After a necessary and prolonged pause to review other matters of public interest, Property Matters returns to the high-profile Uff Commission as its final hearings are set to begin on Monday 7th September.
This series of hearings was not a part of the original agenda for the Commission of Enquiry. It was only announced at the close of its last sitting in May that the Commission would sit again to hear further evidence on the Cleaver Heights project and the testimony of Mr. Carl Khan.
I already wrote here on 18th January 2009 of the vigorous stand taken by UdeCOTT’s and Calder Hart’s attorney in the early stages of the Enquiry. At the time, I was very critical of their stance – “…It is difficult to imagine a less-cooperative or more disdainful stance from a party under investigation…”
In their latest sally on 24th July, these attorneys issued a 12-page letter to the Uff Commission, challenging the impartiality of the Commissioners. That letter made allegations against Israel Khan, Keith Sirju and the Chairman, Professor John Uff. It ended by calling for all 4 of the Commissioners to recuse themselves. Ours is a country which can guarantee a daily surprise, but this one took the prize. UdeCOTT was continuing to resist the lawful investigation being undertaken on behalf of its owners, the people of this country, as represented by their government.
There were reports on 6th August that the Board of UDeCOTT was instructed to withdraw those legal threats. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/article?id=161513988 UDeCOTT withdrew those threats, albeit conditionally. UDeCOTT placed full-page advertisements in the press to deny the statement by Dr. Keith Rowley that they were attempting to ‘de-rail’ the Uff Commission. The threat of legal action by UDeCOTT and its rapid withdrawal is indicative of a deep divide between the Cabinet and this flagship State enterprise. It is the only way to make sense of the UDeCOTT Board’s incredible decision to attempt to thwart the government-appointed Commission. The published denials made no sense at all. You really have to wonder how many people believed UDeCOTT’s assertions that they were not trying to ‘de-rail’ the Uff Commission. Then on 11th August, Israel Khan SC, resigned.
There have now been further attempts by UDeCOTT’s lawyers to dislodge Commissioner Kenneth Sirju, with allegations of conflict of interest. The Commission is trying to overcome those objections by seeking consensus on the Cleaver Heights part of the session and that is expected to be decided on Tuesday 2nd September.
The main issues arising at this stage are –
- The local limits of integrity standards – The accusations of conflict of interest made against Commissioner Sirju seem to suggest some real limits as to the extent to which we can effectively import first-world norms as to integrity and conflicts of interest. We need to develop our own effective norms on integrity in public affairs, but, in this case, the deciding factor would be the declarations made by Commissioner Sirju.
- Cleaver Heights – Apart from the turbid result of the Enquiry into the ‘missing money’, there are two serious side-effects of the Cleaver Heights saga. Firstly, the inimical effect of the State seeming to target a perceived critic/rival of the PM. In my view, that widespread impression of the State targeting Dr. Rowley is toxic to our nation developing healthy habits of public debate and dissent. Secondly, the fact that we seem to have become distracted by Cleaver Heights and lost the opportunity to delve into substantive questions on the poor output of the national housing program. As stated in Property Matters of 25th January, the HDC is producing less than 50% of the reduced annual target of 8,000 new homes. The Uff Commission was appointed to enquire into the public sector construction industry and it is now drawing to a close with no time spent on this strategic shortfall. That is a real shame.
- The personal aspect – I have never encouraged any discussion or interest in the personal lives of the key players in this Enquiry, notably Calder Hart and his family. To my mind, that was just sheer bacchanal which distracted from the main issues of poor process. That said, and having heard much of the evidence, it would be interesting to see if there is indeed any ‘fire’ here, amidst all the ‘smoke and mirrors’.
- UDeCOTT’s accounts – It is impossible to enquire into the operations of a commercial company without considering its financial situation. On 28th January, the CoE heard sworn testimony from the Executive Chairman of UDeCOTT, Mr. Calder Hart, while he was being cross-examined by Alvin Fitzpatrick SC, to the effect that the 2007 accounts would be ready within a week a or two. Yet we seem to have drifted into a situation in which the Commission will have to deliver its report without having considered any accounts from UDeCOTT after 31st December 2006. If that were the case, it could have the effect of significantly discrediting the Commission’s findings as to UdeCOTT’s operations.
Our locally-grown, Nobel Prize-winning author, V.S. Naipaul created, in the seminal ‘Miguel Street’, a pregnant phrase which has come to typify this place…“…amazing scenes were witnessed…” I expect the final series of hearings of the Uff Commission to contain many ‘amazing scenes’ as parties battle to defend their honour and, in some cases, preserve their liberty.
SIDEBAR: – The upcoming agenda
The expected agenda for the final sitting of the Uff Commission includes –
- The testimony of Carl Khan – This is the surprise witness who gave his evidence on 19th May on his previous marriage to the present wife of UDeCOTT’s Executive Chairman, Calder Hart. Khan also referred to the Mrs. Hart’s relatives. This would be the first evidence to the Commission on the matters raised by Ramesh Maharaj in Parliament on 23rd May 2008.
- The Cleaver Heights Saga – At the end of May, the government announced the new hearings for the Uff Commission to include further evidence on the Cleaver Heights project. The initial report on Cleaver Heights was prepared by Mr. Jerry McAffrey of UK-based construction consultants, ACUTAS. That report did not support the original allegations, made by the PM during the budget debate in October 2008, as to a ‘missing’ sum of money, said to be $10M.
- Mrs Sherrine Hart – There have been recent reports that Mrs. Hart will be testifying in this session of hearings.
Afra Raymond is Managing Director of Raymond & Pierre Limited. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org