Archive for category Public Procurement Reform

Reality Check

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

After a flurry of attempted explanations from the Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, as to the real meaning of the High Court’s 14 July ruling on the Invader’s Bay matter, the State has now appealed that ruling and applied for expedited hearing of the matter while having the judgment stayed.

What that means is that the State is asking the Court to agree an extension of the Stay of Execution until the appeal is decided, so that the requested information could be withheld while the case is being heard.  Presumably, the State has asked for a speedy hearing so as to avoid any impression of them encouraging needless delay in this matter of high public concern.

This article will focus on the three critical findings in the judgment.  I will be examining Dr. Tewarie’s statement to Parliament on Friday 18 July, alongside the facts and the actual High Court ruling.

  1. Legal Professional Privilege

    The very first point to be made in relation to this is that the reason given by the State for refusing the JCC’s request for this information was not originally ‘legal professional privilege’.

    That reason for refusal was only advanced after the litigation started, literally arising out of the very briefcase of the State’s attorney, on his feet before Justice Seepersad on 4 December 2012.

    We contested the State’s late introduction of these new reasons for refusal, but the Court ruled at para 37 –

    1. The Court…is of the view that the Defendant is entitled to rely upon additional reasons with respect to the refusal to disclose the said information…

    The question of whether the legal opinions are privileged was ruled-upon by Justice Seepersad –

    1. It cannot be disputed that the said information requested, is information that would ordinarily attract legal professional privilege…

    So that issue is not in dispute, in the Court’s mind at least.  I continue to hold the view that it is highly-questionable to easily accept this notion of client confidentiality, given that the State ought to be acting on our common behalf.

    In fact, no evidence was tendered nor was any real case made by the State as to the difficulties which would result from publishing the requested information.  None.  It is only now, with a ruling in the JCC’s favour, that we are getting these positions being advanced.

    For the record, the JCC’s original request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) was for the legal advices and the letters of instruction.

    Consider this, from Dr. Tewarie’s opening statement -

    The very first point that I wish to make with regard to the high court ruling is that there is no issue of disclosure here. There is no issue of failing to disclose or of wanting to withhold disclosures. The Government is not seeking to prevent disclosure of any matter nor is the Government fearful of making any disclosure of fact.

    The only issue we are contesting is whether the advice of an Attorney to his/her client, which is generally regarded as privileged information, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Freedom of Information Act or whether, since it is a privileged exchange of information between Attorney and Client, it is exempt from the Act…”

    If that is truly the case, with the State’s only concern being the possible adverse impact of releasing the legal advices, the question has to be – ‘Why not publish the letters of instruction now?

  2. Waiver of Privilege

    A significant aspect of the case was as to the impact of Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate on 28 February 2012, in reply to a question by then Independent Senator Dr. James Armstrong – see pg 716 of Hansard –

    The answer to (c); the publication of the request for proposals was not the subject of nor required to be in conformity with the Central Tenders Board Act. Advice to this effect was received from the Legal Unit of the Ministry of Planning and the Economy, and subsequently from the Ministry of the Attorney General…

    The point being advanced by the JCC was that a statement like that one, which purports to publicly disclose the very essence of the advice, has the effect of extinguishing the State’s right to suppress the document as being exempted.

    The Court ruled clearly on this –

    1. The gist and nature of the legal advice was in fact revealed when the Minister’s response was made and this amounted to conduct that is inconsistent with the stance that the said legal advice is exempt from being disclosed under the Act by virtue of section 29(1)…

    So, the High Court found that Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate neutralized the State’s ‘legal professional privilege’. That is an important aspect of this ruling, given the frequency with which legal opinions and names are brandished by our leaders, always when convenient, of course.

  3. The Public Interest Test

    This ruling is significant in that Justice Seepersad weighed the existing ‘legal professional privilege’ – making a clear ruling on that at para 41 – against the ‘Public Interest Test’ set out in S.35 of the FoIA.

    At one point it was widely reported that Dr. Tewarie was insisting that the ruling had nothing to do with transparency, but was only on the narrow issue of legal professional privilege.

