Posts Tagged transparency
In 2013 I sued the Minister of Finance & the Economy for his continuing failure or refusal to provide the details relating to the huge $25 Billion bailout of the failed CL Financial group.
On Wednesday 22 July 2015, the High court ruled in my favour by ordering the release of all the requested information.
The basic principle behind the Freedom of Information Act is that the information held by Public Authorities belongs to the public, unless one of the valid exemptions is applicable.
The Court also granted the State a 28-day stay of execution which seems intended to allow them the time to decide whether to appeal before they have to provide the requested information. Given the ongoing Information War and the high stakes to maintain the ‘Code of Silence’ in relation to this bailout, I would not be at all surprised if the State were to appeal against this ruling.
The unexplained gap
On 1 October 2010, the Prime Minister addressed Parliament to explain that $7.3 Billion had been spent on the bailout and that a further estimated $7.0 Billion was required to settle all debts. That is a 2010 estimate of $14.3 Billion to settle the CL Financial bailout, but the current estimated cost of the bailout is in excess of $25 Billion. That means that over $10.5 Billion more than the 2010 estimate has been spent, so where did all that extra money go? That information and the defined official policy of secrecy are at the heart of this scandal. Read the rest of this entry »
The CL Financial bailout was a steal of a deal for the owners of that troubled company. After all, the wealthiest man in the Caribbean was able to obtain an interest-free loan exceeding $25 Billion in Public Money at a time when no one else would lend him. Our Treasury was effectively the ‘lender of last resort’, so those terms were hugely in favour of CL Financial and its controlling shareholder, Lawrence Duprey. What is more, the shareholders kept all their shares.
In the previous column, I stated my view that Mariano Browne had taken what seemed to be a position supportive of Lawrence Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO. I also pointed out that Browne was a member of the Cabinet when that fateful and detrimental deal was made to bail out CL Financial in 2009 and called on the significant members of that Cabinet to explain their rationale. I went further to say that Browne was one of the five significant persons who had been requested to testify and refused to do so.
I am pleased that Mariano Browne has replied on the record, so this column will deal with those valuable points. For starters, it is even clearer than before that former Minister of Finance, Karen Nunez-Tesheira, has serious questions to answer in relation to her central role in this bailout. Given that financial training and experience formed a weak part of her profile, one can only wonder at what prompted Manning to appoint Nunez-Tesheira to that position. We will see. In addition, the terms which were negotiated between the State and CLF are essential to understand today’s dilemma with respect to Duprey’s ambitions. A related issue which needs clarity is the role of the powerful, unelected ‘bigger heads’ who are seemingly in control of our country.
Duprey and his cohorts benefitted from an unprecedented degree of access to key decision-makers in the Cabinet and the Central Bank.
One of the enduring paradoxes in how our society is governed is the lopsided distribution of information. There is an abundance of relatively unimportant information, alongside a severe scarcity of critical facts on the big issues of the day. It seems that we are now ‘Amusing ourselves to Death‘, to borrow an insightful phrase from Neil Postman.
There is a world seen and a world unseen. The challenge is to discern the scope and influence of the unseen world. The current lexicon describes the unseen world as the ‘Deep State‘. I have no doubt that such a state of affairs exists in our country. So what do we know about the huge decisions in our society’s governance and how do we come to know those things?
For instance, the most serious decisions are taken by the Cabinet, which consists only of members of Parliament – some directly-elected as MPs and others appointed as Senators. Some of those decisions are announced at the Thursday afternoon post-Cabinet Press Conference. But the coverage is always partial with my suspicion being that stories are often presented so as to conceal their less-favourable aspects.
Cabinet seems to operate according to two conventions – the first being ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’ and the second being that the discussions of Cabinet are secret. The Freedom of Information Act gives Cabinet documents a 10-year embargo against publication. So, the first problem is that the highest decision-making Chamber in our Republic is essentially a secret one. I have always felt that the veil of secrecy which covers Cabinet’s deliberations is most times severely detrimental to our collective interests. This sordid CLF bailout fiasco fortifies that view.
