By Neil Hartnell
Bank of The Bahamas yesterday said it "went above and beyond" in trying to help Leslie Miller and his family remedy $25-$28m worth of loan facilities that had been "seriously delinquent for years".
The BISX-listed financial institution, in a statement issued to Tribune Business via its attorney, vehemently denied the ex-Cabinet minister's claim it had been involved in "a malicious and unlawful conspiracy" to seize his Summerwinds Shopping Plaza off Tonique Williams Highway, which had been pledged as security for the loans.
The bank also pointed out that Justice Cheryl Grant-Thompson's verbal pre-Christmas ruling only involved Mr Miller's dispute with the Government, not his claims against Bank of The Bahamas or its defence. She is now due to give her written ruling on January 17, 2020, as to whether leases allegedly entered into between the Government and former MP are legally valid and binding.
"The allegations made by Mr Miller and his co-plaintiffs against Bank of The Bahamas have been categorically denied by the bank in its defence," the BISX-listed institution said through its attorney, Gail Lockhart-Charles.
"The bank firmly contends that the plaintiffs’ [Mr Miller and his family] allegation that the bank was a participant in a malicious and unlawful scheme to injure the plaintiffs is wholly without merit, and should in fact be struck out on the grounds that it is frivolous or vexatious, and/or it is otherwise an abuse of the process of the court.
"As stated in its defence, the bank went above and beyond what could reasonably be expected of it or any bank to assist the plaintiffs to rehabilitate their seriously delinquent facilities which had been non-performing and in arrears for years. The bank maintains in its defence that, as prudent bankers, the Bank had no reasonable alternative but to cease providing further advances to the plaintiffs."
Damian Gomez QC, the ex-minister of state for legal affairs who is representing Mr Miller, confirmed to Tribune Business over the Christmas holidays that Justice Grant-Thompson that the Government's alleged lease of the Summerwinds Plaza was a binding contract.
The Attorney General's Office has already filed to stay the ruling, and for leave to appeal, but Mr Gomez said: "She didn't give her reasons, and said she would do that subsequently, but she ruled in favour of the application we made.
"She struck out the defence on the basis it was frivolous, vexatious or an obvious abuse of process. In light of their [the Government] submissions, they really have no defence."
Bank of The Bahamas, though, yesterday sought to clarify that this did not apply to itself or its dispute with Mr Miller and his family. "Justice Grant Thompson has given no ruling, verbal or otherwise in relation to any claim of unlawful conspiracy by the Government and Bank of The Bahamas to seize Mr Miller’s Summerwinds Shopping Plaza, nor has there been any application to Justice Grant Thompson for judgment of any sort against the bank," it added.
"The Plaintiffs brought an application against the Attorney General and the treasurer of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas for judgment based on admissions allegedly made by those parties with respect to certain leases which the plaintiffs contend were entered into between the plaintiffs and the Government of The Bahamas.
"No application for judgment has been pursued against Bank of The Bahamas. Further, Justice Grant-Thompson has indicated that her ruling on the application for judgment against the Attorney General and the Treasurer is now scheduled to be delivered on January 17, 2020."
Tribune Business has seen written suggestions that the Government owes as much as a $66m liability to Mr Miller, but Mr Gomez said "it could be higher than that". The ex-Cabinet minister's lawsuit, filed last July, had been seeking a Supreme Court declaration that the five leases entered into on December 1, 2016, by the former Christie administration are "valid and binding" upon the Government.
Those leases were among the contracts identified by K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, during the 2018 mid-year Budget debate as "handcuffing" the Government's financial plans. It was one of two cases he cited where the Government owed between $13-$14 million for property leases and had "no exit clauses", even though "not one single government worker has ever set foot in the building".
However, Mr Miller is alleging that both the Government and Bank of The Bahamas both reneged on agreements to fund multi-million dollar renovations at Summerwinds Plaza so it could be rented to government ministries.
Besides claiming damages for the loss of multi-million dollar rental income through these purported contractual breaches, Mr Miller also accused the Minnis administration of deliberately refusing to follow through on the leases signed by its predecessor knowing it "would trigger a default" on the $25-$28m worth of loans owed to Bank of The Bahamas, thereby paving the way for the bank and the Bahamas Resolve bail-out vehicle to seize control of the Tonique Williams Highway plaza.
In a previous interview, Mr Miller described the leases - entered into by the former Christie administration in December 2016 - as "a win-win" for all parties given that the rental rate was 45-55 per cent lower than that typically enjoyed by the Government.
The outspoken ex-MP told Tribune Business that the main potential tenant was the Immigration Department, which had been lined up to lease some 98,000 square feet at the former Robin Hood store. Other government departments supposed to join it are the Registrar General's Department, Public Parks and Beaches Authority and Parliamentary Registration (voting) Department.