    The substance of Justice Seepersad’s ruling was at paras 85 & 86 -

    1. The nature of the project in this case and the process adopted by the Defendant to pursue the Request for Proposals process without regard to the provisions of the Central Tenders Board act, requires disclosure of all the relevant information that was considered before the said decision was taken and the refusal to provide the requested information can create a perception that there may have been misfeasance in the process and any such perception can result in the loss of public confidence. Every effort therefore ought to be made to avoid such a circumstance and if there is a valid and legally sound rationale for the adoption of the Request for Proposals process, then it must be in the public interest to disclose it and the rationale behind the process adopted ought not to be cloaked by a veil of secrecy.
    2. The public interest in having access to the requested information therefore is far more substantial than the Defendant’s interest in attempting to maintain any perceived confidentiality in relation to the said information…”

    The real point here is that Justice Seepersad has carried out the Public Interest Test, as mandated at S.35 of the FoIA and ignored by the State in this matter, to find that the ‘legal professional privilege’ is subordinate to the Public Interest in this case, given all the evidence submitted to the Court.

The entire process possesses all the ingredients for corruption, I maintain that view.

Dr. Tewarie has repeatedly claimed that the process was transparent because he disclosed the assessment rules for the Invader’s Bay development at the T&T Contractors’ Association Dinner on Saturday 5 November 2011.  That assertion is perfectly tautological, in that it is entirely true that the rules were revealed for the first time on that occasion, but it does not explain anything of substance.  The decisive fact is that the closing-date for the Invader’s Bay RFP process was 4 October 2011, a full month before the rules were disclosed.  That fact alone renders the entire process voidable and illegal.

What is more, we have to consider the widely-advertised public consultations on the redevelopment of King’s Wharf in San Fernando; the South-Western Peninsula development; the issue of ‘City-status’ for Chaguanas; Constitutional Reform and of course, the latest one, the Civil Society Board.  The glaring question has to be – ‘When is the State hosting the first in its series of Public Consultations on the Invader’s Bay development?

Finally, will this development process continue, while the legal arguments continue?

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Public Secrets?

It seems to me that we are entering a sustained and hard-fought Information War, global in extent, but with local flavour. The main features of this are the attempted redefinition of Privacy as a defunct notion, right alongside the State’s duty to know all about us, but tell us as little as possible of their own operations. That is the name of the game, so these issues are going to be challenged strongly as we go forward.

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

Sen. Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development

The High Court ruled on 14 July 2014 that the Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development must provide the legal advice which was said to have justified the development process at Invader’s Bay. This case was brought by the JCC after the Ministry refused to publish the legal advice obtained in response to our challenge that the Invader’s Bay development process was in breach of the Central Tenders’ Board Act. Given the repeated statements that the legal opinions supported the State’s actions in relation to the CTB Act, the obvious question is ‘Why the secrecy and refusal to publish those opinions?

The JCC requested the legal opinions and the letters of instructions under the Freedom of Information Act and the judge applied the ‘Public Interest Test’ in deciding that the public right to that information eclipsed the accepted point as to the existence of ‘legal professional privilege’. There have been many comments on what has been described as a landmark ruling and it appears that the question of just what is an official secret is once again up for discussion.

We are now being told that the right of the client to maintain the confidentiality of legal advice is now under threat, so the State is reportedly considering an appeal of that High Court ruling. Read the rest of this entry »

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None So Blind

Property ownership is a critical ingredient of the society we are trying to build.  No one can deny that.   The wealthiest people and companies in this society have made a great part of their wealth through property dealings – buying, leasing, sub-dividing, selling, renovating and so on.  We all know that property is critical to amassing and holding wealth.

The single largest owner of all classes of property in the Republic is of course, the State.  Those properties are described as ‘Public Property‘ in the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 which is now being debated in Parliament.  The penultimate paragraph of the Private Sector Civil Society group (PSCS) group statement of 13 June 2014, is clear -

“…Whilst very pleased with the progress to date and while not having sight of the amended bill we note two areas that remain of serious concern; the Role of civil society and the acquisition and disposal of public property…“.

At pg 7 of that Bill – “public property” means real or personal property owned by a public body;

‘Real Property’ usually means real estate (freehold or leasehold), while ‘Personal Property’ usually means all other types of property such as licenses, concessions and tangible items of worth.

‘Owned’ usually means literally owned, as in the case of a freehold or leasehold interest, but there are other important types of property which are not literally in the ownership of a public body.  Public Property is important because it is extremely valuable.  The power of the State or its agencies to allocate those Public Properties must therefore be exercised in an equitable and transparent fashion if we are to foster proper conduct of our country’s public affairs.