Another critical aspect of the current arrangements is the role of the powerful Party Political Financiers, which is rarely revealed, but often suspected. In the case of the CL Financial group, we know that CLICO was a major funder of both major parties, which gives this bailout fiasco its lingering, bitter, flavour. There are few opportunities for us to get a real insight, beyond rumours, as to the true role of the party financier. Apart from the role of CL Financial as financiers, we also learned in the Colman Commission that Nunez-Tesheira’s 2007 campaign benefitted from Hindu Credit Union (HCU) financing.
The 2009 negotiations
One question I always ask is whether Karen Nunez-Tesheira told her colleagues that CLF had paid a dividend three days after it requested a bailout? As a shareholder, she would have been in receipt of dividends. If the Cabinet was told, they should have insisted on immediate repayment of any dividend since an insolvent company cannot pay a dividend. If the Cabinet was not told, we are dealing with a most deceptive course of action. Which was it?
So, what did Browne say about those negotiations?
…I have said that Duprey’s (and other shareholders) legal position is strong as the government depended on a MOA (memorandum of Agreement) the time frame of which has long since passed. On that basis, the shareholders have rights. Even if the state has expended money, the State and or its agents (the Central Bank) must do so in way that protects both the policy holders and the shareholders.
That was my advice in cabinet and at the Finance Policy Committee. The view of the Minister of Finance prevailed. I am of the opinion that Karen Nunez Tesheira was wrong then and is wrong now…
Browne is concurring with my view that the State’s position is weak in this bailout endgame, the key point being “…the shareholders have rights…”. Being bound by the first convention of ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’, Browne kept his silence during the raging controversy of the past 6 years, but he has now chosen to break the secrecy convention. I am grateful to him and it is telling that the most expert Cabinet member in that critical arena of finance and economics is now revealing his recollections of these critical events.
Nunez-Tesheira needs to share the rationale for the bailout formula which let Duprey and the other shareholders keep their shares and loaned those huge sums of Public Money to the wealthiest man in Caribbean on an interest-free basis. What were the public policy considerations which could possibly have supported such a course of action?
Browne goes further to outline a situation in which he seems to have been excluded from the negotiations –
…And for the record I have not been part of any negotiations with Clico or CLF as part of the bailout action. Neither was I a part of the cabinet which took the decision to support the CLF/ CLICO Group. Those decisions were taken at a Cabinet meeting of which I was not a part on 29th January 2009 as I was in Barbados representing the Minister of Finance at a COFAP meeting. This bailout was always the province of the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank and (sic) had no part in those decisions.
Further, Clico/CLF/Duprey made no contributions to the PNM during my tenure as Treasurer…
I can remember Browne telling me before that he had been involved in negotiations related to the CLF Shareholders Agreement of June 2009. That Agreement, at para A of its preamble, undertakes to protect the interest of shareholders. Note – Browne has since denied this claim of mine, so that has to be noted.
Of course, we know that Browne was part of the Cabinet which made those decisions, even if he was not in attendance at those particular meetings (I have no reason to doubt him), it is immaterial. As a member of that Cabinet he bears collective responsibility.
Duprey’s intended re-entry
Browne contested my statement that he seemed to be supporting Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO –
…With regard to your opinion, I am am (sic) supporting nothing…The state only owns 49% of the company. If the shareholders act in concert there is nothing to prevent them from having an extra ordinary shareholders (EGM) Meeting and replacing the state appointed Directors. It is unlikely that Lawrence Duprey can pass the fit and proper rule and therefore cannot be appointed to CLICO’s Board, but he can be appointed to the CLF Board…
Browne listed the reasons which seemed to favour Duprey’s position, which position is fortified by his interpretation of the fit & proper rules. In his view, those rules would have prevented Duprey’s appointment to CLICO’s Board, but he would have still been eligible to sit on CL Financial’s Board. If we are considering a situation in which CLICO would still have CLF as its majority shareholder, that is an entirely misplaced view.
