. Secondly, where they are involved in matters that are on the criminal side of the equation, or (involve) the Department of Justice, or Mutual Assistance for sensitive matters or Central Authority or are on the civil side of the equation, for those reasons, Madam Chair, we have given the entire aggregate sum and showed the hundreds of millions of dollars saved, but to condescend to that request for particulars, I regret I can’t agree with that on the basis of advice”.
As Hosein pressed the issue, the AG reiterated: “I have disclosed all the names of attorneys involved with the State for the last decade and the gross sums. And I have indicated that where there are matters crossing into the criminal, pseudo-criminal and investigative positions that the particularisation of individuals issues becomes problematic. And I want to disabuse the Member for Barataria/San Juan of the line that he is approaching.”
The Attorney General restated his position when Chaguanas West MP Dinesh Rambally asked what would be the objection to stating simply the period of time that the individual attorneys were engaged, without seeking information on the particular matters for which the attorneys were engaged.
The AG said the Office of the Attorney General “across multiple platforms” had listed in detail every single attorney who has worked for the ministry and aggregate sum of fees paid, “so there is no lack of transparency involved in this position here...For this financial year the basket of fees includes matters which are in the Central Authority in intra-government work and in investigative work which is also involved in the criminal domain and therefore in those circumstances I am not able to particularise,” the Attorney General said.