An inquiry reborn

With little fanfare, the government published a notice in the March 9, 2017 official Gazette on the government’s website. It was the first order of business and took the form of a notice. It read: “NOTICE OF SECOND ALTERATION OF THE COMMITTEE OF INQUIRY pursuant to section 10 (4) (b) of the Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship Act, Cap. 22 and section 3 of the Commissions of Inquiry Act, Cap. 91 – and – In the Matter of a Committee of Inquiry appointed pursuant to section 10 (3) of the Antigua and Barbuda Citizenship Act, Cap. 22 into the grant of citizenship of Antigua and Barbuda to LIHUA TIAN”.

We must admit, that took us by surprise. You may remember that we recently wrote a piece wondering if this very important investigation had simply died a natural death. Our questioning as to whether this was “all non-concerning” to the powers that be, followed the revelation from Ms Tian’s lawyer that there was no reason to pursue the civil matter challenging one of the members on the Committee of Inquiry, since the Committee collapsed with the resignation of attorney Hollis Francis Jr, and no replacement was appointed. Dr David Dorsett stated, “The member against whom there was an allegation of conflict of interest has resigned and by virtue of that, the committee cannot function. The committee [is unable] to function [because] it does not have the requisite membership. So, the case has ended and is no longer the subject of active litigation, except for costs.”

We are not lawyers but it seems as though Dr Dorsett was lulled into a false sense of security and began counting his chickens before they hatched because the posting in the Gazette has adjusted the membership requirements for the Committee so that it can continue with just two:  retired Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court judge, Mr Henry Moe and attorney Mrs Mary B E White. His surprised reaction to OBSERVER’s inquiry on the matter indicated that he was blindsided by the latest development.

According to the Gazette, the Hon Steadroy C O Benjamin, Acting Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda and minister with responsibility for the issue of citizenship of Antigua and Barbuda made his second amendment to the “Committee of Inquiry” to allow a “Reduction in the Number of Commissioners to the Committee of Inquiry” from three to two, and to set the “Date when the Inquiry shall be concluded” which is now to conclude “by April 21, 2017 or such extended time as shall be reasonably necessary to conclude the Inquiry.”

This is welcome news to our ears and we are sure it is to the head of the Office of National Drug and Money Laundering Control Policy (ONDCP), Lieutenant Colonel Edward Croft. You may remember that Lieutenant Colonel Croft used the occasion of a recent gathering of agents and managers of the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CIP) to stress the importance of proper due diligence to the integrity of the CIP and the reputation of the country. He linked the programme to the banking sector and stated, “With the existing challenge within the region of maintaining correspondent banking relationships, any breakdown of our due diligence process has the potential to compound the issue by increasing the jurisdiction’s level of perceived risk in the eyes of our international correspondent banks.”

It was actually Lieutenant Colonel Croft’s address that made us wonder aloud whether everyone was just going to let the Lihua Tian issue to fizzle? And, we are going to guess that it was his remarks that struck a chord with one of more members of the administration and that is why the Attorney General has decided to breathe fresh life into the investigation.

In his address, the good Colonel emphasised the point that, “There is so much at stake that we must do our due diligence. The alternatives would not be desirable or even bearable.” The Lihua Tian case is all about due diligence and the back story is very interesting.

Ms Lihua is said to have withheld material facts on her application for CIP – that she had been identified on Interpol as a person wanted for questioning by Chinese officials. From the onset, Lihua rejected the claim against her, citing in court documents that she disclosed everything to the client advisor. She apparently backed up her claims in court with email exchanges which she had alleged occurred between her and Client Advisor, Bata Racic. Those emails are said to contain detailed explanations from Lihua, who was then residing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that she learned she was wanted – as well as the reason – when she went to the UAE police station to do “routine stuff” days after she submitted her application in 2015.

In response, there is communication, allegedly sent by Racic, indicating that Antigua & Barbuda could likely deem the issues non-concerning and she should only answer questions if asked and proceed with her application to become a CIP citizen. All of this is very concerning and made more so by news that the client advisor has declined to give evidence or be cross-examined by the committee.

Thankfully, all of this will be covered by the Inquiry report and we hope that we will get a full, un-censored copy so that we can share with the nation because, as Lieutenant Colonel Croft has rightfully pointed out, there is so much at stake.

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