In the Central Bank’s ‘Fit and Proper Guideline‘, the question of ‘Who should be Fit and Proper?’ is addressed at page 2 –
“…4.1 According to governing legislation the following persons referred to in this Guideline as holding “key positions” are required to be fit and proper: -…
…4.1.4 Controlling Shareholder – may be an individual or a corporate entity
- Under the IA, any person who is entitled to control at least one-third of the voting power at any general meeting of the company.
- Under the FIA, any person who controls twenty five per cent or more of the voting power at any general meeting…
Before the bailout about 89% of CLICO’s shares were owned by CLF, so Duprey cannot regain control of CLICO, either directly or via a holding company, if the fit and proper regulations are enforced. As I said previously, the acid question is whether the Central Bank will summon the will to apply those rules without fear or favour.
This is no academic dispute, since Duprey has made it clear that he is seeking to regain control of CLICO, so that financial company and the rules which govern it, must be central concerns in this matter.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Come clean.
The headline ‘Duprey wants back CLICO‘ in the Sunday Express of June 28th 2015, did not surprise me at all. That is exactly the threat against which I have been warning throughout my campaign against this appalling and unprecedented bailout.
To allow Lawrence Duprey to regain control of CLICO would do serious violence to the fundamental notions of the law not allowing persons to benefit from their wrongdoing.
Already, we can see various positions being taken – the Movement for Social Justice and Peter Permell of the CLICO Policyholders’ Group stating their objections, while Mariano Browne (former PNM Treasurer and Minister in the Ministry of Finance) and Mary King (economist and former Minister of Planning) setting out what seem to be supportive positions.
I smiled at the page three photo in another newspaper of the Prime Minister holding hands with recently-dismissed CLICO Chairman, Gerald Yetming, at a UNC meeting in Debe on Tuesday 23 June 2015. As serious as the situation is, I just couldn’t help myself.
Yetming was a UNC Minister of Finance during the Panday administration and had been appointed on 28 September 2010 as Chairman of CL Financial Ltd, the parent company of the ‘CLICO group’ being bailed-out by the State.
I declined many requests for comment on this controversial episode, since something about it did not seem quite right. The actual CLICO dismissals were incredible to my mind, not only because there did not seem to be any conflict between the stipulations in the CBTT’s 3 June Press Release and the reported beneficiaries – that is explained in the sidebar. It is even more bizarre when one considers that Yetming, in whom all confidence was apparently lost after allegedly-unauthorised payments to former CLICO Directors, still serves as Chairman of the parent company, CL Financial Ltd.
There is a widely-held view that the CL Financial chiefs should not be recovering any of their money from this huge collapse before the completion of the Colman Commission and the publication of its Report. I share the public concern that no money should be paid to the persons who were in charge of that sinking ship. Not one cent. Nothing should be paid to the CLF chiefs until we have had the proper opportunity to consider the findings of the Colman Commission. Even with its severe limitations, that Colman Report would be our closest opportunity to understand this epic financial crime. To pay out money to those Directors and Officers who were responsible before the Report is published would be reckless in the extreme and jeopardises the public interest. Read the rest of this entry »
SIDEBAR: The Minister responds
This is a short video (courtesy of TV6) in which the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, responds to questions on the occupation of State lands in Couva by SIS Ltd, one of the main financiers of the Peoples Partnership.
The ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is being implemented by the Land Settlement Agency (LSA), has now been redefined in such stark terms that I have decided to call it by a more appropriate title ‘Land for Everybody’.
The previous article set out the main points of the revised program. That detrimental law was approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3rd June. Although we have now heard that the new law to amend the State Lands 1998 Act was withdrawn just before the close of our Parliament on Friday 12th June 2015, we are also being told that it will be approved if the Peoples Partnership is returned to office after the national elections in September.
