Posts Tagged tobago
“…The question really is integrity, and if he or she does not have it he or she should not be a Commissioner in the first place. The simple fact is that try as we might, we cannot legislate for integrity…”
From Press Release of 21 June 2013 by then Integrity Commission Chairman, Ken Gordon, in response to strong criticisms of his meeting privately and alone with opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley.
Once again we are beset by what appears to be yet another fiasco at the Integrity Commission, so Ken Gordon’s fateful words echo in my mind.
Given the current political season, there is every temptation to discuss this crisis as being caused by the impending election, together with either the improper behaviour of the present Peoples Partnership government or the ‘PNM operatives’ who infest the public service. You can take your pick from those prevailing theories, but I think these recent and alarming events were preceded by earlier ones. So much so that when the entire situation is placed in context, we are facing a troubling scenario in terms of the extent to which we can trust high public officials.
The current crisis is serious enough grounds to require a full Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Integrity Commission since the 2000 revisions to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).
I do not agree with those who call for the abolition of the Integrity Commission, since it is critical that any progressive society establish what are its aspirations and work towards those. Despite the social, religious and legal restrictions on murder, robbery and rape, those acts occur all the time. That sobering truth is no reason at all to retreat from putting strong legal and social prohibitions in place. Society needs laws and institutions to promote its values, so I am not calling for any move towards abolition of the Integrity Commission at all.
Such a Commission of Enquiry is necessary to clear the air on strategic issues and its Terms of Reference would cover aspects such as –
- What is the record of the Integrity Commission in deterring corrupt and improper behaviour by Public Officials?
- To what extent would the amendments to the IPLA, as proposed by the Ken Gordon-led Commission in its 2012 Annual Report, be effective in improving the Commission’s performance?
- Given their growing importance of Public Private Partnerships in large-scale projects and commercial enterprises, to what extent should the IPLA apply to those organisations.
- Apart from the legal framework as outlined above, how can the limited resources of the Integrity Commission be best applied to promote ‘Integrity in Public Life’?
The specific issues
- 19th October 2004 – The Integrity Commission wrote to then PM Patrick Manning seeking detailed instructions on how to handle Ganga Singh’s complaint against Dr Keith Rowley. According to the ruling in the case brought by Dr Rowley against the Commission – “…The Court does not accept the Integrity Commission’s explanation as to why it wrote to the Honourable Prime Minister on the 19th October, 2004, to ascertain whether an inquiry was to be undertaken and if so, the names of the persons to man the enquiry and their terms of reference…”. The public needs a full and proper explanation as to how and why the Integrity Commission took such an extraordinary decision.
- The TSTT exemption – In 2006 the Commission was alleged to have written to TSTT Directors to confirm that they were exempted from filing declarations as required by the IPLA. That letter was the subject of Freedom of Information litigation at both High Court and Appeal Court levels – Magdalene Samaroo vs TSTT CV 2006-0817 and CA 180 of 2010 – and it is fundamental that at no point was the existence of that letter denied. A simple denial would have readily defeated the request for that letter since the Court cannot order publication of a document which simply never existed. The matter was ‘compromised’ by agreement between the parties at an Appeal Court hearing on 28 October 2013, which means that both sides agreed to discontinue the lawsuit. There is obviously something substantial and improper at work here, so an Enquiry can force publication of that suppressed correspondence.
- The TSTT litigation – Since 2005 TSTT has been in prolonged litigation to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight. The High Court ruled in 2007 that TSTT’s Directors were required to file declarations under the IPLA. That judgment was reversed in the Appeal Court ruling of 27 June 2013 that TSTT was not a State Enterprise, with its Directors therefore not required to file declarations to the Integrity Commission. Upon careful reading of those judgments it seems clear that the Integrity Commission offered little, if any, resistance to the TSTT challenge. This sustained collaboration between the Executive, the supposedly-independent Integrity Commission and the Public Private Partnership also known as TSTT is nothing less than remarkable, given the challenges in getting agreement on important and beneficial matters. A proper account is also required for how and why the Commission agreed to this course of action.