Crown Grants

In relation to real estate, it is important to note that the system of Crown Grants was used during the colonial period to encourage immigrants of a particular type.  Immigrants who were of acceptable race, religious belief or station in life were allocated public lands for the purpose of agriculture.  The actual documents are called ‘Crown Grants’ and they can be seen in our country’s records.  The allocation of those lands to those selected people established a pattern of substantial wealth which took generations to displace.  Of course such a system of property allocation, on the basis of ones’ external appearance and belief system, would be incompatible with our Republican status.

That history and the important role which property plays in today’s society are both reasons why the  ‘disposal of public property‘ is an inescapable part of the new law, so that we can ensure good governance in these matters.

The Maha Saba Episode

This is a good example of a type of Public Property not literally owned by a Public Body.  The dispute was over the decision of the previous administration to allocate radio licenses overnight to the Citadel Group, which was owned by a PNM member, at the same time as delaying the grant of broadcast licenses applied for by the Maha Saba.   The Maha Saba had to take legal action all the way to the Privy Council to obtain a favourable judgment as to the breaches of principles of good public administration by that PNM government. 

A new law intended to control dealings in Public Property as defined above would be one which extended beyond those literally owned by Public Bodies to include species of property in the ‘care, custody or control‘ of those bodies.  That would allow future occurrences of a ‘Maha Saba episode’ to be rapidly rectified, also at less expense, by the Procurement Regulator as that type of property transaction would be within oversight of the new law.

In point of fact, it was reported that the Citadel group which comprised three radio stations was sold in 2012 to the CCN group (owners of this newspaper) in 2012 for a sum reported to be over $50M.  So it is clear that these species of property have serious value, quite apart from any other aspects.

Caroni Lands

When Caroni Ltd. was closed in August 2004, about 76,000  acres came out of cultivation and become available for alternative uses.  The Caroni lands stretch from Orange Grove at Trincity (near the large new Blue Water facility) as far south as Princes Town.

Given the fact that Chaguanas has been our fastest-growing town for almost 20 years now and the ongoing growth of investment in San Fernando and its outlying districts, it is clear that the Caroni lands have a critical role to play in our medium to long-term prospects.  But those possible outcomes would be conditional on just how the Caroni lands are allocated in the short-term.  As far as I am aware, a decade after abandoning sugar cultivation, there is still no strategic plan for how these lands are to be utilised.  In the absence of a proper strategy for the management of those important State lands, there is scope for missed opportunity in terms of development and re-distribution.

The decisive land allocation issues would include -

  • How does the allocation policy work together with the State’s broader economic policies?
  • To whom are the lands allocated?
  • On what terms are the lands allocated – i.e. for how long are the lands to be leased and with what restrictions? Some of the ex-Caroni workers are demanding grants of freehold interests from the State, but no decision seems to have been made on that.
  • Does the State have the right to repossess the lands upon expiry of the lease?
  • Does the allocation strategy have dynamic measures to control speculation?  This is to prevent the growth of ‘flippers’ who just acquire property to hold and re-sell.  There is a serious view that ‘flippers’ are a part of the market, but there is also a way that their presence can retard development as they do not typically improve or maintain their properties.

All of those issues must be located within equitable and transparent arrangements as required by the new  law.

State Leases of offices

When the State leases offices or other property it is in fact procuring property via a transaction in Public Money.  Those transactions must take place within a modern system which ensures good governance by attaining accountability, transparency and value for money.

There is a huge oversupply of offices in greater POS as a result of the State’s overbuilding during the last regime and the current administration is now shifting significant public offices out of POS.  The combined impact of those ought to be a steady decline in both the gross amounts paid to landlords via State leases and the amounts paid per sq. ft..  That kind of change can only be obtained and monitored if the State’s leases of offices and other property are also part of the new Procurement system, so that the details are published as part of the database of State contracts.

Invader’s Bay

The State-owned reclaimed lands at Invader’s Bay in west POS are another pregnant example of how the use of improper land allocation processes can injure the public interest.  The JCC has mounted a legal challenge to seek publication of the legal advice obtained by the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development as to the legality of their activity ‘thus far’ in respect of that 70-acre parcel of prime land.

