Pay-to-play scandal: Businesswoman seeks to clear company name

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A businesswoman accused of organising an alleged “pay-to-play” luncheon for the Premier in 2002 has launched a libel action in the US to clear her company’s name.

Tina Byles Williams (formerly Poitevien) is suing a trio of “disgruntled” former employees of FIS Group — her Philadelphia-based firm which was Bermuda’s public pension fund consultant from 1999 until it lost the contract last year — whom she alleges conspired to destroy her company’s reputation by feeding false information to the Island’s media and others.

The three accused women are contesting the claim.

  • Tina Byles Williams

    Tina Byles Williams


A businesswoman accused of organising an alleged “pay-to-play” luncheon for the Premier in 2002 has launched a libel action in the US to clear her company’s name.

Tina Byles Williams (formerly Poitevien) is suing a trio of “disgruntled” former employees of FIS Group — her Philadelphia-based firm which was Bermuda’s public pension fund consultant from 1999 until it lost the contract last year — whom she alleges conspired to destroy her company’s reputation by feeding false information to the Island’s media and others.

The three accused women are contesting the claim.

The pay-to-play scandal erupted two years ago when the Mid-Ocean News — The Royal Gazette’s sister paper — published a story describing how Ms Williams organised a fundraising lunch in Washington DC for Ewart Brown, then the Deputy Premier, for which some attendees from the pension investment industry paid $2,500 a ticket.

The article claimed the lunch was an example of a practice dubbed pay-to-play in the US, alleging that the pension fund managers and stockbrokers present hoped their financial contributions to Transport and Tourism Minister Dr. Brown would see them hold onto or awarded government contracts in Bermuda. Ms Williams’ lawyer claims in a 46-page complaint submitted to Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of the plaintiffs, FIS Funds Management and Fiduciary Investment Solutions, that Donna Blair, Holly Hollimon and Donna Steinhouse deliberately leaked information about the lunch to the Mid-Ocean News in 2005 in a bid to ruin FIS and then forwarded copies of subsequent articles to clients of the firm.

FIS lost the $320,000-a-year Bermuda Government contract after it was put out to tender in May 2006.

Ms Williams, a close friend of Dr. Brown’s wife Wanda, does not deny that the lunch took place. But her lawyer George Bochetto says: “The Washington luncheon could not possibly have been a ‘pay-to-play’ tactic in securing FIS’ contract with the Bermuda Government, since such luncheon occurred two years after FIS competitively won such contract.

“The luncheon was for Bermuda’s Minister of Transportation, who, unlike the Minister of Finance, had absolutely no control or authority over FIS or its consulting contract with Bermuda.

“There was absolutely nothing illegal or improper about the Washington luncheon and no one from the Ministry of Finance attended or was benefited by it in any way.”

The legal complaint describes the three defendants’ alleged “systematic efforts to destroy plaintiffs’ reputation in the investment and pension plan management industry and to ruin plaintiffs’ current and prospective business relationships”.

Mr. Bochetto says the women — who are being sued for defamation, breach of duty of loyalty and fiduciary duty, civil conspiracy and misappropriation of trade secrets, among other charges — used lies, deceit and perjury, including installing specialist software to corrupt emails sent from their computers, to cover up their wrongful conduct.

The document states that as early as March 2003 they “were engaged in a conspiracy to maliciously defame and harm FIS by spreading rumours and innuendo about FIS engaging in ‘pay-to-play’ politics, which was (and always has been) absolutely false”.

It goes on to say that they later “began a campaign of supplying highly confidential information (or much of the information) to the Mid-Ocean News... which the Mid-Ocean News then used to form the basis of an ensuing series of highly defamatory — and false — articles accusing FIS of engaging in ‘pay-to-play’ conduct”. Ms Hollimon and Ms Steinhouse were among a tiny number of people who knew about the lunch, according to Mr. Bochetto, who claims both, along with Ms Blair, had animosity towards Ms Williams.

The legal case — which has yet to be settled — includes exhibits of emails between the women which purportedly detail former FIS senior vice president Ms Blair’s conversations with former Mid-Ocean News journalist Colin O’Connor, who broke the story.

In one, she allegedly wrote: “The one thing that caused him to almost wet himself was the luncheon in DC for Dr. Brown.”

The message continues: “I read him the invitation with the date and place, ‘checks made payable to Dr. Brown and to be mailed to Tina’. He said this was the most astounding thing he had heard in years of being a reporter and called it ‘dynamite’. He was stammering so hard he could not speak.”

Ms Blair added: “This will definitely hit the press and cause a tsunami down there.”

A later message suggested articles on the topic would be a “major blockbuster”.

The predication proved accurate: the first story on April 1, 2005, triggered a succession of what Ms Williams’ lawyer claims were “false and defamatory articles” in the Mid-Ocean and The Royal Gazette.

Grant Gibbons, then Opposition Leader, said when news of the lunch became public: “It stinks.”

He later called for Dr. Brown to be sacked for “unethical behaviour”. Shadow Attorney General Trevor Moniz said Ms Williams should be “removed from any work in these islands”.

Ms Williams is seeking financial compensation and an injunction to stop the defendants making defamatory or derogatory statements about FIS, which she says suffered “enormous harm and damage” from the articles. The case could go before a jury in September if it is not settled out of court beforehand.

Ms Williams and her lawyer declined to comment on the case. Ms Blair’s lawyer Jeffrey Lindy said neither he nor his client could comment as the case was still in litigation. Ms Hollimon and Ms Steinhouse and their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

Mid-Ocean News editor Tim Hodgson said: “It’s an interesting development. But I’m not in the habit of commenting on legal cases the Mid-Ocean News is not a party to and that are unfolding in other jurisdictions.”

Businesswoman takes libel action to clear company’s name

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