- The 2009 collapse – The newly-appointed Commission collapsed in early 2009 due to disastrous appointments by then President Max Richards. One of the several outstanding issues at that time was the strong complaint from Justice Zainool Hosein who claimed that President Richards had promised him the position of Deputy Chairmanship and then reneged on that commitment. President Richards proceeded on an extended leave before deigning to make a public statement on 29th May 2009 which amounted to a stunning ‘I don’t have to explain myself’. An important part of this Enquiry would be to establish just how this series of unfortunate appointments were made.
- CL Financial group of companies – The Commission has never explained its failure or refusal to seek declarations from the Directors of the CL Financial group of companies, which have been under State control since June 2009. I have personally checked and those Directors do not submit declarations to the Commission. CL Financial is the largest by far of the ‘bodies under the control of the State’, yet the Commission has not exercised its lawful duties in respect of proper oversight, so a full and public examination is necessary.
- Emailgate Fiasco – The Commission’s role in this charged affair certainly needs a full, public Enquiry if trust is to be restored. Fixin’ T&T claimed, in its 7 May 2015 letter to the Commission, that the PM had claimed to have had possession of certain files ‘containing information which the IC had requested from Google’. The Commission was asked in that letter whether it was aware of any information being passed onto the PM or any other person. The Commission’s response on the same day was remarkable, in that there was neither confirmation or denial of any information being passed to anyone else. That reticence on such a critical point is even more remarkable when one examines the Commission’s letter of 19th May 2015, which confirmed the end of its ‘Emailgate’ investigation. The first part of that letter states that the provisions of S.35 (1) & (2) of the IPLA prohibits any release of information unless charges are to be recommended. On the one hand, the Commission declines to say if information was released to the PM or anyone else, yet, on the other hand, it stresses the legal rules against such a release. So what is really happening here? What is more, the resignation of two of the IC’s five Commissioners can only add to the sense of confusion in the air. The first resignation came from Dr Shelly Ann Lalchan, supposedly for personal reasons, but the clear statements from the second Commissioner to resign, former Deputy Chairman, Justice Sebastien Ventour, are worrying to say the least. Can it be true that the media was the first place the Commissioners were made aware of that important letter of the 19 May? If that is indeed so, it is clearly unacceptable for a public body to conduct itself in that fashion.
A final issue for an Enquiry to consider would be the role of whistleblowing within bodies such as the Integrity Commission. On the one hand the Commission could not perform its work without reports from people who are reporting suspected wrongdoing, probably in breach of their employers’ rules, yet the very officers within the Commission are prevented from reporting wrongdoing in its own operations. That is the true irony at work and a proper Enquiry will be able to take evidence and make recommendations to deal with this.
A full and urgent Commission of Enquiry into the Integrity Commission is now required.
This article is about the Las Alturas Enquiry into the collapse of two new Morvant apartment buildings erected by China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) for the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). This Enquiry seems a politically-motivated one into a serious failure of professional practice which could have cost human lives. It is only in its opening stages, but it is already clear to me that this episode is one which contains serious lessons for our country in terms of the role of Enquiries; the role of the Chinese contractors; the culture of non-enforcement which we practice and of course, the impact of targets and political objectives on proper process. In the case of Las Alturas this is a large-scale multiple-housing project constructed on a former quarry-site on the Lady Young Road, just south of the lookout. Two apartment buildings which were completed in late 2010 were eventually declared uninhabitable due to severe cracking and the proposed demolition of those structures was announced at the end of May 2012. Each building comprised 24 three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartments, with the total cost of those buildings stated by HDC to be in the $29M range. The buildings were erected by CJIC on the design/build basis which usually places all responsibility for soil investigation, design and construction onto the contractor.
