By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Senior Reporter
A NEW lawsuit alleges the Water and Sewerage Corporation refused to pay Halsbury Chambers legal fees for its work with delinquent customers after WSC Executive Chairman Adrian Gibson rejected the firm’s advice about an unrelated defamation matter.
The firm – whose founding partner is Branville McCartney – is now suing WSC for $40,221.
In a statement yesterday evening, Mr Gibson linked the lawsuit to the “political season,” saying the “political savagery has begun”.
He called the release of the documents “a nasty, scurrilous, unfounded and vicious attempt to cause reputational and political damage,” noting that up to yesterday, WSC had not been served with copies of the writ.
The lawsuit says Mr Gibson engaged Halsbury Chambers to collect money from delinquent customers in January 2019 and that by November 2019 the corporation had reduced its accounts receivables from $46 million to $36 million.
Mr Gibson allegedly requested the firm to initiate defamatory proceedings against Gregory Miller, the president of Apex Underground and Utilities Co Ltd, in July 2019.
The firm subsequently issued a demand letter that requested a public apology and a retraction of comments Mr Miller had made in the media.
After Mr Miller refused to comply, Mr Gibson allegedly insisted that defamation proceedings be initiated against him.
“Mr Gibson was of the view that the words spoken injured and lowered his reputation in the estimation of right-thinking members of the Bahamian public and otherwise caused him to become exposed to public ridicule which affected his influential position, as outlined on Adrian Gibson’s behalf in the said letter,” the lawsuit says.
Mr Gibson allegedly insisted WSC pay the legal fees for the matter and not him personally.
“The chairman,” the lawsuit says, “was advised that since the defamation action was personal in nature, that legal fees ought to be paid by him personally and not from the public purse.
“Thereafter, the chairman stopped all communication with the plaintiff and wilfully refused and/or neglected to pay legal fees regarding the collection of delinquent accounts from customers of the 1st Defendant (WSC) as agreed.”
According to the firm, though WSC eventually paid $20,000 in September 2020, it concluded that “would have been its full and final settlement”.
The plaintiff alleges that, in fact, $40,221.07 is still due.
“…The plaintiff has requested on numerous occasions for payment of the outstanding fees, but the 1st Defendant has neglected and/or refused to satisfy the outstanding amount,” the lawsuit claims.
Mr McCartney last night said he had sent “a personal note” one week ago to both the Prime Minister and Desmond Bannister, deputy prime minister and minister of works, who has ministerial responsibility for the Water & Sewerage Corporation, in which he warned his law firm would initiate legal action if the dispute was not resolved.
No response was received, even though the former Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader alerted them that Halsbury Chambers’ statement of claim would detail why its fees had purportedly not been paid and the alleged connection to its advice to Mr Gibson that he - not the taxpayer or Water & Sewerage customers - should pay the costs associated with the defamation action against Mr Miller.
“I couldn’t get any type of response from him in terms of the matters we were dealing with, in terms of the outstanding payments,” Mr McCartney said, alleging that Mr Gibson “refused to pay and stopped communicating” when Halsbury Chambers failed to move forward with the defamation action as he wished.
“We sent a note back in October 2020 asking for this to be resolved. Last week Sunday, I sent the Prime Minister a personal note. I sent it to Desmond Bannister, the deputy prime minister, as well. They are aware of the issue, but we have not got a response from anyone since October 2020 when we first brought this to their attention.
“I said that unless this matter was settled we would file an action against the Water & Sewerage Corporation. I said that in that action we were going to articulate why payment was owed on those outstanding legal fees. There’s been no response.”
Mr McCartney said Halsbury Chambers had initially acted “pro bono” on Mr Gibson’s behalf against Mr Miller, meaning it had not received a retainer or any legal fees before it sent a “demand letter” to the Apex boss calling on him to publicly apologise and retract criticisms he had made about several Water & Sewerage Corporation contract awards.
