Ten people, including a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services employee, have appeared in court charged in connection with a flood relief grant scam.
Farrah Haniff, Heather Griffith-Benjamin, Michael Alexis, Carol Christopher-Bennett, Debbie Critchlow, Adelephia Lallion, Ajay Ramlakhan, Ramlakhan’s common-law wife Mandisa Stewart, Darren Balcon and his common-law wife Rohini Persad appeared before Magistrate Marissa Gomez in the Port-of-Spain Magistrates’ Court on a series of charges related to seven $20,000 grants that were fraudulently obtained earlier this month.
Haniff, a clerk in the ministry, was solely charged with five counts of forging and uttering five of the ministry’s emergency relief and recovery assistance forms which were used to obtain the grants. She was jointly charged with Griffith-Benjamin, Alexis, Christopher-Bennett, Ramlakhan and Stewart with fraudulently obtaining the grants by pretending to be victims of flooding, which devasted communities in St Helena, Kelly Village and Caroni in mid-October.
Critchlow, Lallion, Balcon and Persad were charged separately with fraudulently obtaining two grants that were paid to Balcon and Critchlow. The offences are alleged to have taken place between October 25 and November 13.
They were not called upon to plead to the charges as they were laid indictably.
All the accused except Balcon and Persad live in communities in central Trinidad which border those that were seriously affected by flooding. Balcon and Persad reside in Maracas/St Joseph.
All the accused were granted between $30,000 and $40,000 bail by a Justice of the Peace after they were charged by detectives of the Fraud Squad on Sunday night.
However, only Alexis and Ramlakhan were not able to access bail and were taken to court by police in handcuffs.
During the hearing, Alexis’ lawyer Randall Raphael asked Gomez to reduce his client’s bail. Magistrate Gomez denied the request, as she felt the amount granted previously was reasonable.
Since the flooding on October 19, the ministry has reportedly distributed over $80 million in relief grants to over 5,000 families across T&T. Each household received between $15,000 and $20,000 based on the criteria used.
The T&T Guardian understands that in addition to the 10 people already charged, several others, including a senior ministry official and three of his close relatives, are also being investigated by the Fraud Squad and may appear later this week.
The accused are also being represented by Richard Sirjoo, Wayne Sturge, Kirby Joseph and Tiffany Ali. They are expected to reappear in court on Friday.
- by Derek Achong. Photo by Shirley Bahadur.