The role of Enquiries
The JCC offered to work with HDC in determining the causes of this serious failure and that offer was accepted, but our joint exercise did not last very long. The Commission of Enquiry was announced in September 2014 by the Prime Minister and despite the serious nature of the failure at this project, it seemed to suggest an attempt to discredit the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, who was Minister of Housing between 2003-2007. I still feel that it was a poor choice of issue to investigate, given the burning questions at Invader’s Bay, the Beetham Water Recycling Project, UWI Debe and EFCL, to name just a few. The Terms of Reference of the Enquiry were published in the Gazette of 3 December 2014 and a five-month period was stipulated for its Report to be made to the President.The Enquiry, which is chaired by retired Justice of Appeal Mustapha Ibrahim, is to examine the causes of the structural failure of two blocks of apartments built in 2008-2010 for the HDC by CJIC. The other two Commissioners are eminent Structural Engineers, Dr. Myron Chin and Anthony Farrell. We have also seen reports of the contractor, CJIC, declining to appear at the Enquiry. I consider that refusal to be deplorable and a real sign that serious penalties need to be attached to that course of action. As it is, the fines for non-attendance are nominal, so people can refuse on a whim, since there are few prosecutions for that.
The role of the Chinese contractors
The really stunning revelation here is that the State was aware, since 2011, that these two buildings at Las Alturas had to be demolished. Despite this, CJIC was able, from early 2012 onwards, to compete for and secure the $500M+ contract for UWI’s Debe campus. The JCC protested at the poor process used in procuring that large-scale project. UWI Principal Professor Clement Sankat was advised that in view of the poor performance by CJIC in local State projects – including UTT Tamana, ETeck Wallerfield and various EFCL – no proper evaluation could proceed to recommend that further contracts be granted to that firm. Given that the normal pre-qualification process requires prospective bidders to identify claims, litigations or disputed matters, one can only wonder how CJIC was able to prevail in that project.
Culture of non-enforcement
One of the seldom-discussed findings of the Uff Enquiry was as to the lack of any culture of enforcement of contracts in the State construction sector, as set out in the sidebar. So, I was both thrilled and intrigued by the headline in this newspaper on Friday 6 March 2015 ‘HDC to sue Chinese contractor‘. The role and reputation of Chinese contractors in the local market have long been a bone of contention for the JCC. That statement was made in opening remarks by Vincent Nelson QC, who is the lead Counsel for HDC at this Enquiry –
“…The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) is moving to pursue legal action against China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC), the company contracted to construct the two towers at Las Alturas, Morvant, which subsequently had to be demolished because of structural damage resulting from land slippage. Attorney for the HDC, Vincent Nelson, was adamant about this as he delivered his opening statement at the Commission of Enquiry into the housing project yesterday at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain…”
The culture of non-enforcement, considered with the chiefs at HDC (who transferred there after abruptly departing Caribbean Airlines), together with the special influence seemingly enjoyed by the Chinese contractors, all make me very sceptical as to whether a real and forceful lawsuit will ever emerge against CJIC.
The role of targets
Finally, one needs to consider the detrimental role of politically-motivated overambitious targets. The 2002 National Housing Policy set an unforgettable target of 100,000 new homes to be built in 10 years, which translates to an annual average of 10,000, which means a literally impossible 200 homes per week. Those are the facts behind the bizarre ‘numbers game’ which in turn likely had a decisive influence on the decision-makers at UDECOTT, HDC and of course the Housing Ministry. It would be useful, in this season of 100 houses a week and a billion dollars in land each year being promised, to reconsider the role of over-ambitious targets in distorting proper process. Curtis, the first sidebar is entitled
SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline
This is only an outline, but it is instructive –
- December 2002 – UDECOTT acquires the Las Alturas site.
- 2003 – Initial layout prepared for a total of 120 apartments, which was revised later that year to 292 units given the Town & Country Planning Division’s advice on the allowable number of units.
- December 2003 – CJIC wins tender to design & build 297 apartments.
- November 2004 – Start on Site.
- 2005/2006 – Soil problems identified on part of the site.
- July 2005 – UDECOTT rejects project redesigns for lower units numbers of 142 and 167 apartments. Those redesigns were intended to avoid the unsuitable soils.
- July 2006 – the project is transferred from UDECOTT to HDC.
- 2008-2010 – Blocks H & I are built onto the areas reported to be unsuitable.
- 2011 – Blocks H & I are recommended to be demolished due to severe cracking.
We have also seen reports that both UDECOTT and the HDC were resistant to any reduction in unit numbers on the site.
SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding
“Holding to account 29.21. …A recurrent feature of practice in the construction industry in Trinidad & Tobago is the extent to which rights and obligations prescribed by the Contract are or are not enforced. A simple example, discussed above, is the apparently mutual ignoring of contract provisions…”
At page 271 –
“…29.26. Underlying all the foregoing, however, is the question of enforcement of contractual rights and duties. What has been observed by the Commissioners is a culture of non-enforcement of rights, which appears to operate mutually, for example, by contractors not pressing for payment of outstanding sums while the employer does not enforce payment of liquidated damages. Whatever the explanation, the non-enforcement of contractual rights available to Government is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of those charged with protecting public funds. Equally, the non-pursuit of sums properly owed to commercial companies is a dereliction on the part of the directors of that company…”
The key point disclosed here is that contractual rights are seldom enforced in State contracts. A move to such a regular practice would require a major shift in our country’s governance culture.
The Integrity Commission is continuing its efforts to revise the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) to give greater effect to its anti-corruption work. I fully support those efforts.
The key challenge is to discern how Public Officials commit the corrupt acts the Commission is meant to reduce. It is therefore necessary to conduct a scrupulous examination of Commissions of Enquiry and other Inquiry (eg LifeSport) Reports & evidence; Auditor General’s Annual Reports; as well as the leading international learning on these questions.
Once the main methods of corrupt agents are discerned, it will then be necessary to consider how the existing powers of the Commission might be deployed in tackling those and if there are new powers needed.
‘Public Money’ is the term used to describe money due to or payable by the State, including those sums for which the State would be ultimately liable in the event of a default. Public Money is sometimes called Taxpayers’ Money. It is our Money. The leading learning from which we have drawn serious lessons in the campaign for Public Procurement reform is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament – Holding to Account – which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money.’ We expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money‘ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money‘ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and Transparency than Private Money. The contemporary, best-practice position in respect of the management of and accountability for Public Money being that the private sector rules are the bare minimum. That position must be at the centre of any reform of the IPLA and should be enshrined in law.
Code of Conduct
The IPLA effectively contains two limbs – the first requires that Public Officials make declarations of their income, assets and liabilities and the second requires those officials to perform their duties in accordance with the ‘Code of Conduct’ as set out in Part IV. The majority of cases brought by or Notices from the IC are directed at Public Officials who fail to make proper declarations. Is there a single case in which breaches of the ‘Code of Conduct’ were cited in making a case or an adverse finding? It is in this failure or refusal to apply those IPLA provisions that much of the current mischief in our Public Affairs is left to flourish. Some of the largest State Enterprises are functioning in breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’ and as such the Public Officials running those bodies are liable to censure. The IPLA does not contain any penalties for breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’, so that needs to be rectified. I support the Commission’s proposals to make examination of declarations optional, as that shift would release resources for a greater focus on the ‘Code of Conduct’.
Power to make recommendations
S.36 (1) of the IPLA states –
“36. (1) A person in public life or a person exercising a public function may, by application in writing, request the Commission to give an opinion and make recommendations on any matter respecting his own obligations under this Act.”
The key flaw with this power is that it is limited to cases in which the Public Official first requests an investigation and what is more, the Commission can only release its findings/recommendations with the consent of that Official. That power must be extended to all cases, with the discretion as to publication of its findings/recommendations left to the Commission. The fundamental importance of the Public Interest should not be subordinated to the agenda of obstructive Public Officials. A good example of how those powers were used recently in a positive way was the Commission’s 12 September 2014 Report on the Ministry of the Environment & Water Resources with relation to issues of alleged improper conduct in relation to the grant of Saw-Millers Licences.
At present, the Commission notifies Public Officials who are being investigated. It seems counter-productive, to say the least, that the same Public Officials who are in charge of the papers which could prove their guilt are being notified by the Commission at the start of investigations. Little wonder that the Commission has had little impact on corruption. It is emblematic of the flagrant double-standards with respect to the detection and prosecution of ‘White Collar Crime’. One can hardly imagine the courtesy of ‘prior notice’ being extended to suspected rapists or murderers. The Commission needs to eliminate that practice of notifying persons to be investigated.