“Adrian wanted us to move forward with the writ,” he added. “We had the writ partially drafted and ready to go. But we said you cannot use the public purse or charge it to the Water & Sewerage Corporation’s bill. That was the last we heard from him.”
Mr McCartney and Halsbury Chambers had argued that it was a personal dispute, and therefore they should be paid from Mr Gibson’s private financial resources and not the taxpayer or Corporation. Mr Gibson is disputing that on the basis that the comments were made against him in his capacity as Water & Sewerage Corporation executive chairman.
The ex-DNA leader, meanwhile, argued that much of the $10m drop in the Water & Sewerage Corporation’s accounts receivables balance that was touted by Mr Gibson in November 2019 was due to his firm’s work in pursuing delinquent bill payers.
Receivables dropped from $46m to $36m, and Mr McCartney said: “We were the main ones. We were the attorneys for it. Quite a lot of that came from collecting from hotels and government agencies, those big accounts which owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in water bills. We were able to negotiate a number of settlements without having to go to court.”
In his statement last night, Mr Gibson said Mr McCartney approached him about soliciting services from his law firm “some years ago”.
“At that time –– having been somewhat acquainted with Mr McCartney prior to that and having considered his firm a small but reputable firm –– we accepted his solicitation to assist with our collection of receivables. We did not allow his political persuasion –– having just been the DNA leader –– to impact that decision,” he said.
Mr Gibson said Halsbury Chambers did not collect $10m for the WSC “or anything remotely close to that figure”.
“Our concise internal audits show that, notwithstanding in excess of 100 delinquent accounts being assigned to him/his firm, Mr McCartney and his firm collected roughly $60,000 dollars whilst he/his firm in turn received a lot more compensation to the (tune) of nearly $200,000.”
Mr Gibson said he, the WSC board and the general manager of the company concluded the corporation was losing more by paying the firm than it was receiving from the partnership.
He said the corporation lost faith in the firm’s performance and decided to turn to its in-house teams.
“That $10m that I previously spoke of in the newspapers had very little –– if anything –– to do with Bran McCartney or his law firm but rather speak to our multi-pronged efforts at collecting of outstanding funds, at writing off bad debts and statutorily-barred debts and various other reviews and undertakings,” he said.
As for the defamation proceedings involving Mr Miller, Mr Gibson emphasised that he acts in a public capacity “at all material times,” insisting that “when false, defamatory and scurrilous commentary was made by one Gregory Miller, he did so in my public capacity as the executive chairman of the Water & Sewerage Corporation.”
“Halsbury Chambers, given that it is supposedly home to ‘senior lawyers,’ should know the basic tenets of public law as it relates to one’s public role versus one’s private role. As such, any instructions from ourselves to Halsbury Chambers were not in a personal or private capacity.”
Mr Gibson claimed Mr McCartney never told him that filing the writ against Mr Miller should be done in his personal capacity.
“I find it awfully interesting that Mr McCartney and Halsbury Chambers have sought to mesh these matters –– a move that appears especially spiteful and political in nature,” he said.
He also claimed that despite severing ties with Halsbury Chambers, evidence shows the firm has continued to do legal work for the corporation “without further instructions”.
“As recent as 16th September 2020, Halsbury Chambers sent an email to WSC stating that they appeared before the Supreme Court on September 14th, 2020. In response, (Mr) Donaldson reminded them that the relationship had been terminated earlier (January 2020) in the year, chided them for acting without instruction and reminded (them) that they were continuing to work on WSC’s behalf contrary to our instructions/decision,” he said.
Mr Gibson said the corporation will instruct its lawyers to file a complaint with the Bahamas Bar Association “given that Halsbury Chambers continues to act on our behalf without instruction and although their services were terminated.”
“Alas,” he said, “we made an egregious mistake when we accepted the solicitation of Mr McCartney and retained the services of his firm. In my capacity as the executive chairman of the Water and Sewerage Corporation, I accept that responsibility and, when it became luminously clear that his firm was the wrong choice, my board and I terminated their services.”