MIAMI — The government of Trinidad and Tobago has won a multimillion-dollar verdict in a sprawling corruption lawsuit that began nearly 20 years ago and involves former high-ranking officials.
A jury in Miami awarded the government more than $100 million in compensatory damages in a verdict late Wednesday. The civil case began in 2004 when the Trinidadian government sued a former finance minister, various businessmen and several companies in countries including Florida, Panama and Portugal.
“We got everything that we asked for,” Faris Al-Rawi, a former attorney general in Trinidad who represented the government in the case, told The Associated Press. “This represents restitution to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”
He added that the money can be used to build schools or provide healthcare.
The lawsuit alleged that the defendants participated in a scheme beginning in August 1996 to illegally obtain consulting and construction contracts at hyper-inflated prices via bribes, bid rigging and money laundering linked to an expansion of the Piarco International Airport in the Trinidadian capital of Port-of-Spain.
The complaint initially targeted 56 defendants, among them 11 individuals and 12 corporate entities, but some secured deals over the years, so only three remained when the trial began earlier this month: former finance minister Brian Kuei Tung and two businessmen.
Tung’s attorney, Michael Garcia, said he plans to appeal, adding that the government lacked standing to sue and that he believes the plaintiff should have been Trinidad’s Airport Authority.
“These defendants were not responsible for any losses Trinidad & Tobago contends it sustained,” he told the AP in an email.
Al-Rawi said the government will go after those with the deepest pockets, noting that one of the businessmen who was sued owns a large insurance company in Trinidad and Tobago that recently placed a $1 billion bid to buy another local company.
The verdict came 19 years after the civil case was filed in the Florida 11th Circuit Court and represents a victory for the government’s anti-corruption efforts. It went to trial on March 6.
Related criminal cases in Trinidad, in which top former officials were charged, have stalled or withered as key witnesses died and prosecutors dropped charges.
Nearly two dozen people were originally charged in Trinidad, including a former prime minister, his wife and an ex Cabinet minister accused of receiving kickbacks from a local businessman.
Among those named in the lawsuit that the government won was a former finance minister, Brian Kuei Tung. An attorney for him could not immediately be reached for comment.
In 2005, the U.S. government filed several criminal charges against some of the same defendants, including bank fraud and money laundering. Although some charges were discarded, some defendants were convicted and sentenced to six-year prison terms. Others, including two Trinidadian businessmen, have appealed, and their cases are still pending in the U.S. justice system.
“Great day in the morning,” Trinidad Prime Minister Keith Rowley said, commenting on the verdict.
By GISELA SALOMON and DÁNICA COTO/Associated Press