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Court hears of ‘charity’ deception as trial of Zane DeSilva, daughter and associate gets under way

Zane DeSilva, right, and Zarah Harper, his daughter, when they appeared at an earlier court hearing (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A former national security minister told a court there was no “rulebook” for the early months of the coronavirus pandemic and agreed that events were considered for exemption from large group limits if they were for charity.

Wayne Caines was the first witness in the trial of Zane DeSilva, his daughter, Zarah Harper, and another woman, Angela Caldwell.

The three deny giving false information to a public officer in July 2020.

Mr DeSilva, who is a Progressive Labour Party MP for Southampton East, Ms Harper and Ms Caldwell are accused of providing information to an official at the Ministry of National Security, which they did not believe to be true.

The charge added that there was an intention to cause the public officer to do something they would not otherwise do, “namely that they provided a letter stating that an event would be a charity fundraising dinner in order to be granted an exemption to hold a large-group gathering under the Public Health (Covid-19 Emergency Powers) Regulations 2020”.

Supreme Court jurors heard that the case related to correspondence made before an event at Blu Bar and Grill in Warwick on July 3, 2020.

Mr Caines, who was the Minister of National Security at the time, told the court: “Prior to the Covid-19 crisis in Bermuda, this country had never seen a set of circumstances like this in our history.”

He highlighted social, political and professional ramifications that resulted from the measures put in place to try to limit the spread of the virus.

Mr Caines said: “The Ministry of National Security in the first week received over 1,500 requests for exemptions.”

The court heard that by late June 2020, infection numbers were declining and a decision was made to ”start opening back up events systematically towards Cup Match 2020”.

Mr Caines said: “There were a number of businesses that were complaining, lamenting that they were not able to survive because the country was closed down.

“We received indication from the third sector, the charities in Bermuda, that our people were going hungry and the third sector were running out of money.”

Mr Caines, the MP for Devonshire North West, added that he had talks at the time with his parliamentary and Cabinet colleagues.

He explained: “If we were indeed to host events or consider events, there must be something that we can give to charities to help people that needed to be fed.

“I did not have a rulebook. I could not look at what they did in history.

“I had to, every single day, make decisions for the betterment of my people.”

The court heard that permission for the event on July 3, 2020, was issued by Mr Caines in his ministerial role.

Alan Richards, for the Crown, asked the witness what it was that persuaded him the exemption should be granted.

Mr Caines said: “Looking at all the circumstances it was an event that allowed a restaurant to recommence commerce … that among other events was getting our economy back on track.”

He added: “The second part — there was an opportunity to raise money for the third sector.”

The court heard earlier that requests were made to the national security ministry for permission to bring together a group in excess of the number permitted by Covid-19 rules.

The charge

Zane DeSilva, 63, Zarah Harper, 38, both from Southampton, and Angela Caldwell, 44, from Warwick, are charged with one count of giving false information to a public officer.

It is alleged that they “on or about the 1st day of July 2020, in the islands of Bermuda, gave to a public officer at the Ministry of National Security information which they did not believe to be true, intending thereby to cause or knowing it to be likely that they would thereby cause, a public officer to do something which such public officer would not otherwise do, namely that they provided a letter stating that an event would be a charity fundraising dinner in order to be granted an exemption to hold a large group gathering under the Public Health (Covid-19 Emergency Powers) Regulations 2020”.

All three have denied the charge and the Supreme Court trial continues.

Mr Caines agreed when it was put to him by Mr Richards that the restriction could be lifted if the minister was satisfied there were exceptional circumstances.

The court heard that Mr Caines received an e-mail from Ms Caldwell, described in the correspondence as being with the marketing department of MEF Ltd, which includes Blu among its establishments, on June 26, 2020.

Jurors heard that a letter, signed by the restaurant’s general manager, was attached to the e-mail and mentioned reservations totalling 130 guests for July 3.

Mr Caines read his reply — although it was sent in error to someone else — which said: “As you know MEF must receive an exemption to host the party.

“We are happy to chat with you to ensure that all is in order for the event.”

The witness told the court that he personally approved the request.

Another e-mail from Ms Caldwell, 44, to Mr Caines was dated July 1, the court heard, and had a follow-up letter also from the general manager attached.

The court heard the letter said that the event “will be a one-off fundraising dinner for Meals on Wheels”.

Mr Caines agreed when Mr Richards said: “Meals on Wheels wasn’t mentioned in the previous letter.”

Mr Richards told jurors earlier in his opening remarks: “We anticipate that you will hear that Meals on Wheels knew nothing whatsoever about it.

“It’s the Crown’s case, respectfully, that that was a figment, a contrivance to overcome the need to demonstrate exceptional circumstances in order to obtain from the minister an exemption from the large-group limit.”

Mr Richards added: “Within what the Crown say was that misrepresentation, these three defendants fulfilled, we say, different roles.”

Mr Richards added that Ms Harper, 38, was a partner in Zarabi Entertainment, which hosted the dinner.

He said that the jury would be invited to consider evidence that, he claimed, “will show that this was not genuinely a charitable event; that that was a cover for the fact that, with the greatest of respect, they wanted to have a party”.

Under cross-examination by Jerome Lynch, KC, Mr Caines told the court he was aware of charitable endeavours by both Mr DeSilva, 63, and Ms Harper.

The witness said he remembered a “please donate here” invitation at the event, where guests were told “all proceeds go to Meals on Wheels”.

Mr Lynch highlighted a message from the Blu general manager, in which, the court heard, he asked Ms Harper to find out from her father “what to include in the letter and to whom we send it”.

He asked the witness: “Did you ever become aware at the time, rather than now, that her father had a hand in drafting any of those letters?”

Mr Caines replied: “No.”

Mr Lynch put it to the witness that the gist of his response to the original e-mail sent by Ms Caldwell was “I’m not rejecting this at all … make it a charitable event and we can allow this”.

Mr Caines said: “That’s correct.”

He told the court he was not aware of any e-mails or letters to the defendants at any time that told them their application was rejected.

The trial, before Puisne Judge Shade Subair Williams, continues.

* This story has been updated to include evidence from Wayne Caines, a former national security minister.

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