The appointment of veteran lawyer Sitpah Selvaratnam to the government's legal team tasked with laying legal claim to the Equanimity super-yacht of the infamous 1MDB affair has raised an objection.
This from Umno Youth's Young Lawyers secretariat who questioned the move pointing out that Sitpah is part of attorney-general Tommy Thomas' former law firm.
The secretariat's chairperson Nik Saiful Adli Burhan claimed that this could lead to a conflict of interest. Three prominent figures within the country's legal fraternity to gave their views.
Salim Bashir Bhaskaran, who is Selangor Bar chairperson, said the issue was the process of Sitpah's appointment rather than her qualification adding that Thomas should have distanced himself from the appointment.
"Nobody should be placed in a position of a conflict. The issue is not about the choice, but the process (of Sitpah's appointment).
"Here Thomas as the attorney-general said that he personally appointed Sitpah. She should have been appointed by other people other than the AG. It could either be the solicitor-general or by the legal firm Jeremy Joseph, that is not a problem," he said.
Salim said there was no question about Sitpah being a choice to represent 1MDB in claiming the super-yacht.
"We are not questioning her expertise at all. She was also the chairperson of the Admiralty Committee of the Bar Council.
"The issue arose when AG acknowledged that he was the only one who decided to appoint Sitpah because of her speciality. That does not give a very good perception."
Former Bar Council president Yeo Yang Poh said the admiralty proceedings concerning the RM1 billion Equanimity was a matter of public interest and the government is expected to utilise the best resources they have including appointing the best and most experienced admiralty advocates in the country.
This, added Yeoh, who is also a former chair of the council's Admiralty & Shipping Law Committee, is where Sitpah and her team come in.
"Having been a former president of the Bar, and a former chairperson of the Admiralty & Shipping Law Committee; I am aware that there are not many counsels in Malaysia specialising in admiralty and shipping law, fewer still with the level of competency and experience that will be required to handle a case of this magnitude and complexity.
"The three specialist lawyers appointed by the Attorney-General's Chambers are certainly among the very few top choices for this complex legal brief. Two of them were pioneers who helped set up the Admiralty & Shipping Law Committee of the Bar Council more than a decade ago, to promote admiralty and shipping practice in Malaysia for the Bar," he revealed.
No issue of ethics
Yeo also said that Nik Saiful had made a mistake when the latter raised the question of conflict of interest by saying that the firm (which Sitpah is from) "is owned" by Tommy.
He said the AG had publicly declared that he had relinquished all interests in the firm upon taking up his current position in the civil service.
"It has been pointed out that Sitpah has even agreed to provide her invaluable services to the rakyat without charging her fees.
"Nik Saiful’s comments, apart from being misplaced both in fact and in law, have done the rakyat a huge disfavour by unfairly criticising persons who are prepared to sacrifice time, expertise and fees, to do their best for the rakyat in a matter of public interest.
In my view, a public apology is owed to Sitpah and the attorney-general," he said.
Yeo's take on Sitpah's appointment was shared by Syahredzan Johan, who is a former elected member of the Bar Council and a well-known lawyer in matters pertaining to human rights and constitutional law.
"If you look at Sitpah, I would say that she's probably the best shipping lawyer in Malaysia right now. And when you talk about something as big as the Equanimity case, I think you need the best person to undertake this job," he said, adding that the case must involve someone with experience, expertise and knowledge to take the case to court.
Syahredzan said there was no issue of ethics in the appointment as Sitpah was providing her service pro bono.
This, he added, meant that there was no advantage or benefit to the lawyer concerned in doing the job.
"When we talk about the issue of ethics (in the appointment of Sitpah), the main issue is whether there is a benefit to herself.
"The AG said that Sitpah is actually doing it pro bono, without being paid using taxpayer's money. So there is no issue of cronyism or conflict of interest or anything of that sort," he said.
On Wednesday, Nik Saiful in a statement questioned why the government appointed "a law firm that is owned by someone who holds an important position in the country".
Critics 'neither right nor sensible'
He was referring to Sitpah, who is from the law firm Tommy Thomas Advocates & Solicitors.
Besides Sitpah, the government has also engaged lawyers Jeremy Joseph and Ong Chee Kwan as well as senior federal counsel Alice Loke to represent it in this case. Joseph and Ong will be paid commercial rates, Thomas said.
The superyacht is presently docked at Port Klang after it arrived three days ago.
Lawyer Jeremy Joseph said the 1MDB legal team of which Sitpah was a member was appointed by the Attorney-General's Chambers to represent both the investment firm and Putrajaya.
In its submission for a warrant of arrest at the Admiralty Court in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, the legal team from the law firm Joseph & Partners said the 1MDB funds had been misappropriated in four tranches to facilitate the purchase of the Equanimity, as per the DOJ filings.
Thomas, meanwhile, described former colleague Sitpah as one of the country’s leading shipping lawyers with many years of experience chairing the shipping and admiralty law committee of the Bar Council.
“It must be kept in mind that these legal proceedings (on the Equanimity) are brought for the benefit of Malaysia. Accordingly, we are entitled to Malaysia’s best shipping lawyers.
“There is no question of conflict of interest because we are all on the same side. It is neither right nor sensible for Malaysia to be deprived of the services of Sitpah merely because I was in the firm where she has been a consultant for the past eight years,” Thomas said.
He also said he had personally engaged Sitpah, who in turn will not be paid any fees.
“Her services are rendered to us without any charge to the taxpayer,” he said.