Witness testifies to deferring Jonathon Ash’s payment complaints to Bastian
NASSAU, BAHAMAS — Lead prosecutor James Guthrie, QC, urged a nine-member jury in the bribery trial of former Cabinet minister Shane Gibson to make their determination based on the evidence presented and not politics.
The trial began before Supreme Court Justice Carolita Bethel today.
Gibson has been accused of soliciting and accepting $610,000 in bribes from contractor Jonathan Ash in order to expedite payments owed to Ash in relation to post-Hurricane Matthew clean-up efforts in late 2016.
In his opening argument, Guthrie told the jury Gibson took advantage of his Cabinet post and committed a number of serious crimes.
According to Guthrie, Ash began work in late 2016 after being contacted by Gregory Butler who headed clean-up with the Urban Renewal Commission, and worked in the Centreville community for three months. This included work on three dumps in New Providence.
Guthrie said Ash billed the government large sums of money due to the work and people in his employ, and at one point was owed up to $1 million from the government. However, he said the government was “slow to pay”. Guthrie explained Ash approached Jack Thompson, then-permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister in “desperation to be paid”.
The prosecution said Ash was deferred to Deborah Bastian, who introduced the contractor to Gibson.
Guthrie said a crucial part of the case was a meeting attended by Ash, Gibson and Bastian, which the prosecution planned to outline at a future point.
“Almost immediately after the meeting, Ash began to make payments,” Guthrie told the court.
“To begin with, these were made to Ms. Bastian, but we say you can be sure they were intended for and accepted by the minister, Mr. Gibson. After a while the payments were made directly by Ash to the minister himself.
Guthrie continued: “Members of the jury, the prosecution says that these payments were bribes. The minister was asking for money [and] if Ash paid him, he would see that Ash’s bills were paid. As a result, Ash paid him; he accepted the money and then bills were paid as night follows day.”
According to the prosecution, Gibson, concerned with Bastian, solicited $250,000 from Ash between mid-January 2017 and mid-February 2017.
Providing a breakdown of the payments, the prosecution said Gibson solicited and accepted two payments of $50,000; two payments of $25,000; and six various payments amounting to $100,000 during the period.
The prosecution said it had records of telephone calls and WhatsApp records in which the Gibson, who contacted Ash, sometimes referred to payments as “shingles”.
Ash has been granted immunity.
Audrey Dames, a fraud officer in the audit department of Commonwealth Bank, was called as the first witness. She confirmed that she produced a package of financial documents for the Financial Intelligence Unit, including Ash’s bank statements, cheques recorded and payable to him, payments he made and debit notes.
Butler, who was the deputy director of Urban Renewal between 2016 and 2017, testified that Urban Renewal reported to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) following Hurricane Matthew to assist in coordinating clean-up of New Providence.
He told the court he coordinated clean-up efforts in Centreville, recruited people from the community for that purpose and oversaw the timesheets workers signed in order to receive payment.
Under questioning, Butler said Ash approached him in the Ministry of Works parking lot and asked for work. He said he contacted someone on Ash’s behalf and he was later engaged on his (Butler’s) recommendation.
According to Butler, the contractor presented himself as a resident of Centreville. He said it was later discovered that Ash did not reside in the constituency, but it was not contested as he was “working fine” and did a “reasonable amount of work”.
Though he could not recall the exact timeframe, Butler said Ash came to him once or twice in October 2016 concerning not receiving payment. He said he referred Ash to Bastian. He also noted that several other workers had complained about payment issues.
Under cross examination, Gomez asked Butler if he ever received or request money from Ash for the recommendation to work in the clean-up effort.
He responded: “No sir”.
Gomez continued: “Would it surprise you to hear…”
Butler interjected: “So I have heard. I took no funds. I wanted no funds.”
Butler also said at one point he spoke face to face with Bastian, whom he said he was friends with in the presence of Ash to see if “we owed him”. But he immediately noted for the prosecution not to “hold me to that” as it relates to the contractor’s presence during the claimed face to face meeting.
The matter has been adjourned to 11 am Friday.
Local counsel Terry Archer and Destiny McKinney appear along with Guthrie.
Keith Knight, QC, and Damian Gomez, QC, along with Philip McKenzie and Owen Wells represent Gibson.
Former Prime Minister Perry Christie sat in the back of the courtroom in support of Gibson. Several of Gibson’s relatives were also present in court.