Improving the impact of the Commission’s findings
The Commission’s findings and recommendations must be effectively linked with other ‘gatekeeper’ regulators – eg ‘Fit & Proper’ regulations as controlled by the Central Bank, Professional bodies, T&T Securities and Exchange Commission and the Stock Exchange. The linkages need to be backward and forward, so that the Public Interest can be upheld by better-informed regulatory bodies. I have seen notices of penalties imposed by the TTSEC in relation to various Public Bodies which have issued bonds and failed to provide timely accounts. If the TTSEC fines were paid, it would have been out of Public Money, so there would be no personal cost to those Directors for their lawbreaking. Those findings would seem to constitute a breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’, but was the Commission formally notified? – examples are in the sidebar.
SIDEBAR – Lawbreaking State Business
The SEC has made Orders in respect of Contraventions of the Securities Industry Act 1995 and the Securities Industry Bye-Laws 1997. Those Orders are in relation to the failure of these huge State-owned Enterprises to publish their accounts –
- 19 March 2010 against HDC, with fines totalling $121,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/pub100326.pdf.
- 15 June 2011 against UDECOTT, with fines totalling $120,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/Order-for-settlement-re-UDECOTT.pdf.
- 25 July 2011 against HDC, with fines totalling $400,000 – see http://www.ttsec.org.tt/content/Order-for-settlement-re-Trinidad-and-Tobago-Housing-Development-Corporation.pdf.
SIDEBAR – Public Companies, Private Business
Some of the largest State Enterprises and Statutory Bodies are operating in breach of the ‘Code of Conduct’ in the IPLA, which requires at S.24 (3) that –
“(3) No person to whom this Part applies shall be a party to or shall undertake any project or activity involving the use of public funds in disregard of the Financial Orders or other Regulations applicable to such funds.”
At this time, there are no audited accounts for Caribbean Airlines Ltd (since 2008) or UDECOTT (since 2005) or Housing Development Corporation (since its inception in 2005). That is very serious since some of the largest State Enterprises and Statutory Bodies are refusing or failing to publish audited accounts as required by the published guidelines of the Ministry of Finance or their own statutes.
Declarations also to be linked
The declarations of Public Officials must also be linked to the Inland Revenue and Financial Intelligence Unit, so that they can be reconciled. With today’s information technology, that is no great task.
The October 2007 High Court ruling that members of the Judiciary were exempt from the provisions of the IPLA needs to be urgently revisited. The fact is that the Judiciary has an immense amount of power and discretion which at present is being exercised outside of the framework which binds other Public Officials. It is true that judicial decisions are subject to review, but the appearance of a beneficial exemption from the Integrity Framework does not inspire confidence.
The G20 countries recently agreed to start moves against secret shareholdings and nominee Directors. The effect of those proposed changes would be to effectively embargo Nominee Directors, Unissued shares and other ‘masking devices’ which are intended to conceal the ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owner’ of a company. Our Integrity laws need to reflect those practices.
Public Private Partnerships
The IPLA needs to restate the position that all Directors of State Enterprises and bodies under the control of the State are liable to its provisions. Of course, that would include the gigantic CL Financial.
It is critical that we get these issues right, there is no room for compromise here.
“They’ve got twelve Aces up their sleeve!
So who the Hell can we believe?”
—Rudder, David Michael. “Back to the Same Ole Same.” The Autobiography of The Now. Lypsoland, 2001. Used with permission
The CL Financial bailout seems to be entering its end-game, with repeated claims from the Minister of Finance that the recovery of the $25 Billion of Public Money spent is now on the cards. The consistent failure or refusal to publish any audited accounts and my ongoing research are telling. We are witness to yet another ‘Plot to Pervert Parliament’, this time it is the biggest project to ever hit this country. The CL Financial bailout.
Plots to Pervert Parliament
In January 2013, I identified the first of these, otherwise known as the ‘S.34 Fiasco’, which of course led me to the CLF Bailout Perversion, committed in January 2009 when our country was presented with its largest-ever public expenditure. The original bailout, presented to our Parliament, as a fait accompli, was the original Plot to Pervert Parliament.
I have come to the sobering conclusion, after much research and consideration, that the Colman Commission is not ever going to provide the details we were led to believe it would. I am now of the view that once again we have been misled and bamboozled by our Parliament. Yet another sick trick, a third ‘Plot to Pervert Parliament’.
The rationale stated for the Colman Commission of Enquiry is in serious conflict with the terms of reference for and consequently, the conduct of that Commission. This article will detail those assertions and show how the public interest is once again being subordinated to powerful private interests.
To understand this crime, one must take a stern view of dates and time.
- 30 January 2009 – The bailout is announced at a Press Conference on Friday 30 January 2009 at the Central Bank. At that time, we were told that the estimated cost was about TT$5 Billion.
- 12 June 2009 – Ministry of Finance signs the ‘CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement’ which, for the first time, discloses that shareholders’ interests were to be specifically protected.
- 8 September 2010 – Winston Dookeran’s first budget statement as Minister of Finance, following the Peoples Partnership electoral victory in May 2010, was notable since Dookeran announced a dramatic policy shift. The entire CL Financial bailout was declared to be the first of the ‘great uncertainties’ to be resolved. Dookeran outlined the problem before reducing the rate at which Public Money would be paid for this bailout. A huge storm of protest erupted, with several ‘Depositors and Shareholders groups’ emerging to represent those interests. With Dookeran isolated and the government under mounting pressure from these new protest groups, laws were swiftly drafted to stifle the protestors’ legal options.
- 1st October 2010 – The PM’s historic address to Parliament on 1 October 2010 at which the Commission of Enquiry was announced. Most notable was the PM’s outrage at the mystery of the bailout – at pgs 25-26 –
“…The $5 Billion has been spent—we are advised—to repay matured EFPA policies in an ad hoc and unstructured manner where payment arrangements were entered into based on levels of funds invested. What criteria did you use to repay investors? Whom did you choose to pay? How were they chosen? These questions need to be answered. Because if it is today after the $7.3 Billion, all these EFPA people, the policy group and so on, they are out there, where is their money? Where is their money? Did you have a priority listing of who should be paid? Why did you go—and you are now crying crocodile tears about trade unions, credit unions, the poor man and the small man—why did you not pay them first? Why did you not pay them first? Where did that $7 Billion go? We need those answers, Mr. Speaker. We deserve those answers. The taxpayers need to know. Because when a parent has to buy school books and bags to send his/her children to school but they have to pay tax out of the little money, they need to know where that money has gone…Where, how and why; we need to know…”
The main argument made by the PM was that this was a case which needed serious investigation to establish what had caused this huge collapse and where had over TT$7 Billion of Public Money gone. I could not agree more.
- 17 November 2010 – The Colman Commission with its Terms of Reference published in the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette. Those were divided into two limbs, causes and consequences. The first to examine the causes of the crisis and the second to make recommendations for prosecutions or other policy changes to prevent a repetition of the crisis.
- In September 2011, the Parliament voted unanimously to pass two laws related to the CL Financial bailout. The first was to permit the Minister of Finance to borrow a further TT$10.7 Billion to fund the bailout and the second was to grant the Central Bank, which was administering the bailout on government’s behalf, immunity from any legal challenge. For those who consider these assertions of mine to be harsh, just look at Winston Dookeran’s closing words to the Senate on 16 September 2011 –
“…I just want to give you the assurance which I gave to the Lower House when we debated this, that already the Ministry, along with the Central Bank and Clico, have begun the preparation of a public document—many questions that are still to be answered—to provide the necessary information. In addition to that, we did present to the hon. Senators, for those who afforded us the opportunity to accept our invitation, a document that is in the vicinity of 57 pages as of now, outlining all the necessary information that led to the story that assess what is the current challenges and why the proposals to go forward have been put forward. This document, I assure you, along with the questions and answers, will be converted into a simple, easy to read, hopefully, document for the sake of establishing that this Parliament has mandated us to put this as an anchor document for the purposes of evaluating our performance in the future…”.
I requested that document via the Freedom of Information Act but it was not provided, which is why my litigation started.