This change to our country’s squatter regularisation law is therefore now being held out as an expansive election promise to regularise the status of some 60,000 landless people. That proposed program is a severely detrimental one which will likely lead to greater problems in the important question of our country’s human settlement policy. It is therefore necessary to highlight the dangers this new ‘Land for Everybody‘ program poses to our collective interests.
The Minister of Land and Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, gave several interviews which attempted to rebut my criticisms, so it is important that that these fundamental issues be properly understood. The public interest demands nothing less.
Food security is that elusive state in which we can feed ourselves at a decent standard of nourishment and at an affordable price, without heavy reliance on imported food. The very issue of how food security is defined is hotly debated, but it is clear that we are far away from even the simple one I offered.
In March 2012 the then Ministry of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources published its Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015. The major goal of that Action Plan was to halve the country’s annual $4.0 Billion food import bill. Yet in March 2014, the Food Production Minister, Senator Devant Maharaj, stated that the food import bill had been reduced by only 2% since 2010. That is a sobering reflection on how serious is the challenge of moving to some significant degree of food security, even for an administration with substantial links in the agricultural sector.
The significant reduction of our food import bill will require a flexible plan, with dedicated implementation and continuous monitoring. The one inescapable requirement is for farmers to have access to land of suitable quantity, quality and location. Without a good supply of land, no food security plan can succeed.
The issue is a long-term one, so it is clear from the failure to achieve the targets that a deeper commitment of resources and monitoring is needed if we are to improve our collective position. The Food Production Action Plan 2012-2015 is now up for thorough review which must include serious input from the public and stakeholders.
Shiraz Khan, President of the Trinidad United Farmers’ Association, has spoken out about the disastrous land use policies now unfolding and I have also heard Omardath Maharaj join the calls for a holistic discussion of agriculture policy.
What is the policy?
We are reliably informed that the new ‘Land for the Landless’ policy was approved by Cabinet on 19th March 2015, but there is no clarity as to whether this policy conforms to the existing 1992 Land Policy. The recently-approved policy ought to be subordinate to the wider Land Policy, which states at page 9 –
“4. LAND USE POLICY
4.2 The New Land Policy proposes:
(a) that the existing system of land use zoning be strengthened to ensure that prime agricultural land is not mis-managed or converted to non-agricultural uses except on the basis of a significant spatial or economic development rationale…”
It is imperative that our country’s human settlement policies take proper account of the need to preserve our limited supply of arable land, so that we can maintain some degree of food security.
The critical point is that our total supply of land is very limited, due to the tiny size of our country. The supply of arable land which has not been developed is even more limited, so the choices are stark. There is not enough land for us to continue with this reckless policy of land distribution or large-scale building of houses with gardens. To continue with those policies would be watching a disaster unfold before our very eyes.
I have heard occasional statements from the HDC or Housing Ministry, in this and previous administrations, but that is merely to mention a major issue. This is a serious issue with dire long-term consequences for our society and a proper, wide-ranging policy review is urgently required. That review must include the 2002 Housing Policy, the 2003 UWI Report on the future of Caroni lands, the 1992 Land Policy and the Land for the Landless policy.
How many people will be affected by this policy?
There was some dispute over numbers, with the PM claiming that 30,000 squatters were to be regularised, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources doubling that to 60,000, all while the LSA website states that there are 250,000 squatters.
At one point, the official rebuttal seemed to be that there were 60,000 households with 250,000 inhabitants, but since the three cited statements were referring to ‘squatters’, that line has now been abandoned. We are now told that the intention is to regularise 60,000 of an estimated total of 250,000 ‘squatters’.
How are the 60,000 eligible persons to be selected?
So, which 60,000 people are to be regularised out of the 250,000? How is that selection to be made? Even after all this defensive talk, I am not at all clear on that.
Will the decisive point be the date of application or the length of time a squatter community has been established? The date-based approach would have some legal weight, given that squatters’ rights have usually accrued in accordance with the period of occupation. To my mind, that would be a weak basis on which to proceed, given the shortage of land and variety in its quality.
