Independent Liberal Party (ILP) interim leader and ex-FIFA vice president Jack Warner sued me for substantial damages, a retraction and public apology as well as legal costs but he ended up offering an apology instead, via a legal document lodged in the High Court.
Here is second and final part of our series into the real story of Jack Warner, William McCormick QC, Om Lalla and Dereck Balliram versus Lasana Liburd, journalist and Wired868 managing director.
Jack Warner’s instructing attorney, Dereck Balliram, had insisted for months that any settlement between both parties in our libel suit would not be for publication and a private matter. I never believed him; and I was right to be skeptical.
I had barely left Port of Spain, after Justice Rajkumar accepted Warner’s withdrawal of his lawsuit on 8 October 2013, when my phone started ringing with media inquiries.
The Trinidad Express never called me. And yet that media house made the biggest deal of the case. Its headline screamed: “Liburd apologises…”
It was not just wrong; it was the reverse of what actually happened. And I will always wonder about the motives of the newspaper on that day. (Libel Suit Timeline)
Ironically, as a former employee, I gave Express some of its best work on Warner.
Seven years ago, my exposé on Jack Warner’s diversion of Trinidad and Tobago’s 2006 World Cup tickets into Simpaul Travel, his family-owned business, led to the then FIFA vice-president being the first FIFA Executive Committee member to ever be found guilty of breaching its Code of Ethics.
The US-based Fox Soccer television programme decreed that it was the best World Cup story of the year; even before a ball was kicked in the Germany tournament.
Warner had been upset by my probing into Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) affairs from long before then. But he was so incensed at the Simpaul Ticket scandal, which ruined his chance of a national award, that he promised to crush me and even mentioned the article on his From Zero to Hero autobiography.
His chance to ruin me finally came in 2013.
All Warner had to do was step into the Port of Spain High Court, endure cross-examination and the re-hashing of his handling of $4.76 million in aid money meant for Haiti, hope that I could not prove he took the money himself and then convince the judge to award him a hefty settlement that I could not manage.
I was so confident that the former football administrator and current Independent Liberal Party (ILP) interim leader could not pull it off that I gambled everything I had on the libel case. I decided to represent myself in court.
I had discussed the legal matter with family and friends, including British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings.
Jennings and I agreed that Warner probably sued because I was now an independent publisher and lacked the financial means to stand up to him. Worse, how could I be certain that Warner was fighting me with his own money when his advocate attorney, Om Lalla, had allegedly just benefitted from a $5 million NIDCO contract?
By representing myself and refusing to spend a cent on the case, I would use my perceived disadvantage as an asset. If Warner’s aim was to bury me in debt then, as long as I did not spend my money or anyone else’s on the case, he could not win.
Jennings, who has a flair for the dramatics himself, suggested that I pedal to the Court of Justice on a bicycle and offer it to Warner if I lost. He never quite convinced me of that line of action.
It was not a flippant decision though.
The cost of running Wired868 meant I had exhausted my personal resources long ago. If Justice Rajkumar so much as ordered me to pay Warner’s legal costs, the site would be finished.
And there would be little chance of returns on the investments of my mother, Yolanda, sisters, Soyini and Sekayi, my girlfriend Lou-Ann, and her sister, Antoinette, who all helped Wired868 to get off the ground.
I have a three-year-old daughter with Lou-Ann who also has two daughters from a previous relationship. Who knew what the impact of a legal defeat would be on our young family.
Balliram erupted into laughter when he was notified that I would represent myself in court and, as I walked away from KR Lalla and Company, I wondered if I might indeed have a fool for a client.
But I stood firm and believed in my strategy.
My former lawyer’s secretary, Stacy Castillo, was a regular, reliable source of legal tips as I secured an extension from the court and then filed witness statements for myself and British investigative reporter James Corbett, who had made the breakthrough in the Haiti aid story for the UK Times.
Our statements said that we would reveal, in court, audio recordings of the president of the Haitian Football Association lamenting Warner’s treachery, details of bank transfers from South Korea banks to Trinidad accounts and statements from FIFA and the TTFF on the controller of those accounts and the disappearance of the aid money
If Justice Rajkumar decided that I was guilty of libel, then the real fun would start as both parties would then have to put forward a case to help determine the value of Warner’s reputation.
