By Carl Joseph
Prime Minister Gaston Browne was irate on local radio on Saturday regarding the High Court’s consideration of two separate applications for garnishee orders to be placed on the assets of the government of Antigua and Barbuda (GOAB).
The government still has US$20 million in outstanding debt to HMB Holdings in settlement of the property at Half Moon Bay which was compulsorily acquired back in 2007. With the principle debt of US$26.6 million being paid, the $20 million outstanding debt is due to accrual on interest over the last 13 years.
Last Friday, the government was served with a notice of an application by claimant Natalia Querard on behalf of HMB Holdings, for them to be able to recover the outstanding amount by garnishing a combination of the government’s bank accounts and the shares held in various entities through the National Asset Management Company (NAMCO).
A garnishee order is a directive by a court to allow creditors to recover money from a debtor.
Government’s attorney on the matter, Anthony Astaphan, alerted Prime Minister Browne of the applications which advised that none of the government’s shares held through NAMCO should be sold as the High Court may, should the application be upheld, allow HMB Holdings to settle the outstanding owed through acquisition of the government’s shares.
“I sent back a message to tell [the judge] that I am not giving any such undertaking. So if they want to put me in jail, put me in jail,” Browne responded.
“I just want to signal my public disgust with that type of consideration,” he added.
“All they are going to do is to destroy the effectiveness of NAMCO,” Browne said.
Browne took further issue with the notion that High Court judge, Justice Rosalyn E Wilkinson in this instance, would give any consideration for the government to have to prioritise payments to someone who he said “doesn’t need the money” and has no interest in investing in the economy of Antigua and Barbuda.
“Flawed”, “unreasonable” and “perverted” were the PM’s words in regards to Justice Wilkinson’s consideration to garnish any of the government’s assets.
“We’re not saying that we’re not [going to pay], but we need time. We have other creditors. We have lots of contractors who worked for the government over the years who have not been paid,” Browne argued.
Browne went on to describe Querard as a “blasted nuisance”.
While he acknowledged the separation of powers in government and that of the judiciary as the final arbiter in matters of law, Browne still questioned the judge’s use of authority in this matter.
“And you’re telling me that a judge should have the right to just go and put a creditor at the top of the food chain and demand that we must pay them?” Browne questioned.
The PM continued questioning the rationale behind the judge’s consideration and also sent a message to all other judges, saying, “We all live in a society, and you cannot just look at the law alone. We have to look at the impact on people’s lives. If we’re forced to pay $17 million dollars now and we can’t respond properly to COVID-19, you think we can go and give the people any excuse that the judge said that we have to give US$17 million to a creditor?”
The matter is to be heard later this month and Browne has already promised to appeal the decision should it not go in the government’s favour.
This is just the latest in an ongoing battle between HMB shareholders and the government which began in 1995 after Hurricane Luis destroyed the hotel.