In the alternative would the choices of communities to be regularised be based on an assessment of alternative uses or land value? What role would the fertility of the soil play in making these important decisions? If we are to have a reasonable chance of tackling the food security issue, it is critical that these factors play an important part in making these decisions. That is not negotiable.
Finally, one has to mention the elephant in the room. Could it be that the selection of those 60,000 squatters is a political one? Are marginal constituencies to be favoured? Is that a possible outcome we ought to guard against? Which are the constituencies in which the selected communities are located?
The Bill to amend the State Lands Act 1998 comprised 24 pages and we need to note that 20 of those pages was an expansive list covering at least 500 areas or districts in our country. I quipped ‘Charlotteville to Los Iros‘, but the point is that with so expansive a list of areas, just about anywhere could be eligible for regularisation. You see?
The point of how these critical selections are being made is one which must be answered as soon and as clearly as possible.
Who qualifies as ‘landless’?
SIDEBAR: The LSA’s abortive meeting with JCC
In March 2015, the LSA wrote informally to seek dialogue with JCC on this revised ‘Land for the Landless’ program and we responded by requesting an agenda and a formal invitation. Despite our constant efforts, we are still awaiting a response.
This is the most damaging part of this proposed policy shift, with the new income levels having shifted to a monthly maximum of $30,000, together with the elimination of ‘disadvantaged’ as a decisive criteria having the combined impact of making these scarce lands available to anyone. The fact is that a family with a monthly income in the $30,000 can readily qualify for a mortgage in the $1.6-1.7M range and there are plenty of good-quality homes in that price range for sale in our country.
The CSO’s 2009 data on monthly Household Income shows a national average in the $8,000 range. Yet we have a Minister, supported by his professional staff, advancing a policy which is seeking to extend a program intended for the benefit of our neediest citizens to just about anyone.
One can only wonder what was the research on which this bizarre policy was based.
This is no time for inadvisable and ill-considered electoral promises, from either side. Our children’s children will wonder just what kind of intentions did we have. History will judge us harshly if we continue with this foolhardy basket of policies.
“Couch Discussion” on Making Legislation Work at Trinidad & Tobago Transparency Institute’s Anti-Corruption Conference Friday 20th March 2015 – Ian Chinapoo, Catherine Kumar, Afra Raymond – moderated by Winston Rudder
Afra Raymond’s main remarks are between 19:26 and 32:15
A detrimental ‘land grab’ is almost upon our country and we all need to be alert to prevent the destruction of our patrimony and prospects.
The State owns most of the land in the country – recent estimates by Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, place the proportion of State-owned land in the 63% range – and as such those lands are critical national assets with which a progressive government could seek to address issues of poverty in a sustainable fashion. Those policies would have to be redistributive in nature if they are to effectively address the serious poverty faced by some of our citizens. That means the State using our resources to provide affordable land and housing to those who are unable to do so in the open market. It is critical to ensure that these redistributive programs operate properly so that the benefits will go to the needy persons for whom they are intended. Those are objectives which I fully support.
I quipped that the ‘Land for the Landless’ program should be re-named ‘Land for Everybody’, but recent developments have turned that quip into a growing reality.
There have been three big changes which have effectively undermined the very meaning of these important redistributive programs –
THE CARONI AGRICULTURAL LANDS
The Trinidad Express reported that the Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, announced a significant change in the original policy in the 2015 budget, in that the ex-workers receiving agricultural leases were now free to sell these lands. Those lands which are sold will likely leave the agricultural use for which they were allocated, representing a significant and detrimental ‘alienation’ of those limited lands.
