Tuesday, March 25, 2014

From our archives: Who was Vernon Paul? And what about his conspiracy story?

(First published on JYOTI Friday August 22, 2008)

A Trinidadian man named Vernon Paul died recently in a fiery crash in Caracas, Venezuela. Another accident, another traffic fatality. But this victim was not just another statistic. His name was Vernon Paul, the man who fingered top PNMites in a conspiracy to discredit Sadiq Baksh. And his finger pointed to the highest levels in the country's political directorate.

Paul grew up in Dow Village, South Oropouche, and claimed that he worked for an elite unit within the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) handling anti-drug assignments all over Latin America.

He also claimed that he was the man who recaptured notorious drug dealer Deochand Ramdhanie in Tucupita, Venezuela in 1998.

But the story that put him on the front page broke in January 2006 when he claimed that top PNM members conspired at the highest levels to frame Sadiq Baksh in 2002 and implicate him in a drug and terrorism plot.

In 2002 Baksh was MP for San Fernando West and the party organizer for the United National Congress (UNC).

Baksh was seen as the man largely responsible for the UNC winning a majority in the 2000 election and was perceived as a threat to the PNM.

President Robinson, following the 18-18 tie in the 2001 election, had also just appointed Patrick Manning prime minister.

Manning was unable to name a Speaker and convene Parliament and was desperate to find a way to stay in office without calling another election.

The opposition was a thorn on Manning's side, demanding an election and Team Unity, led by Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj was showing signs of planning to sit out the 2002 election whenever it was called.

It was the breakup that created Team Unity that caused the fall of the Panday government in 2001 and the subsequent 18-18 tie that allowed Manning to make a back-door entrance to Whitehall.

If Team Unity were no longer going to be a spoiler, then any new election would be a straight fight between the PNM and the UNC.

In the 2001 election the UNC had more votes and the higher popular vote and would have won back its majority if Team Unity had not taken a handful of critical votes in Tunapuna.

That was the background to the alleged plot that Paul revealed in a letter to the Commissioner of Police, Trevor Paul.

It was July 2002. Sadiq Baksh and his wife, Champa, were out of the country when his parliamentary colleague and MP for Caroni East, Ganga Singh, discovered what he said was a PNM plot to smear Baksh.

At a hastily convened news conference at the UNC Rienzi Complex headquarters, Singh told the media that he was tipped off by an informant, whom he did not identify, about a conspiracy involving "top men" in the PNM. He also did not name the alleged conspirators.

The plan, he said, was to frame Baksh by placing explosive devices and pure cocaine in a water tank at Baksh's home in San Fernando, then raid the premises, find the illicit material and charge Baksh.

According to Singh, that would have put Baksh out of the picture and reduced the balance in the Parliament by one to give Manning a simple majority.

The reaction was predictable. Each camp cried foul. UNC supporters blamed the PNM; PNM supporters called it a ridiculous story with no merit. The PNM even said it was hatched by the UNC to create the impression that the PNM was involved in a plot, pointing out that people should ask Singh how he knew so much about a plan that was allegedly a top secret operation.

Whoever planted the "evidence" in the water tank lost out; Baksh's son found the cocaine and explosives and called the police. The table was turned. Instead of Baksh being charged with an offence police had to launch an investigation to find out who put the stuff in his water tank.

In Parliament it was business as usual but Manning was running out of time. He had already asked the president to prorogue the Parliament twice and he could hold on no longer. So he pulled the plug and called an election, which he won.

That was 2002. Manning was now fully in charge with a clear majority and it seemed the story went away.

Then, four years later in 2006 Paul surfaced with what appeared to be a truly incredible conspiracy story. And what a story!

He sent a report to Police Commissioner Trevor Paul accusing three officials in the Manning government of plotting to frame Baksh and Singh.

The commissioner confirmed that investigators had tried to get to the root of the allegation and that police would interview the three government officials. Paul's finger also pointed to a Muslimeen connection and the police chief also confirmed that investigators would question that person.

Commissioner Paul did not reveal names. The Trinidad Guardian reported that it had learned that among those to be interviewed by investigators were a senator, an MP, a top PNM official and an ex-senior member of the Jamaat al Muslimeen.

In an exclusive interview in Venezuela, where he was living in "exile", Vernon Paul gave details of how the four men plotted with at least two Venezuelans to frame Baksh and Singh."The ex-DEA associate claimed that the intent of the plot was to help destabilize the UNC in the 2002 general election and that the plan was hatched at the homes of two PNM officials," the Guardian reported.

The Police Commissioner revealed that in December 2005 Vernon Paul contacted the Ministry of National Security and spoke with an official who then called the commissioner.

"He said the ex-DEA associate told him he had information on the five kilos of cocaine and two missiles which were found in Baksh’s water tanks in 2002. Paul said he arranged for two local officers to meet Vernon Paul on December 14, in Venezuela, but that meeting was shelved because of travel arrangements," the Guardian reported.

The paper said seven days later, on December 21, two officers went to Venezuela and met with Vernon Paul at the Marriott Hotel in Caracas, who had offered to give a statement and name those who participated in the plot.

The commissioner said Vernon Paul refused to give a statement, fearing for his safety. But Paul talked with the Guardian and corroborated the meeting at the Marriott Hotel, his contact with commissioner Paul and his refusal to sign any statement in fear of his safety.

The police commissioner said he later received a package that contained two statements, adding that they did not have any signatures. He said the allegations against the three government officials were contained in those statements, but because there was no signature he had to check the authenticity of the documents.

But Vernon Paul denied that and in speaking with the Guardian he was adamant that he had forwarded notarized statements bearing his signature, as well as fingerprints to the commissioner, and they were delivered to the commissioner on January 17.

The TnT Mirror went further that the Guardian and named names of the top PNM members mentioned in Paul's statement as well as the Muslimeen connection.

The PNM mounted a campaign to discredit Vernon Paul. And a statement by Information Advisor at the American Embassy in Port of Spain, Robert Skinner said that Paul "has never been an employee of the U.S. Government".

However, a senior embassy official has said that Skinner was not authorized to make any such statement, because it is not the policy of the U.S. government to identify individuals who work as undercover agents or informants.

Baksh has demanded an investigation to clear his name. But it appears the probe did not go beyond the hype and the headlines.

The media lost interest and the opposition, which was fighting its own internal battles at the time, didn't bother to keep the story on the front burner.

The Manning government remained in power for its full term, called a general election and won a strong majority.

As for the conspiracy story, well you might say it just went up in flames because dead men can't talk.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai