An Ambassador’s role in the alleged bus conversion saga revealed

From left, former finance minister Harold Lovell and two of his former United Progressive Party colleagues, Dr Jacqui Quinn and Wilmoth Daniel (File photo)
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By Latrishka Thomas

The testimony by one Ambassador (Colin Murdoch) revealed that another Ambassador (the late John Ashe) may have had a roll to play in the allocation of the three buses which are the subject of the ongoing bus conversion trial against three former Cabinet ministers.

Dr. Jacqui Quinn, Harold Lovell and Wilmoth Daniel are charged with corruption, conversion and embezzlement of three Daewoo buses worth over $200,000 each that were donated to the government of Antigua and Barbuda by the Republic of Korea in 2008.

Day four of the trial began yesterday with principal Customs inspector, Kirt Williams, explaining that the buses are considered commercial items since they were consigned by the government and therefore required assistance of a Customs broker.

He explained that they would also need to be accompanied by a declaration signed by a government minister and his or her permanent secretary (from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in this case).

But having looked at the manifest, Williams said he observed that the buses were delivered at the port in 2008 but no declaration was present

“Declarations are prepared by a broker with all relevant documents attached.
Declarations are signed by government officials, then the comptroller or deputy comptroller, then processed by Customs, then delivery can take place,” he further explained.

Williams said that he assumed that “delivery was done pending declaration” but had no idea if the document was actually prepared.

After Williams gave his evidence, a formal application was made by the prosecution to have two witnesses testify remotely. An immigration officer was called to the stand to share the travel records of Ambassador Colin Murdoch and Carlon Knight to ascertain if they are truly off island and unable to appear in person.

Thereafter, OECS Ambassador to the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, Colin Murdoch gave sworn evidence from Switzerland.

He first shared that he was the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1994-2009 and then 2014 to 2016.

Ambassador Murdoch shared that each year, the Korean government donated different items as part of a grant aid program with Antigua and Barbuda.

He said that he recalled school buses being shipped in 2008, but the shipping documents were handed over to either the Ministry of Public Works or the Antigua and Barbuda Transport Board so his Ministry, of which former Prime Minister (PM) Baldwin Spencer was in charge, had nothing to do with the collection or distribution of the buses.

In fact, he said that the procurement and communication with Korea was done by the then- Ambassador to the United Nations, John Ashe and PM Spencer.

He said that he merely wrote diplomatic notes to send to the Korean government each year when items were being sent.

Ambassador Murdoch denied knowing to whom, or being the one, who allocated the buses.

        Anesta Weekes QC who represents Harold Lovell then drilled the Ambassador asking him about the role Ambassador Ashe played in the decision-making process.

          She even showed him a memo written by Ashe and copied to Murdoch and Spencer in 2006 where Ashe indicated that he requested two buses for then-Cabinet Ministers Erol Cort and Trevor Walker.

           Weekes then suggested to Murdoch that Ashe was the decision maker in the process and he eventually agreed.

           “There is nothing illegal about Ashe choosing who to give buses,” she went on to suggest. “I’m not aware,” Murdoch responded.

          “Is there a rule book?” Weekes asked. “Not that I’m aware,” the Ambassador remarked, however admitting that he did not agree with Ashe’s decision-making.

        He went on to state what the procedure is when a decision is taken at the Ministerial level on what to do with items.

             Dane Hamilton QC then question Ambassador Murdoch on behalf of his client, Dr Jacqui Quinn.

“Would you agree that those buses were not in Antigua when the memo was sent?” he asked referring to the same memo where two buses were designated.

        Murdoch agreed, but when it was suggested to him that allocation was done prior to the buses being delivered his response was “I don’t know.”

He again denied having any involvement is the designation of the buses or even knowing the whereabouts after they arrived.

“Dr Ashe seems to be the key. He puts this thing together. He’s the glue,” Hamilton concluded in his cross examination

Lastly, Justin Simon QC, the attorney for Wilmoth Daniel, showed Ambassador Murdoch a document which appeared to be an email from Ambassador Ashe to Murdoch in 2008 with the subject “confirmation of ownership.”

Murdoch said that he does not recall receiving that email, “But even if I had, I suspect I would have ignored it” because it does not concern the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after the shipping documents are passed off and Ashe was “in a position to confirm ownership of the buses.”

Said email read: “I wish to confirm that the bus donated…and currently in possession of Honourable Wilmoth Daniel…”

It went on to say that having been assigned the bus by Ashe, “The bus is therefore owned by Minister Daniel.”

Simon then questioned why Ambassador Ashe would need to “confirm” ownership of the buses.

Murdoch replied that he made no inquiries of Ashe.

The OECS Ambassador was also shown a memo sent to Erol Cort and Trevor Walker and copied to him and Baldwin Spencer in 2006 with “procurement of two school buses” in the subject where Ashe indicated that two buses are coming “one bus is designated” for new school in Barbuda, and the use of the second to be determined by Cort.

Simon informed the witness that one did in fact go to Barbuda, and Cort kept the other for his community and registered it in the name of the Hope Institute.

Notwithstanding this, Murdoch maintained that where the buses ended up had nothing to do with him.
         The trial is expected to continue tomorrow at 9am.

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