It is interesting to recall that one of the legal opinions on which the State seems to be relying, notes that this proposal was to grant long leases (about 99 years) to the successful bidders at Invader’s Bay.  That was not considered a disposal since the State would have retained the freehold interest.  Now that is probably the best example of why these types of transactions must be controlled by these modern and effective laws.  The attempt to conflate a residual freehold interest with ownership, while at the same time denying the tremendous commercial value of a 99-year lease over prime lands was scandalous.

The most valuable properties in the capital are the leaseholds in St. Clair and Woodbrook, that much is indisputable, which is why we have guard against this kind of evasive advice to facilitate arrangements to escape proper oversight.

The Landed Interests

The ill-fated 2009 proposals for a new Property Tax would have required an updated and open database of the entire country’s property holdings.  The campaign to ‘Axe the Tax’ was successful and that database never saw the light of day, which entirely suited the Landed Interests who are wary of any system which would expose their operations to easy scrutiny.

We need to be vigilant to ensure that the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 does not leave a gaping, purposeful loophole thorough which our Public Money will continue to pour.

Given that our political parties receive financing from business-people, how will those party financiers be rewarded?  In a situation which properly controls the award of State contracts for goods, works and services, how can they be rewarded?

The answer is Public Property.

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Paying the Price

On Wednesday 11 June 2014, the Senate unanimously approved the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 and that Bill is soon to go to the House of Representatives for their deliberation. I was present to witness the collective efforts made by Senators on Tuesday 10 June and it was a really thought-provoking experience for me.  I started to wonder just how much we could achieve if the banal point-scoring and ritual picong was to become a thing of the past.  The basis of decision-making on public issues would have to shift to a fact-based one, which would be a huge, healthy step away from the sad formula of ‘might is right’.

What a day that would be for us all, just imagine.

But we have to exist in this place, as it is, with all its imperfections.  Which leads me to discuss the constant questions put by people who want to know if ‘this law we are fighting for‘ could prevent this-or-that corrupt practice.  So the two projects which I would use to give worked examples are -

  1. the THA/BOLT office project on which the High Court recently ruled;
  2. Calcutta Settlement/Eden Gardens land purchase by HDC.

THA/BOLT

tha-bolt1This project was analysed in a previous article, which set out certain questionable aspects of those arrangements.  In my opinion, the greatest areas of concern were  -

  • Size – THA stated that the Divisions for which this building was being leased now occupy 28,500sf, yet the completed project is to comprise 83,000sf – almost three times more space.
  • Quality – The new building is projected to cost $143M, which equates to $1,723 per sq ft and that is at the upper end of office costs, even when we consider that the contract was reported to be for a fully fitted building.
  • Rent – The current rent paid by the THA for the Divisions to be located in the new facility is an average of $8.17 per sq ft.  The rent for the new facility was agreed at $15.61 per sq ft, which is almost twice the rate now paid.  It was telling that the THA relied on the statements of a Civil Engineer, Peter Forde, who sought to justify that rent by reference to the fact that $10 per sq ft was being paid for some offices in Scarborough.  Mr. Forde is an esteemed engineer with whom I have worked well in the past, but that is like relying on my advice, as a Chartered Valuation Surveyor, as to the correct steel to use in some complex structure.
  • Total Costs – The total monthly rent now paid by THA for those Divisions is $231,788, while the new project is set to cost a monthly rent of $1.295M – more than five times more.

All of these arrangements being made by a public authority which makes a compelling case that the Central Government has starved them of financial resources over a considerable period.  The THA, starved of money, is justifying a deal which will hugely increase their monthly rent bill, for an office building three times larger than required at a higher quality than any other in Tobago.  That is the sense of this deal.

The recent litigation over this project was altered after it started, to two questions of ‘construction’, being ruled by the Court to be issues of public interest -

  • Finance Ministry approval – Is THA required to obtain approval from the Ministry of Finance before entering a BOLT arrangement?
  • Tendering procedure – Is THA required to follow the procedures of the Central Tenders Board Act (CTB Act) in entering a BOLT arrangement?

The High Court ruling on 30 April 2014 was claimed by THA to be an endorsement of their course of action, but this is what it actually meant.

