Sri Ram offering his services to DBKL pro bono — minister

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on November 26, 2019.

Sri Ram says he took up the case due to the longhouse residents having waited for decades for affordable housing, among others.

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KUALA LUMPUR: Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) is not paying for former Federal Court judge Datuk Seri Gopal Sri Ram’s services as its legal counsel in the Taman Rimba Kiara development case, the federal territories minister’s office clarified yesterday.

“He had offered his services pro bono (for free) to DBKL for the case. When the offer was referred to the legal firm representing DBKL in this case, the firm agreed to accept the offer,” said the minister’s office in a statement. “Therefore, claims that DBKL is spending a steep sum for his services are false and baseless,” it added.

Sri Ram appeared as the lead counsel for DBKL in a preliminary hearing last Friday concerning the development, causing a stir as he is currently the lead prosecutor for two ongoing high-profile 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) cases against former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Sri Ram is reportedly undertaking these cases pro bono as well.

The hearing was an appeal by Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) residents over the dismissal in November 2018 of their judicial review request seeking to challenge the development.

The residents were seeking a certiorari order to quash DBKL’s approvals for the project, including a 29-storey apartment with 350 units of affordable housing, eight blocks of serviced apartments and eight storeys of parking facilities.

When contacted, Sri Ram said he took up the case in consideration of the longhouse residents, having waited for decades for affordable housing, among others.

“It’s been 36 years since [the] longhouse people were promised accommodation and DBKL is doing its best to deliver it to them. DBKL asked me whether I would do it for free for them and I said yes,” Sri Ram said.

On whether he is able to manage the additional workload considering he is also the lead prosecutor in the 1MDB cases, the former judge said: “It is not rocket science.”

“It is not a very complex case [to work on] and I have help from fellow counsel Mr B Thangaraj. In fact, I was ready to argue the case on (last) Friday itself but it was only a hearing of the preliminary objection and the court has scheduled a different date for the hearing,” he added. The appeal is now scheduled for a full hearing on Jan 15, 2020.

The controversial development is undertaken by property developer Malton Bhd. Malton, via its subsidiary Memang Perkasa Sdn Bhd, is driving the development in a joint venture (JV) with Yayasan Wilayah Persekutuan (YWP), a foundation chaired by Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad. DBKL approved the development in 2014 under the previous federal government.

From the TTDI residents’ perspective, the 10.08ha Taman Rimba Kiara is a public park and a green lung for the city. Malton and YWP have maintained that all approvals were obtained lawfully and due processes were observed. DBKL approved the JV in 2014 under the previous administration.

Amid the stir caused by Sri Ram’s appearance, the TTDI residents are questioning why a former judge would take up the case and whether payment for his services — seen as steep given his experience and expertise — would be from DBKL, essentially public funds.

Another matter raised at the weekend was why DBKL did not get representation from the Attorney-General’s Chambers instead.

To be fair, statutory bodies including DBKL are entitled to appoint their own counsel for court proceedings.

Khalid, appointed federal territories minister after Pakatan Harapan won in the 14th general election, sought to negotiate a scaled-down project comprising four blocks of serviced apartments and 204 affordable housing units.

The revision would cut the development’s gross development value (GDV) of RM3 billion by about half. However, most TTDI residents rejected the plan and are seeking to stop the development entirely.

The residents also accused Khalid of conflict of interest as his ministry oversees DBKL, the regulatory body for the development, while having a commercial interest in the development via YWP. At the original GDV of RM3 billion, YWP’s profit share is RM160 million.

Interestingly, another member of the federal administration, Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh, is publicly supporting the TTDI residents against the project. Yeoh is the member of parliament for Segambut, which includes TTDI.

Meanwhile, Khalid is seen leaning towards allowing the development to continue. In an exclusive interview with The Edge Malaysia weekly last July, he defended his involvement in the foundation as necessary for federal territories residents’ well-being through YWP’s charitable activities.

He said he saw no problem with the dual roles, adding that more transparency and proper disclosures are the ways to manage potential conflicts.