In the course of recent research it became clear to me that the PM’s outraged demands for detailed information as to how the huge sums of Public Money spent in the bailout had been discarded, just like a flimsy Carnival Costume. At no point in its Terms of Reference was the Colman Commission required to examine the details of the actual Public Money spent on the bailout. A new species of lie is born here in T&T, once again…we used to have one called the ‘White Lie’ in those bad-old-days, now we have the ‘Bright Lie’. Right up in our face, as the Parliament is told one thing, with an entirely different thing being done. The Carnival was over, but the Ole Mas was now starting.
One can imagine the ebb and flow as these public promises were neutered in private discussions. Reasons are never given. I suspect that the influence of party financiers and voting blocks was a great element in this travesty. The public right to know how and why these vast sums of Public Money were spent is obviously of low priority for the highest public officials in this Republic.
Truth has a Power all of its own. At this point, in litigation against the Ministry of Finance for that information – the Ministry is represented by a five-member team headed by former AG, Russell Martineau SC and CL Financial is represented by three attorneys. Something resembling legal overkill to prevent publication of information which the PM told the Parliament it was her intention to unearth. Information which then Finance Minister Dookeran assured the Parliament he was compiling into a public document. Another writer has labelled the situation – ‘Afra, the Deviant‘. I tell you.
At every turn, the public interest has been subordinated to secretive private interests. The Courts are literally the last refuge to uphold the lawful rights of the public to obtain detailed information on these matters of the highest importance.
|Safeguard||Status of query|
|Audited accounts for CL Financial?||NONE|
|Details of Management accounts, Estimates, Drafts or any figures used by Ministry of Finance?||NONE|
|Details of official briefing to Independent Senators in September 2011?||CLAIMED TO BE EXEMPT|
|Details of Public Money paid out to people and institutions owed money by CL Financial?||NONE|
|CL Financial is now under State control, so do its Directors comply with the Integrity in Public Life Act?||NOT ACCORDING TO MY EXAMINATION OF INTEGRITY COMMISSION RECORDS.|
|Do we understand why the CL Financial group is enjoying this beneficial exemption from the lawful obligation to file declarations?||NO WORD YET FROM THE INTEGRITY COMMISSION.|
All of the usual integrity, accountability and transparency safeguards have been disconnected. All.
The Code of Silence rules.
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 –
- the THA/BOLT office project on which the High Court recently ruled;
- Calcutta Settlement/Eden Gardens land purchase by HDC.
This 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.
This 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.
This is the Pre-Action Protocol letter to the Minister of Finance challenging his failure to reply to my Freedom of Information Act request of 18 March 2013, seeking details of the beneficiaries of the CL Financial bailout, particularly the EFPA holders.
Invader’s Bay has re-emerged from the shadows via PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi’s budget contribution on Monday 23 September 2013 (pp. 168-175). The twists and turns in this controversial proposed scheme are detailed at JCC’s webpage.
Invader’s Bay is a 70-acre parcel of reclaimed State land off the Audrey Jeffers Highway – just south of PriceSmart & MovieTowne – in the western part of Port-of-Spain. Its value was estimated by the State in 2011 to be in excess of $1.2Bn, so these are prime development lands, possessing these attributes –
- Water, Electricity and all urban services are readily available;
- Flat/gently-sloping terrain;
- Direct access to Audrey Jeffers Highway;
- Waterfront location.
Before proceeding to the latest revelations, it is important to restate the main objections raised by the JCC and others with respect to this proposed development –
- The Request for Proposals (RFP) was published by the Ministry of Planning in August 2011 seeking Design-Build proposals for the development of these lands and specifying an entirely inadequate 6 weeks for submissions;
- There has been no public consultation at all, so the public has not been involved in this, the largest proposed development in our capital in living memory;
- The RFP was silent as to the other three, extant strategic plans for the POS area, all paid for with Public Money. Given that the RFP was published by the Ministry of Planning, that is a tragic irony, to say the least;
- EIA – The RFP is silent as to the requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment in a development of this scale;
- The proposals were to be evaluated against the “Invader’s Bay Development Matrix and Criteria Description”, which was only published after the closing-date for submissions. That is a clear breach of proper tender procedure, which renders the entire process voidable and therefore illegal.