ISSUES High Court Ruling Proposed Public Procurement Law
Preliminary considerations No ruling by the Court. A Needs Assessment would be required to take account of a life-cycle costing, which includes both initial and cost-in-use aspects.
Ministry of Finance approval At para 33, the Court ruled that THA is not required to obtain approval of the Minister of Finance.  In that respect, one can understand THA’s claim to have been vindicated.At para 29, the Court makes the inescapable point that since this is a 20-year recurrent commitment which would have to be paid for by financing from the Central Government, it would be prudent for the THA to consult with the Finance Ministry before entering such arrangements. This is a transaction in ‘Public Money’ via a ‘Public Private Partnership’ which is included in the remit of the proposed law.
Tendering Procedure At paras 48 through 51, the Court was emphatic that the THA was required to follow the provisions of the CTB Act. The proposed law abolishes and replaces the CTB Act and would include this kind of project under the oversight of the Office of Procurement Regulation.

In this case, the THA’s claims of victory appear unrealistic, but the good news is that the proposed arrangements will act to prevent a recurrence of this wasteful type of project.

EDEN GARDENS

163940This 2012 purchase of 50.5 acres (comprising 264 residential lots with ancillary uses) by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) was also the subject of a series of articles in this space, which highlighted these questionable aspects -

  • Private sales as individual lots – Eden Gardens lots were being offered for sale in 2011 at $400,000.
  • HDC Valuations or Offers? – HDC obtained a private valuation of the property at $52M in November 2011.  In January 2012 Eden Gardens is offered to the HDC at $200M.  So why did HDC order a valuation in November 2011?  Was there an attempt to offer the site to HDC before November 2011 and at what price?
  • The State valuer exceeds the opinion of a private valuer? – Of course that is virtually unknown, but the fact is that the Commissioner of Valuations issued an opinion of value in April 2012 placing the property at $180M.
  • HDC Purchase – The HDC buys the property in November 2012 at $175M, which equates to $663,000 per lot.   Given that those lots were available in 2011 at $400,000, that is a 66% increase in the value of those lands within one year, which can make no sense.  It makes even less sense when one considers that HDC was buying the all that land at once, so a discount would be the rational and expected commercial practice.  So what was the basis on which this price was settled?
  • Plan ‘B’ – The State had the power to compulsorily acquire the land if it was required for a public purpose, which housing is.  The point being that the State could have lawfully acquired Eden Gardens for no more than $35M, if they had chosen to use their powers of compulsory acquisition.  So, why did they choose to go the Private Treaty route?
  • The ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ – The basic business practice required of bankers and other finance professionals is to ‘Know Your Customer’ as a fundamental part of ‘Anti Money Laundering’ (AML) laws now in force in this country.  Those laws and professional practices have now extended to cover the activities of real estate agents, so anyone selling land would be required to conform.  The vendor of Eden Gardens was Point Lisas Park Limited, but from my research at the Registrar General’s Dept, it seems that PLP Ltd. has never issued shares.  Which means that we can only speculate as to who was the ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ of Eden Gardens and indeed, who received $175M for that property.

The proposed new laws do not contain any provisions to govern the State in ‘acquiring public property’, which was the case in Eden Gardens, since the State was buying land.

This is one of the outstanding serious concerns as to the proposed new law, which would not act to prevent this type of corrupt practice.  Our Parliamentarians need to consider these aspects in finalising this law.

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G2G Policy

The current Government to Government (G2G) arrangements are a direct threat to our country’s fundamental interests.

The key element of the G2G arrangement is that a larger, more advanced, country will assist a smaller, less-advanced country by building or operating complex facilities which are beyond the reach of the smaller state.

One of the features the G2G arrangements have in common with the other large-scale projects is the high degree of secrecy with which the proposals are developed.  That secrecy raises doubts as to whether proper Needs Assessments are undertaken and as to the degree to which the views of citizens and stakeholders are sought, far less considered.  The fundamental issue as to the necessity for these projects is thus routinely sidelined, which is inimical to the public interest.

The main criticisms of the G2G arrangements are -

  • Sidelining of the elementary Tendering Process – the procurement process is effectively outsourced, since the more powerful country has the right to select the contractor;
  • Limited, if any, role for Local Participation in terms of labour, professionals, suppliers, or contractors;
  • Weak or nonexistent contract controls, due to the disparity in power between the parties;
  • Serious drain on Foreign Exchange;
  • Lack of the promised Transfer of Technology.

These arrangements have been heavily criticised in our country for almost 35 years, starting with Winston Riley’s October 1979 paper which identified many of the emerging problems.  As a result of that rising tide of criticism, an official enquiry was established by then PM, George Chambers.  In March 1982, the Ballah Report was published and the G2G programme was brought to a halt as a result of its dire findings.

