Deeds Registrar resumes duties after fraud conviction, sentence overturned by Appeal Court

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Deeds Registrar Azeena Baksh, whose fraud conviction and sentence were set aside by the Guyana Court of Appeal last month, has resumed her duties.

Confirming this on Wednesday was Attorney General and Legal Affairs Minister Anil Nandlall, SC, who disclosed that the decision to have her resume duties was taken by the Board of the Deeds and Commercial Registry. Baksh was first charged with the offence in May 2017.

According to Nandlall, she was thereafter sent on administrative leave by his predecessor, Basil Williams, SC. The Deeds Registrar remained on administrative leave until her conviction and sentence were set aside by the appellate court. Nandlall said that Baksh’s lawyer, Nigel Hughes then wrote to the Board informing its members of the court’s decision.

The Attorney General reminded that even though Baksh was sent on leave, she remained the Registrar of Deeds since her appointment was never rescinded or revoked by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). The JSC is the sole constitutional body responsible for making recommendations for judicial appointments and removing or exercising disciplinary control over persons holding or acting in judicial offices.

The tenure of the last JSC expired on September 12, 2017.

In March 2020, Senior Magistrate Leron Daly found Baksh guilty of fraudulently procuring over $4.5 million between 2014 and 2017 while she was employed by the JSC. It was alleged that she unlawfully paid herself gratuity and a higher salary than what was approved by the JSC.

Magistrate Daly ordered the Deeds Registrar to repay the full restitution to the State. At the time of her conviction, she was ordered to lodge $1 million and was given three months to repay the balance.

Appeal

Dissatisfied with the decision of the lower court, Baksh, through her lawyer, appealed to the Court of Appeal, asking that the decision of the Magistrate “be wholly reversed, set aside and/or discharged”. The Court of Appeal rendered its decision on April 26, 2021.
Deliberating on the matter were Justices of Appeal Dawn Gregory and Rishi Persaud, and High Court Judge Franklin Holder.

“…the prosecution did not discharge the duty placed on it to establish beyond a reasonable doubt all the elements of the offence,” Justice Gregory noted as the Court allowed the appeal, setting aside Baksh’s conviction and sentence.

According to Justice Gregory, at the trial stage, the burden was left on the Prosecution to establish what was Baksh’s true status regarding her salary and gratuity. The Judge noted that this was an essential element that had to be proven to establish the fact that the Deeds Registrar falsely obtained benefits.

But this was not established, Justice Gregory said.

While Baksh had no contract of employment for the Deeds and Commercial Registry, Justice Gregory held, “in our view, the absence of a contract had to be accompanied by proof of the terms of her employment in relation to her benefits, and specifically in relation to her gratuity. The absence of a signed contract was insufficient to support the inference that she had falsely represented her entitlement, and thereby fraudulently obtained benefits to which she was not entitled.”

The charge against Baksh had alleged that while being employed by the JSC between May 1, 2014, and January 31, 2017, in Georgetown, she caused or procured valuable securities of $4,534,486 to be delivered to her Bank of Nova Scotia account for her own use, pretending she was a contracted employee at the Deeds Registry. Charges were instituted against her in 2017.

Back then, the Legal Affairs Ministry had disclosed that the Deeds and Commercial Registries Authority had requested that an investigation be launched into financial irregularities in Baksh’s payroll documentation. Upon her appointment as the Deeds Registrar in 2012, Baksh received a salary of $326,171 monthly, as well as duty, entertainment, and housing allowances, and other benefits.

But the Legal Affairs Ministry claimed that she increased her salary to $400,000 in 2014 when the Deeds Registry was merged with the Commercial Registry, without the approval of the JSC.

It was further reported that Baksh – being the sole person with authority to sign off on such documents – approved gratuity to herself and several staff members from the period May 2014 to November 2016.

The current Attorney General has, on numerous occasions, roasted his predecessor for playing a major role in instituting the politically trumped-up charges against Baksh.
Nandlall had argued, “In my humble view, the decision to charge Baksh was a politically-driven one by my predecessor. Baksh was charged for simply receiving her salary from the Deeds and Commercial Registry Authority, an Authority established by the Deeds and Commercial Registry Authority Act, which authorised the transfer of all staff from the Deeds Registry and converted them into employees of the Authority, inclusive of the Registrar of Deeds.”

“In my respectful view, there is nothing wrong with a person being appointed by one agency and paid by another. If that person received two sets of remuneration, it would have been a different matter. That is not the case. The Deeds and Commercial Registry Authority Act authorises the payment of all staff of the Authority, inclusive of the Registrar of Deeds,” the Attorney General had noted. [Guyana Times]