I had a list of close to a dozen international investigative journalists and sport transparency officials who were happy to testify in a Trinidad and Tobago courtroom on my work and Warner’s character. Apart from Great Britain’s Jennings and Corbett, there were Jesse Fink (Australia), Jens Weinrich (Germany), David Larkin (United States) and Jens Sejer Anderson (Denmark).
A part of me wished Warner did win the libel case.
Two weeks before our court date on 8 October 2013, Balliram called. Warner, he said, had nothing personal against me and a court battle would be a waste of everyone’s time. So, could we settle?
Balliram offered to accept the same statement his law firm was offered previously and which it had dismissed as a repeat of the libel. I refused and demanded a further concession.
“If you substitute the word ‘apology’ with ‘regret’ or anything else, I would be prepared to sign,” I replied, via email. “Your client is free to interpret the statement as he chooses. But I would not sign anything with the words ‘apology’ or ‘sorry.’ If we agree to this, then we can wrap this up.”
It was a hectic period for me and I had just worked for two straight weeks on the Pro League and CONCACAF Champions League while the “Soca Warriors” were looking towards an international friendly against New Zealand and the local political scene was providing regular fodder for our Wired868’s satirical section. Before our court date, Trinidad and Tobago defender Akeem Adams also suffered a heart attack in Hungary.
As happy as I was to face the ex-FIFA vice-president in court, I knew the site would suffer for content while I turned my attentions to the legal proceedings; it would be reckless, I felt, to turn down an acceptable settlement if one were forthcoming.
Initially, Warner, who claimed to be “humiliated, embarrassed and hurt” by my tweet on the Haiti aid scandal, wanted to affix my signature below these words: “I accept that this allegation is without foundation and injudicious on my part. I wish to offer my apology to the claimant for the distress and embarrassment caused by my tweet and/or comment.”
But I stood by my work and only conceded that I should have mentioned the source of my information in the tweet.
In the end, Warner settled for: “I accept that it was injudicious on my part not to have attributed the tweet to its source and I offer my regrets to the Claimant therefore.”
There was no question about the validity of my story or the tweet.
I felt that was a victory—or close enough to one.
On retrospect, I celebrated prematurely. The fact that Balliram gave me his word did not mean he would stick to it.
It was Balliram rather than his secretary who greeted me at the door on my next visit to KR Lalla and Company. He ushered me into a conference room and brought me a statement to sign. It was one I had rejected months ago.
“Dereck,” I said, “this is not what we agreed to.”
“Really?” he responded, with a deadpan expression. “Let me check.”
He stepped outside and, within seconds, was back with what seemed to be the right statement.
How low, I thought.
I read what was encased in quotation marks and agreed that this was the correct version.
I had not brought the statement Balliram and I agreed to before, since I naively thought our negotiations had concluded a week earlier. The attorney slipped the word “allegation” into those quotation marks and it went undetected.
But that was not the biggest surprise. Distracted and annoyed, I did not pay sufficient attention to the accompanying text that preceded the statement.
“The Claimant offered an apology,” it read, “and the Claimant has accepted same in following form…”
If Balliram had tricked me, there was little benefit to his client; because the claimant was Jack Warner. Unknown to me, I received an apology from Warner, courtesy of his attorney, which is now filed in the High Court!
But that was not how the Express reported it. Balliram supposedly described it as a typo and Express, a supposed bastion of fearless, accurate journalism, reported what Warner’s lawyer told the paper without so much as a phone call to me or the High Court.
How could anyone, let alone a responsible media house, change the wording of a filed legal document without authorisation from the court? If Balliram felt there was an error, was he not duty-bound to get me back in the office and persuade me to reverse it? If the Express felt there was an error, was its reporter not duty-bound to check the High Court and myself?
I made my position clear to Express news editor Curtis Rampersad and editor-in-chief Omatie Lyder, who is also assistant secretary of the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT). Neither could explain why the Express carried the story in the manner which it did; and yet neither saw to it that a retraction or correction was done.
MATT, as ever, was silent and noncommittal on the matter.
During the libel case, the Austria-based International Press Institute (IPI) contacted me and wrote on the issue while journalists from all over the world offered support. MATT never made so much as a single media release on my behalf.
But if nothing else this adventure has taught me to pay little heed to the size, wealth or growl of a would-be bully.
Truth is its own defence. And he who has it on his side will have the last laugh.
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