A newspaper article out of South Florida has described the botched attempt of the United Workers Party government to revamp Hewanorra International Airport (HIA) back in 2009/2010 as “a convoluted tale of alleged bribery attempts”.
The article, written in the Miami Herald by Adiel Kaplan and Aaron Leibowitz, claimed that the project was an “eye-brow raising flip-flop by government officials, a misfiled request for U.S. investigative assistance and a rotating cast of political insiders and outsiders with different agendas”.
Once a very heated subject here on both social and regular media, the airport development project fell through however not much has been said about Antonio Assenza, owner of the company, Asphalt and Mining, which was at the heart of the bidding process for the airport contract.
Describing Assenza as “a successful businessman who came to the United States from Venezuela in 1990” the article noted that an investigation into the award of the lucrative airport construction contract was supposed to be hush hush, and it was — until a year ago. And that was when a request for assistance under an agreement called a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty — a request that was meant to be kept under seal — was instead filed publicly in the Southern District of Florida and then picked up and published by the financial monitoring website OffshoreAlert.
The newspaper article also noted that court filings allege a tainted arrangement between a company run by Assenza, called Asphalt and Mining, and three key government officials — one of whom is now the prime minister.
According to the article, which quoted an internal Justice Department memo “St. Lucian authorities believe that the facts are indicative of a criminal agreement between Assenza and public officials in the government of St. Lucia regarding this public works project”.
The article claimed that no one has been charged with anything and Assenza says he did nothing wrong and that Assenza chalked up the investigation to “political mongering” in advance of an election, telling the Herald “this method of political campaigning is common in a number of Caribbean and South American countries.”
The article, a very long one, noted that Assenza “was drawn to the Caribbean when work dried up in the United States during the financial crisis. He set up companies in the Bahamas, Panama and St. Lucia.” Further that Assenza said he has not been contacted by St. Lucian authorities and hadn’t seen the published court filing.
The $157 million project to rebuild the airport was announced in 2009. Assenza decided to submit a bid. His company, Asphalt and Mining, was ranked last out of three bidders by the country’s Port Authority, which might have been the end of that.
According to the Miami Herald the St. Lucian investigation found that Guy Joseph, who at the time was public works minister, was not happy with the result. The Port Authority reopened the process and declared Assenza’s company the winner.
The paper said that the opposition party suspected foul play. When it took back power a year later, the it opened an investigation, hiring forensic accountant Bob Lindquist whose investigation found more than 200 calls between Assenza, his business partner and three key government officials — Joseph, Port Authority Chief Sean Matthew, and Tourism Minister Allen Chastanet — in the months leading up to the initial contract award in 2009. The majority of the calls were made before the request for bids was even announced. Further that the investigation did not find any calls to the other two bidders during that crucial time.
“When asked by the Herald about the calls, Assenza noted that the majority did not involve him personally, and besides he had proper cause to communicate with the government because he was separately working on other public roads projects on the island. Indeed, the investigation found most of the calls involved Assenza’s partner, a St. Lucian businessman who was close friends with Joseph,” noted the article, which went to state that it also found the volume of the calls overall “increased at key points in the bidding period, including before and after Assenza’s pitch meeting with the Port Authority.”
According to the Herald, Chastanet, Joseph and Matthew did not return interview requests. The airport plans moved forward slowly. Then, in 2012, Assenza’s financing fell through.
The newspaper quoted Assenza as saying, via an email, that he never did know the official reason for the financing rejection, and offered his view that the $157 million contract was simply “too large” for a country of St. Lucia’s size.
The newspaper claimed that the St. Lucia investigation began soon after the bank backed out, citing a failure by the applicant to meet due diligence requirements. And as part of the investigation, St. Lucia made several requests for assistance to the Justice Department starting in 2014, seeking phone, travel and email records for Assenza, Joseph and Assenza’s St. Lucian business partner.
The newspaper’s article claimed that St. Lucia’s probe came to an abrupt standstill, but not before Lindquist had produced a 935-page report. It hasn’t been released. Lindquist’s efforts, however, led to the request for aid to the United States.
The St. Lucian government has yet to divulge any findings, and the investigation’s completion is in question.
“I would be most surprised if the government of St. Lucia continued to support the investigation,” Kenny Anthony, the ex-prime minister now on the outs, told the Herald in an email.
“The request for help was delayed in the United States throughout 2016, in part because it was initially misfiled. An order for phone records from Assenza’s “954” number was first filed in the federal court of Kansas, although “954” is a Broward prefix,” noted the newspaper which went on to state that a Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The article in yesterday’s Miami Herald outlined the companies Assenza is involved in in South Florida, the government (USA) contracts awarded to them. The article noted that Assenza did use the resources of one of the companies he relates to in South Florida known as Globetec.
“Records obtained in the St. Lucian investigation include emails about the airport contract sent from the accounts of three Globetec addresses and calls with St. Lucian officials from Globetec phones,” noted the article in the Miami Herald.
The article said that as the troubles mounted, Assenza’s lifestyle began to catch up with him. American Express sued Assenza for $240,000 in unpaid credit card expenses in 2014. The next year, he was sued over a nearly $250,000 debt by Mayors Jewelers, where he purchased a number of high-end watches.
Further that Assenza’s Florida construction license expired in 2016, according to state records. The same year, three banks foreclosed on two houses he owned in Broward County and a condominium he owned in Miami-Dade, according to court records.
In a letter to a judge in one of his foreclosure cases, Assenza detailed how he had fallen on hard times in 2014 when his ventures in Panama stalled.
“The problems had a familiar ring. Shortly after winning more than $40 million in contracts, Assenza wrote, a new party assumed power in Panama and halted the construction contracts while looking into “apparent corruption from prior administration officials,” noted the newspaper’s article.
The Miami Herald also reported that Assenza told the judge that as of 2016 the Panama projects were back on track, and he promised he would resume paying off his mortgage debt. Records show he did. All three foreclosures were vacated, but Globetec also fell on hard times. As of this year, Globetec owes the federal government $177,000, according to two tax liens on file. Globetec’s board has dwindled from six members, to one man: Assenza. The company is now registered to his home address.
According to the Miami Herald in St. Lucia, the picture may be brightening.
Allen Chastanet, the former Tourism Minister who lost his position in 2011, is back in power — this time as prime minister. He has publicly declared, despite the voluminous request for investigative assistance posted accidentally, that there is no investigation. Yes, there is, said Guy Joseph, now minister for economic development and the man who pushed aggressively for Assenza to get the contract and was accused by foes of facilitating bribes. He said it will prove his innocence.
According to the newspaper the airport project is moving forward again. Chastanet recently announced funding had been secured and construction would commence. He did not identify the contractor.