Despite the learning, successive political administrations seem unable to resist the appeal of these G2G arrangements, so we have today’s situation as shown in the table.

Physical Development Projects via G2G – April 2014

Readers who access this article online can view the background info via the hyperlinks

COUNTRY PROJECT/S DATE AMOUNT COMMENTS
CHINA NAPA – North & South 2008
  • TT$818M as’final cost’
  • TT$207M for ‘remedial works’
NAPA (POS) completed in 2009, NAPA (San Fernando) completed in 2012stated final cost of both projects was $130M USD ($818M TTD). A further $207M was borrowed from EXIM Bank of China in 2011 for ‘remedial works‘ on NAPA (POS). Design & Build contractor was Shanghai Construction Group.
AUSTRIA San Fernando Teaching Hospital 2011 TT$739M Opened in January 2014
CANADA Penal Hospital 2012 Undisclosed Involvement with Canada’s nominated designer SNC-Lavalin was discontinued after serious concerns over that firm’s international banning for corrupt business practices.
CHINA
  1. Couva Children’s Hospital,
  2. three national sports facilities in Couva,
  3. three multi-sports facilities in other parts of the country.
2012 TT$1.8 Billion Loan Agreement signed in March 2013 with EXIM Bank of China, with Shanghai Construction Group selected as the contractor for all the projects.These projects include the swimming & cycling complex at Balmain and the sporting complex at Tacarigua Savannah in Orange Grove.
CHINA Lake Asphalt 2013 Undisclosed MoU, with a Confidentiality Agreement, signed on 30 May 2013 between Lake Asphalt T&T Ltd and a Chinese contractor. One of the official objectives of the February 2014 State visit to China, according to the Office of the PM, was “…Removal of asphalt from the Pitch Lake in greater capacities…”.
CHINA La Brea Port and seven industrial parks. 2014 US$750M (TT$4.83 Billion) Agreement signed in February 2014 to have these facilities built by China Harbour and China Construction.

The total cost of these projects is just under $8.4 Billion TTD.
That is the background, against which we must consider these further elements -

  • china-caricomRegional Strategy – As a leading nation within CARICOM, it is important for Trinidad & Tobago to give serious consideration to the role of the various bilateral G2G arrangements China is pursuing in our region and the implications of those arrangements on our aspirations for healthy regionalism.  I have been reading the February 2013 Research Note by UWI’s Dr. Annita Montoute – ‘Caribbean-China Economic Relations: what are the Implications?‘  The scope of Dr. Montoute’s research and her findings are sobering – at pg 115  “…CARICOM Trade with China is on the increase; however it is overwhelmingly in China’s favour…”.  The regional issue is a serious one to which we must address our energies.
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s Strategy – Now consider these statements by then Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, at the September 2011 ceremony to sign the $207M TTD loan for NAPA (POS) ‘remedial works’ -

    “…Dookeran said it was now imperative that TT deepens its ties with China…’In the first instance China has now emerged as a very significant player, especially in light of the recent tremors and uncertainties in the world economy,’ he said. ‘China…is now an economy that we will have to rely upon. It is in that context that it is very appropriate and timely for Trinidad and Tobago to start to intensify its relationship with China.’..”

    Winston Dookeran is now Trinidad & Tobago’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

  • The Uff Report – The 42nd and 43rd recommendations of the 2010 Uff Report deal directly with this  issue –
    1. The Government’s policy on the use of foreign contractors and consultants for public construction projects should be transparent and open to review.
    2. Local contractors and consultants who compete with foreign companies should be provided with the same or equivalent benefits as enjoyed by those foreign companies and should be protected from unfair competition through matters such as soft loans…

    Uff was calling for the establishment of a national policy on this series of issues and the JCC has been requesting a consultation between government and stakeholders, so that a proper strategy can be developed in open collaboration. That would include labour, professionals, the State, the contracting sector and all the associated elements such as suppliers of building materials, financiers, skills training and so on.  The JCC wrote to the PM on this in April 2012, but to date there has been no response to our calls for those consultations in the national interest.

