After months of quiet following his controversial and little-explained U.K. arrest, Asot Michael, Member of Parliament (MP) for St. Peter, is facing fresh allegations that while Minister of Energy in 2016, he demanded money, a car and campaign finance from now scandal-hit British investor, Peter Virdee.
Virdee makes the allegation in phone conversations with another businessman, Dieter Trutschler, in March 2016. But his calls were secretly being intercepted by German law enforcement, and now excerpts from the recorded calls have surfaced in a United Kingdom (U.K.) High Court judgement.
In the document dated May 11, which was this past Friday, Virdee alleges that Michael asked him for $2 million, asked him to buy a car for his mother, and additionally Virdee suggested that he had or was supposed to donate money to “the party” presumably the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP).
The allegations are part of Virdee’s transcribed conversations included in the judgement. Item 11 of the document is the most telling, and in it, among other things, is the allegation of Michael asking for $2 million. It is here that the document’s authors, Lord Justice Holroyde and Justice Dingemans, state that in one recorded telephone call between Virdee and Trutschler on March 12, 2016, Virdee “complained that [Michael] had been saying he needed $2 million.”
According to the transcript, Virdee told Trutschler that he replied to Michael as follows: “What do you mean, ‘I need $2 million?’ I said, ‘You can’t just [expletive] take $2 million. You can’t just say, ‘I need $2 million because I did a lot of gravy and this and you know.’”
The allegation about the request for a car is in the same item – 11. In the judgement, it is stated that in the same March 2016 conversation with Trutschler, Virdee said, “[Michael] said to me ‘Could you buy my mum a car?’ I said, ‘I will think about it.’ Then on my next visit [Michael] said, ‘You promised my mum a car.’”
In the same conversation, Virdee mentions to Trutschler the matter of campaign finance in reference to Michael saying, “I said [to Michael], ‘I have no problem in buying you a car, no problem, but I can’t be giving you chunks of the money that you are not entitled to beforehand and give money to the party and then go and buy you a car.’”
Contacted yesterday morning, Michael at first said that he had no comment about the revelations out of the U.K. High Court. He also said that he “never asked [Virdee] or anyone else for a bribe” and that Virdee “can say anything.”
At the same time, Virdee’s lawyers are alleging that Michael approached Virdee for money and gifts, but that the British businessman and property tycoon rejected the requests and rebuffed the then minister of energy.
According to the transcript in the judgment, during the aforementioned March 2016 conversation, Virdee told Trutschler: “I said to [Michael], ‘You know what, go [expletive] yourself, I’m done with this, I can’t be doing with this headache.’”
In another intercepted and taped conversation supplied by German law enforcement to the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA), Michael himself is recorded during a conference call with Virdee and Trutschler on July 12, 2016 asking the two men, “On the St. Kitts agreement, how are we going to share that?”
The three men were discussing what Michael termed “a job” which he said he was securing for the two men in St. Kitts and the three were talking about how funds in the venture would be expended and divided.
The NCA made the recordings available to the court and the justices in their own words reported that in this July 2016 recorded conversation, Michael said he was “not a greedy man” and mentioned to the other two men “a possible split of 50-50 or three-way split.” The documents’ authors also said Michael “said he wanted 10 percent of the contract price which he thought was $50 million with a profit element of 13.3 million.”
After a disagreement over the 10 percent which Michael asked for, Michael is quoted as saying, “I am not working for nothing and you guys walk away with everything like in Antigua, I’m sorry.”
Also, in the document it is shown in transcript that the three men disagreed over a proposed payment of $2 million as part of the St. Kitts venture to an unnamed person only referred to as “our friend” by Virdee.
Notably, in the July 2016 conference call, both Virdee and Michael appeared to be aware that their conversation might have been monitored. When Michael at first asked how the “St. Kitts agreement” would be shared, Virdee at once replied that they should not be “having that conversation on line” but rather in person, to which Michael replied that it was okay to have such a conversation because he was “on a Vonage [telephone]” and the telephone “has nothing to do with Antigua.”
At another point in the same conversation when Virdee raises the issue of business in Antigua, Michael replies saying that he did not want to “speak on Antigua on the phone” but only “in person” or when Virdee got “a secure line.”
In item 14 of the judgement, the justices note that in the course of its investigation the NCA filed an application in another court for an order to compel an unnamed party to produce evidence.
According to the authors, the NCA stated in its application that among the taped calls was a recording of a conversation between Virdee, Trutschler and Michael “negotiating the amount of money due to [Michael] personally for introducing Virdee to officials of St Lucia and St Kitts.”
The new allegations came to light in a story published on Sunday by the U.K. Mail on Sunday, titled ‘Tory donor embroiled in £43million fraud allegations is now accused of bribing high-ranking Caribbean politicians.’
The judgement itself was delivered in a case which attorneys for Virdee and Trutschler filed in the U.K. High Court challenging some of the NCA’s actions related to their arrests and to the NCA’s investigation into their financial records.
Virdee, also known as Hardip Singh, is the British businessman behind the company PV Energy Limited that is responsible for the US$21 million, 10-megawatt, solar energy plant on Sir George Walter Highway in Antigua, which was officially inaugurated in February 2016.
It has been revealed in the court document that German law enforcement were investigating Virdee since 2015 for suspected involvement in a £100 million Value Added Tax (VAT) fraud scam – an allegation Virdee denies.
The German investigation culminated in the issuing of a European arrest warrant for Virdee in January 2017 that allowed U.K. law enforcement to arrest him on behalf of German law enforcement that month at the Heathrow International Airport. Virdee has since fought the German extradition requests in the U.K. courts.
When German law enforcement handed the British its secretly taped conversations of Virdee in March 2017, the U.K. National Crime Agency began investigating the British businessman for what it believed were acts of bribery or attempted bribery involving government officials in the Caribbean.
Months later in October 2017, Michael was arrested in the U.K. at the Gatwick International Airport while in transit on the morning of October 23 and questioned by U.K. law enforcement officers. He was released but was fired from the Cabinet the same day by Gaston Browne, Prime Minister.
On Sunday, the prime minister dismissed the seriousness of the allegations against Michael saying, “This is not a new issue. The matter is still before the court and I’m not in a position to pronounce on his innocence or guilt.”
Browne, when called, said that he was aware of the document from the U.K. High Court. When asked whether he would approach Michael on the matter Browne replied, “We have to allow for due process and we’ll see how this matter advances, and if it is that he is found guilty of a bribe or attempted bribe, I’ll have to reconsider whether or not he should serve in the government.”
In October 2017, Michael was Minister of Tourism, Economic Development, Investment and Energy and Browne was adamant that his arrest alone was grounds for dismissal.
Then, in what many characterised as an about-face, Browne brought Michael back into favour saying in December that the ABLP had “embraced” Michael despite his “difficulties” in the U.K. Browne went a step further and welcomed Michael back into his Cabinet following Michael’s success at the polls in the March 21 general election. He subsequently named him Minister of Investment and Trade, a post which Michael still holds.
Members of the political opposition have vigorously criticised the prime minister for bringing Michael back into his Cabinet, yet Browne defended the decision after the 2018 election saying that Michael’s tenure was “conditional” and dependent upon him staying free of any more arrests or charges.