MP accused of corruption in text message – PM refuses to comment

Prime Minister Gaston Browne
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by Elesha George

[email protected]

Prime Minister Gaston Browne has refused to make any direct comment about a private missive he apparently sent to St Peter MP Asot Michael accusing him of corruption and misuse of public funds.

The message was made public the day after Michael phoned into Observer’s popular talk show ‘The Snakepit’ and challenged the prime minister for the leadership of the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP).

“You are nothing but a compulsive thief. You’re helplessly dishonest and evil; totally unfit to hold public office. You are too dishonest to serve now, or in any future government that I may lead. So, if you are awaiting a reappointment as a minister, you are obviously delusional,” the message read.

It also addressed the MP’s alleged attempts to inflate public contracts, apparently ripping off the state of millions of dollars annually, plundering the state of relief money and “thieving” misconduct. It was widely circulated across social media.

Yesterday, when asked whether he wrote that message to the embattled MP, the prime minister answered by telling Observer, “I plead the fifth. However, I can state categorically, I have not participated in its publication, directly or indirectly”.

Michael however authenticated the message which he said was sent to him by the prime minister.

It included comments like “Asot, I’d rather resign, surrender power to our political opponents than to reinstate you as a minister to plunder state resources, which is clearly your modus operandi.”  

It continued, “I repeat that you are totally unsuitable to hold public office and therefore unfit to serve in my Cabinet.”

Browne told Michael that he is “a drag” on the ABLP, while asking him to leave the party voluntarily. 

“No need to threaten me, you can become my worst enemy if you so desire. Making me your enemy would bring an end to all my love and empathy for you. It would finally give me a free hand to bring an end to your abuse and put you away in jail, for once and for all, in the public’s interest,” the message continued.

It ended by saying, “Kindly note, that I do not wish to have any further friendship, or engagement with you”. 

In the message, Browne also threatened to reopen a former court case, saying “Kindly note, that it’s not beyond me to get law enforcement to reopen the IHI case”.

The Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Company Limited (IHI) matter was a high profile fraud case involving several government officials including former prime minister Sir Lester Bird, Asot Michael and Guyanese born-diplomat, Bruce Rappaport.

In addition, the prime minister warned Michael that in the event he is charged by the National Crime Agency (NCA), he could not run on any Labour Party slate that he may lead, reminding Michael that he had fired him for alleged misconduct.

That relates to a matter involving British investor Peter Virdee, a major shareholder in PV Energy Limited who was primed to enter into a renewable and solar power energy contract with Antigua and Barbuda and other Caribbean states.

“I am the one who corrected the PV Energy contract when you and Virdee clandestinely included an additional US$6M to corruptly share among yourselves,” the message to Michael alleged.

Michael, who was at the time the country’s Energy Minister, was accused of demanding a financial contribution in return for successful negotiation of energy projects. An audio recording obtained by the NCA indicated that Michael had made demands allegedly requesting money, a car and campaign financing from Virdee.

Michael has denied soliciting those bribes.

In 2018, a letter from the office of the prime minister implied that Michael had tendered his resignation letter shortly after he was re-elected as an MP.

But in this week’s message the prime minister admitted that he had in fact fired the MP stating, “I rose above our personal friendship and fired you in the public interest, to protect state resources from your insanely corrupt hands.”

However, in pointing out Michael’s alleged infractions, Browne made known that he was aware of the MP’s wrongdoing and when asked about possible collusion, he told Observer, “I acted with probity at all times to protect the integrity of my government and the interest of our people.”

He added, “I am not getting in any exchange or tit for tat with Asot.”

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