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Price-fixing lawsuit against Haiti’s ex-presidents, money transfer and phone companies revived

The Haitian Times
By Sam Bojarski

Jovenel Moise and Michel Martelly
Former presidents Jovenel Moise and Michel Martelly, pictured during the 2016 electoral campaign. / Photo Credit: Reuters

NEW YORK – A 2018 lawsuit alleging that former Haitian President Michel Martelly and his successors conspired to fix the price of phone calls and money transfers to fund a non-existent education program has been revived. On March 31, a U.S. federal court said in a 29-page ruling that the case may move forward.

The original lawsuit, filed in 2018, alleges that Martelly announced a subsidy program back in 2010 called PSUGO to fund free education for children in Haiti. The program was to be funded by a $1.50 tax on money transfers and a five-cent charge on international phone calls. 

The lawsuit rests on the antitrust claim that Haitian government officials and corporations conspired to fix prices. But plaintiffs also claimed that no such education program was ever created or implemented.

Attorney Rodney Austin, who represents the plaintiffs, told The Haitian Times in 2019 that the subsidy “is not happening” and said he was trying to figure out where the money went. 

“We would also want to find out an accounting as to how much money did they actually collect and where were the funds disbursed to, because as the world knows, there was never a program for free education for Haitian kids,” said Austin, in an April 1 phone call. “We will be pressing the court for an injunction to stop the parties from collecting the funds going forward.”

On Thursday, a three-judge panel reversed a previous 2021 district court decision, which claimed a U.S. court could not rule on the “propriety” of a foreign sovereign’s actions. The March 31 ruling held that plaintiffs could still make an antitrust claim under U.S. law, reversing the previous dismissal under the “act of state doctrine.” 

The panel of judges instructed the district court to review 15 state-law claims that were previously filed in pursuing the case, known as Celestin v. Caribbean Air Mail. 

“The act of state doctrine does not bar the state law claims for the same reason that it does not bar the antitrust claims: the Haitian taxes and fees alleged to have injured the Plaintiffs in the United States can be assumed to be valid under Haitian law,” wrote Jon Newman, a U.S. Circuit Court Judge. 

Plaintiffs are now awaiting further instruction from the district court, including the potential need for the legal team to furnish additional materials in the case, said Austin. 

“We just have to wait for the district court, because the case was remanded,” Austin said. 

Aside from Martelly, defendants named include former presidents Jocelerme Privert and the deceased Jovenel Moise, along with the corporations Western Union, Caribbean Air Mail, or CAM, Digicel Haiti and USA. Plaintiffs are represented by Austin of Fresh Meadows, New York, and Marcel Denis of the Brooklyn-based Denis Law Group, according to the ruling.

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