Wednesday, September 29, 2010

MBPJ hires 'crony' firm: Mayor, PKR leaders cry 'No'

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By Teoh El Sen

PETALING JAYA: Cases involving the Petaling Jaya City Muncipal Council (MBPJ) are being given to a law firm where two PKR leaders R Sivarasa and Latheefa Koya, a MBPJ councillor, work.

However, MBPJ mayor Mohammad Roslan Sakiman described it as an “old story”.

He also dismissed the allegation that it was a case of special preference and denied that it could lead to a conflict of interest.

"No, I cannot answer this. This was discussed in a meeting some time ago and everything had been dealt with; this is a non-issue,” he told FMT.

“We don't think it is a conflict of interest for a councillor to be a lawyer in a law firm we engage. Latheefa is not a shareholder of the firm," he explained.

Roslan also refuted the claim that the firm Daim & Gamany was not in the list of MBPJ's legal panel, saying the firm was fully sanctioned by the council.

Sources told FMT that the issue was raised by several councillors during a special MBPJ meeting last year.

The councillors wanted to know why Daim & Gamany had been allowed to represent the council since it might lead to a conflict of interest.

During that meeting, the council had decided that there was no issue and the matter was closed.

However, sources said that Daim & Gamany had been given at least four cases to handle in recent months.

“The firm charges the maximum fee allowed by MBPJ. Other firms had quoted lower fees and yet they were not appointed to represent the council,” said a source.

"In a few recent court cases, procedures and policies for selecting legal firms were bypassed. The council is supposed to send letters to all firms on the legal panel when there is a case, and ask for their price quotations, but this was not done,” added the source.

'Conflict of interest'

As for conflict of interest, the sources cited Section 35 of the Local Government Act 1976 which states: "No councillor shall by himself or his partner or agent act in any professional capacity for or against the local authority of which he is a councillor."

The sources said although Latheefa, who is also PKR information chief, might not be personally handling MBPJ cases, her position in the council and law firm, however, gave rise to a conflict of interest.

This was because she could have access to sensitive information and documents, they said.

The sources also cited another example where in 2003 and 2005, Sivarasa, who is PKR vice-president, had represented the residents of Taman Desaria PJS5.

The residents had taken legal action against the then Barisan Nasional-controlled Selangor government and MBPJ for allowing low-cost flats to be built in their area for the nearby squatters of Taman Medan.

In 2005, the court ruled in favour of the residents and declared the flats illegal. It also awarded damages to the residents and declared MBPJ's development order issued to Mentari Properties Sdn Bhd null and void.

In the landmark ruling, the court held that local authorities must hear the views of affected residents before issuing any development orders.

Soon after Pakatan Rakyat took over Selangor in 2008, MBPJ decided to appeal against the decision and it is understood that Sivarasa continued to act for the Taman Desaria residents. The case is still pending.

Professional conduct

Another MBPJ councillor Derek Fernandez, who had also acted for the Desaria residents in the past, discharged himself on grounds of conflict of interest.

However, sources said MBPJ's move to appoint Sivarasa's firm for several cases was strongly supported by Fernandez.

"How can Sivarasa be acting in a suit against the council and at the same time be given cases to defend MBPJ? Isn't that a clear-cut case of conflict of interest?" asked a source.

In another case last year, Sivarasa represented the council when residents of Taman Sri Aman, Petaling Jaya protested against a condominium project being undertaken in their area.

MBPJ then issued a stop-work order to the developer, Sri Aman Development Sdn Bhd, which was building the Paramount View condominium and an access road.

Subsequently, the developer went to court and filed for a judicial review of MBPJ's action. The court ruled in favour of the developer.

Several lawyers told FMT that such examples of conflict of interest went against the Legal Profession (Practice and Etiquette) Rules 1978, where a lawyer should not accept a case if his professional conduct could be challenged.

FMT learnt that Sivarasa was also representing MBPJ in two judicial review cases involving the council and two outdoor advertising companies.

'These are wild allegations to shame us'

Both Sivarasa and Lateefa denied that they were involved in cases that gave rise to conflict of interest.

"The Local Government Act prohibits only councillor-lawyer from acting for or against the council... I am not a councillor, so where is the conflict?" asked Sivarasa, who has been practising law for 24 years.

The PKR leader explained that he was mostly hired by MBPJ for judicial review cases, which was his area of specialisation.

"These allegations are simply caused by ignorance. These people do not understand what conflict of interest is. In the Taman Desaria case, conflict of interest does not arise at all,” he said.

On the allegation of high legal fees, he said: "This is subjective. Lawyers come in all shapes and sizes. I charge according to what I feel is fair and it is subject to MBPJ's decision."

Meanwhile, Latheefa described it as “wild allegations made by those with their own agenda to shame a few of us”.

The lawyer said she had never acted for or against MBPJ since she was appointed as councillor in 2008.

"Bringing this up is a nasty thing to do. I never participated in any discussion at council meetings. In fact, I deliberately stayed away from such meetings whenever my legal firm was involved.

"In what way have I breached Section 35? It doesn't mean that just because I am in the same law firm, everything I do gives rise to conflict of interest," she added.

Latheefa stressed that conflict of interest occured only when sensitive information was involved.

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