  • NAPA, again – The Minister of Culture, Dr. Lincoln Douglas, told the Senate on 8 April 2014 of the serious issues arising at NAPA (POS), with an estimated further $100M being required for more repairs.  It is not certain if the issues of disrepair are all due to inadequate maintenance, but it is unacceptable for such issues to have emerged for a structure less than 5 years old.
  • Shanghai Construction Group – Despite the bad record at NAPA, the selected contractor for the $1.8 Billion Couva Children’s Hospital and the other sporting facilities is the said Shanghai Construction Group.
  • Proposed Public Procurement Law – most alarmingly, Clause 7 of the proposed Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 specifically excludes Government to Government Arrangements and projects funded by International Financial Institutions form oversight.  That proposed exclusion is entirely unacceptable as it further jeopardises our national interest.

The PM has made a call for a National Conversation and this is one topic which needs addressing. Our country cannot continue exporting our jobs, capital and skilled people in favour of unexamined and undisclosed foreign policies.

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AUDIO: The Showdown Show Interview, i95.5FM – 6 April 2014

Afra Raymond is interviewed on the ‘Showdown‘ show on i95.5FM about the public procurement legislation recently laid in parliament. 6 April 2014. Audio courtesy i95.5FM

  • Programme Date: Sunday, 6th April 2014
  • Programme Length: 0:38:25 + 0:48:59

Part 1:
Part 2:


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FAILURE to ACCOUNT

The main issue now arising in relation to the Beetham Water Recycling Project (BWRP) is the complete failure of our country’s system of Public Financial Management.

The $1.043 Billion BWRP was omitted from Trinidad & Tobago’s 2014 national budget.  By any standard that is an unpardonable failure to account for that mammoth sum of Public Money.  Although the national budget-making exercise is collective in nature, the ultimate responsibility for that function is held by the Minister of Finance & the Economy.  That Minister is Larry Howai, who is a Certified Management Accountant and was a career Banker, up until his appointment in June 2012.

The JCC have been long-time campaigners for Public Procurement Reform, together with our Kindred Associations – T&T Chamber of Commerce; T&T Manufacturers’ Association; T&T Transparency Institute; American Chamber of Commerce; Federation of Independent Trades Unions & NGOs and the Local Content Chamber.  In the preamble to our 2012 draft Bill we identified Public Procurement Reform as heralding the “stated intention to strengthen the quality of governance by promoting these principles of good governance by systemic re-engineering of the public financial management system. This Bill is thus one of a raft of relevant Bills for the re-engineering of the public financial management system.

Public Procurement Reform is therefore a fundamental part of the modernisation of our Public Financial Management system.  We need that system to map our pattern of income and expenditure in order to gather the basic information to allow us to plan how we are going to spend the future income.  Budgeting is a critical component of that system.

SIDEBAR: PNM’s Public Procurement Position

I was contacted last week by a senior PNM MP who shared with me certain of their ‘official stated positions’ on Public Procurement from 2009, in an attempt to rebut my assertion that there was no known PNM position on this critical issue.  In late 2006 PNM shelved the White Paper on Public Procurement and the accompanying draft Bill, which would have saved the country all of these ongoing losses of Public Money, so I remain unconvinced.  PNM left office after losing the May 2010 elections to the PP, so a 2009 position is not very persuasive.

The Private Sector/Civil Society group continues to extend its invitation to the Leader of the Opposition for dialogue on this critical issue of national development.

The government laid its long-awaited Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill in the Senate on Tuesday, 2 April, with a three-week period set for public comments before formal debate on that new law.  The fiasco of the BWRP being omitted from the 2014 budget is an inescapable example of both failure of Public Financial Management and questionable procurement process.

Our country must move out of this period of chronic waste and theft of Public Money.  It is important that we achieve that by a peaceful transition to adopt the advances used in other countries to control corruption in public transactions.

It is therefore necessary to closely examine this BWRP episode so that we can draw lessons for our collective progress.