THE NEW ‘LAND FOR THE LANDLESS’ PROGRAM
This important program has been revised to now provide for an annual target of 3,000 to 4,000 lots at an estimated annual cost of $1.0 Billion. Even if one makes the most optimistic assumptions that the upper target of 4,000 lots is achieved at the estimated cost of $1.0 Billion, the cost per lot is $250,000. I do not know if the cost of the land is included in those estimates, but experience suggests that it would have been excluded, which would be a serious gap in the planning for the development of these important public assets.Most alarmingly, the income limits have now been increased in a manner which suggests that this program is no longer intended for the benefit of the disadvantaged in our society. The original ‘Land for the Landless’ program set an upper limit of $8,000 on the family’s monthly income, but that has now been increased to $30,000. A family with a monthly income of $30,000 can readily afford to buy a home with private mortgage financing. Apart from that, there are serious questions as to whether the inclusion of those upper-income applicants would force-out the poorer people this program is intended to assist.
It is just impossible to reconcile the new family income limit of $30,000 for the ‘Land for the Landless’ program, which is only for residential lots, with the Housing Development Corporation’s (HDC) $25,000 limit on the monthly family income of applicants for homes.
THE NEW LAND REFORMS
The government laid the State Land (Regularisation of Tenure) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill, 2015 in Parliament on Friday 29 May and those proposed amendments were passed in the House of Representatives on Wednesday 3 June 2015.
The main points of this proposed new law, which still has to be approved by the Senate, are –
- Application date – formerly, persons who had illegally occupied State Lands up to January 1998 were entitled to be regularised – the new law would move that date to June 2014. That means that more persons will be regularised;
- The numbers – There are serious questions arising about the numbers to be regularised in this process – the PM said recently that 30,000 were to be given Certificates of Comfort, Minister Seemungal is now saying that it is really 60,000, while the LSA website gives estimates of 250,000 persons. So, just what are we counting? Do these numbers represent inhabitants or is it the number of lots? We have no real clarity on just how much additional land is to be allocated in this new process.
- Who is ‘Landless’? – In the original 1998 Act, a ‘landless’ person is defined at S.2 (1) as –
“…“landless” refers to a person who falls within a category designated as disadvantage (sic) by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and who has no legal or equitable interest or any other interest or claim to such an interest, in a dwelling house, residential land, or agricultural land upon which a dwelling house is permitted to be built…”
Obviously, the original law was intended to assist the most needy persons in our society.In the proposed amendment, just approved by the House of Representatives, ‘landless’ has been redefined as follows –
“…(c) in the definition of “landless”, by deleting the words “who falls within a category designated as disadvantage by the Minister to whom responsibility for Social Development is assigned and…” (the emphases are mine)
The landless class has now been expanded by our Parliament to eliminate any mention of disadvantage. I tell you.
- Where is the land? – The Schedule of the new law is an A to Z list of designated areas in every district of our country, so these are really expansive proposals. All areas will be affected, from Charlotteville to Los Iros.
- The rationale – Minister Seemungal stated that there are extensive aerial surveys from 2014 and other information being used to guide this process, but I think significant caution is necessary. The lack of an open process of policy review and formation in this important matter is proving very expensive for our collective interests. Have other State agencies and stakeholders been consulted? These critical policy changes must be underpinned by substantial research and consultation which can earn the required degree of public confidence.
- Who benefits? – We do not have any open database on the allocation of public housing, state land or any property at all. These records must be open and searchable so that the potential for serious improper behaviour amounting to a ‘land grab’ is minimised. In the present opaque arrangement the real beneficiaries could remain unknown for too long. Of course that is a recipe for the misallocation of State lands on an epic scale, so it is important to establish some transparent mechanism to examine what is happening.
When one considers the numbers involved, there is a clear sense that these programs, which were intended to benefit the poorer class of citizen, are being systematically ‘gamed’. It is even possible that officials are assisting those elements for the advancement of their own political agendas. The numbers wrangle is beyond the scope of this column, but I will be exploring it in the near future to explain how they relate a particular story.
The degree of confusion is immense, with LSA officers denying the existence of the national Land Policy. If we are to go by his evasive response to simple questions on the SIS occupation of State lands at Couva in disputed circumstances, the very Minister Seemungal can be seen as hostile to providing essential facts. The PM told the Parliament the next day that the Minister had denied making those televised statements.
We need to be alert to protect our patrimony, particularly in relation to property.