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Land grab hearings 'not in public interest'

Under fire: Dirk Harrison, senior counsel for the Commission of Inquiry into Historic Losses of Land.

An inquiry into historic land losses was yesterday branded a sham by witnesses who claimed they were gagged from giving evidence at the hearing.

Now complainants have taken legal action to ask for a judicial review of the commission.

Myron Piper and Raymond Davis claimed the CoI refused to hear their complaints against institutions it was set up to investigate.

They said the commission was a façade to make it appear that the problem was being tackled.

The pair said in an affidavit that the CoI was given a wide mandate to examine claims of questionable practices by organisations such as banks, real estate agents and law firms – but had refused to hear their complaints about the organisations.

They also claimed that the CoI had a conflict of interest because some commissioners had close links to the institutions the pair accused of misconduct.

The two said the commission had dismissed evidence of systemic corruption that cost people their homes.

Mr Piper said in the affidavit: “I was told by the commission secretary that my case was ‘textbook’ for the commission’s jurisdiction, only to receive an abrupt three-sentence letter five months later – less than 24 hours before I was to go on the witness stand – that my case did not fit the terms of reference and would therefore not proceed.”

He added: “The CoI and its counsels have continued to exhibit confusion, indecision and contradictory decision on whether the applicants’ matters fall within the terms of reference of the commission published under the authority of the Premier of Bermuda on November 1, 2019.”

Mr Piper said that the CoI was “unlawfully restricting the remit by excluding certain individuals and or corporate bodies from exposure and examination and thereby not making a full, faithful and impartial inquiry”.

The commission was set up in October, 2019 by David Burt, the Premier, to investigate “systemic land grabs”.

Although not a court, the commission was given the authority to pass its findings to the Department of Public Prosecutions.

Mr Piper wrote: “I believe that the commission is ultra vires … and is not acting in the public interest.”

He added: “There are concerns about certain commissioners who appear to have actual or perceived conflicts of interest.”

The seven-member panel is headed by former Supreme Norma Wade-Miller, a former Supreme Court judge, and is made up of two lawyers, an estate agent, a surveyor, a government employee and an ex-police officer.

The affidavit said: “The Premier would not have appointed commissioners who would have, potentially, the clear conflicts … namely persons from the legal, real estate and banking professions.

“If the Premier deliberately did not take into account these foreseen conflicts then it is arguable that the commission was established for an improper purpose such as political expediency rather than for the genuine public interest.”

The document added that the commissioners “have too many Government connections for the commission to be deemed to be an impartial, independent body”.

A former investigator hired by Government to assist the commission has also expressed concerns.

LeYoni Junos and a colleague were both dropped from the commission in December after “expressing concerns about the integrity of the commission's proceedings”.

Ms Junos first raised concerns about CoI procedures in a letter to commissioners on November 15 last year.

But she said the concerns were dismissed by Dirk Harrison, the CoI’s legal counsel, at a meeting four days later where he told the investigators “stay in your lane”.

The two were told last December that their services were no longer needed – even though they had expected to work for the commission until it had completed its work.

Ms Junos outlined the circumstances of her termination in a letter to the commission’s secretary on December 15.

Ms Junos wrote that her concerns included “an apparent lack of procedural fairness and the issue of vulnerable claimants not having access to legal advice and representation on equal footing”.

She said that Mr Harrison rejected the criticism and insisted he could represent the interests of all parties and witnesses.

Ms Junos wrote: “This is a deliberate misrepresentation of his role and has put witnesses at risk of being handled with short shrift and having their submissions summarily dismissed.

“In addition, our concerns and examples of conflicts of interest by the chair of the commission, Justice Norma Wade-Miller herself were dismissed, along with another commissioner mentioned by name.

Ms Junos also alleged in her letter that people named in witness testimonies and were alleged to have been involved in land grabs should be notified before hearings were held so that they could hear the complaints made against them.

She added: “This is a legal requirement of the Act.”

Mr Burt and the commission did not respond to requests for comment.

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Published May 05, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated May 05, 2021 at 7:51 am)

Land grab hearings 'not in public interest'

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