The (*estimated) timeline is instructive -

  • February 2013* (reported in local media)– WASA obtains a $246M USD IDB loan for wastewater works, including this BWRP.  That loan is reported to be the largest granted by the IDB in the Western Hemisphere.  Exactly when and why that loan was rejected remains unclear. WASA is also collaborating with PUB-CPG Consultants of Singapore to provide technical support and services for the development of the Beetham Wastewater Treatment Plant Reuse Project. (p. 8)
  • June 2013* – NGC appointed CPG Consultants, to prepare the Request for Proposals (RFP).  [Hansard pp. 152] Given that the RFP was advertised on 2 September 2013, it seems reasonable to suggest that this appointment was in mid-2013.
  • 9 September 2013 – the budget statement is delivered by Minister of Finance & the Economy, Sen Larry Howai, with no mention of the Billion-Dollar BWRP, the RFP for which was published a mere seven days prior.  The 2014 budget contains statements relating to the adequacy of water supplies and the highlighting of five new waste-water treatment plants, as detailed in last week’s column.  Those statements are contrary to the rationale, given elsewhere of course, for BWRP.
  • 21 November 2013 – the Minister of the Environment & Water Resources, makes a formal statement detailing the expansion of Desalcott’s daily output from 32 million to 40 million gallons. [Additional link]
  • 10 March 2014 – BWRP contract was awarded to SIS Ltd and its subcontractors in the sum of $1.043 Billion. [Hansard pp. 150-161]
  • 14 March 2014 – WASA announces that Desalcott’s expansion programme is delayed and will take effect in April, instead of January as originally anticipated.

That timeline is worrying enough, but consider the other aspects.

It is worth repeating that the underlying commercial elements of the project remain undisclosed.  According to section 1.1 of the RFP issued by NGC -

…NGC will be responsible for supplying Feedwater to the WRP at no cost to the Contractor. The Contractor will be responsible for the processing of the Feedwater into Product Water at the WRP and supplying the Product Water to NGC.

NGC will enter into a Water Sale Agreement (WSA) with WASA concerning the sale of the Product Water. WASA in turn will sell the Product Water to industrial companies at Point Lisas…

So, NGC will be supplying wastewater at no cost to BWRP, which seems to usurp WASA’s role.  WASA will then buy the recycled water (Product Water) from NGC, before selling that to industrial users at Point Lisas.

This raises questions as to the terms of those agreements and just who are the beneficiaries of this arrangement.  The answers will go to the very heart of this matter since the stated rationale for this entire exercise is the supposed inability of WASA to finance these works.  Will the new arrangements improve WASA’s financial position?  Are those critical figures also being deliberately suppressed?

All of which leads right back to the issue of the omission of BWRP from the 2014 national budget.  How and why did that happen?  No play on words here, but the Minister of Finance & the Economy needs to offer the public a clear accounting for this unacceptable position.

Are we witnessing a situation in which the entire Cabinet was aware of this huge BWRP and a deliberate, collective decision taken to omit that from our national budget?  Or are we seeing that a small group of high-level Public Officials were able to activate and implement a huge project out of the ‘line-of-sight’ of the Finance Minister.  Which is it?

One of the lessons from enquiries into the global financial collapse is the pernicious practice of ‘Regulatory Arbitrage‘, in which the players in the financial market were able to choose to which regulatory regime they would subject various products.  That practice allowed bad, ‘smartman’ practices to grow until the historic crisis exploded.  Those arose in some of the most advanced jusrisdictions due to the several financial market regulators in operation.  The same ‘smartman’ behaviour was evidently at the root of the CL Financial collapse here.  One of the important lessons from that global crisis, which our country seems to be adopting, is that the financial system is better regulated by a single entity.

The same solid lesson should also be fundamental in our efforts to develop an effective Public Procurement system for our country.  To my mind, this matter is also a notable example of ‘Procurement Arbitrage‘, in which major players in the State sector can choose to take less transparent paths to implement pet projects.  For whatever reason, this reminds me of TIDCO paving roads some years ago.  A little bit again and we might hear that NGC is undertaking road projects.

Clause 7 of the government’s Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill specifically excludes Government to Government Agreements and projects funded by International Financing Agencies from oversight by the new system.  That is an unacceptable exclusion since it would immediately place the greater part of State procurement outside of transparent and accountable oversight.  That exclusion will, in turn, spawn a fresh round of the detrimental ‘Procurement Arbitrage‘ identified in this BWRP issue.  The JCC is strongly objecting to that attempt at taking the path to obscurity.

The fact is, that as matters stand, we do not know what other ‘off-budget‘ projects are in play.  How can the public properly establish the extent of the State’s commitments?   This deplorable episode does little credit to the progressive notion of ‘Good Governance’ in our nation.

The Minister of Finance & the Economy must give a proper accounting for this glaring omission from the 2014 national budget and a clear set of details for the BWRP, to include the underlying commercial elements which are driving the entire arrangement.

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