To produce good, lasting results, it is vital that project managers pay particular attention at the closing stages, since the finish is often the most lasting impression which a project can make on its users. Thus with the Uff Commission.
It requires fortitude to resist the distractions posed by the ongoing discussions on the proposed property tax revisions. Those proposals were set out in the 2009/2010 budget, which was laid in Parliament on Monday 7th September. Coincidentally, that was the same day that Professor John Uff, Chairman of the Enquiry, held his press conference.
Property Matters will keep its focus on the Uff Commission.
The first question arising is – ‘Whose job was it to ensure that the Enquiry was properly established in law/Gazetted etc.?’ Just about everyone I have spoken with either knows and is not saying or does not know and expects no answer. That is a perturbing part of the reality out here, when one considers that this is supposed to be an educational process towards betterment of a significant national activity.
We have read reports of the obscure stance taken by the last Attorney General when faced with questions as to her possible responsibility. Her quote is sobering – “My whole attitude to this is that I have reverted to private life and I have no comment (on what cause the non-gazetting)…” That was reported in the Express of 10th September at http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/article?id=161529620.
We have also seen reports that the Attorney General has taken the necessary steps to ensure that the oversight is addressed and that is encouraging, for all the reasons stated in last week’s Property Matters. The opposition UNC is also reported to have pledged their support for any measures brought to Parliament in this matter. Both these are positive signs.
Restoring the Enquiry’s legality is an important part of a good finish to this important public work, but there is a vital ingredient, which has been missing so far. I am referring to the constant resistance being mounted by UDeCOTT’s attorneys. Given the PM’s strong statements to the effect that this government has nothing to hide, it is almost unbelievable that these attorneys acting for Calder Hart and UDeCOTT have taken certain positions. Unbelievable, but true. It is like a subsidiary company resisting or obstructing lawful instructions coming from its parent company. The missing ingredient here would have to be that the Board of UDeCOTT be instructed to desist from such actions, since those are contrary to the atmosphere of transparency and probity which the PM is advocating.
As a reminder to readers, please note that UDeCOTT is one of the State Agencies within the Ministry of Planning, Housing and the Environment (PHE). The Housing Development Corporation is another State Agency within that Ministry. The point I am driving at here is to remind readers of the actions of that very Minister when the HDC were trying to complete its second submission to the Enquiry. The entire HDC Board of Directors, save its Chairman, Andrew McIntosh, were dismissed. The Minister cited a ‘governance crisis’ and no further explanation has been offered. A new Board was appointed with the former Chairman staying in place and Abigail Cox re-appointed as a Director. One can only wonder what kind of governance crisis could lead to the sudden dismissal of an entire Board of Directors and the retention of its Chairman. How could any ‘governance crisis’ emerge, if the HDC Chairman had been an effective one? If he was ineffective, what is the thinking of a Minister who would re-appoint such a Chairman?
The simple point is that the government can dismiss an entire Board of Directors for some infraction or other cause. In that very Ministry they already have, in the course of the Uff Enquiry. The retention of the UDeCOTT Board of Directors, in these circumstances, is a clear and present peril to the PM’s stated notions of integrity in public affairs. That those UDeCOTT Directors remain in place is a clear vote of confidence from the PM. Any further attempts by Mr. Hart’s or UDeCOTT’s attorneys to de-rail the Enquiry would be a recipe for a complete loss of the limited confidence the PM now enjoys.
Insofar as the Enquiry’s examination of the HDC’s performance, I make 2 points. Firstly, I submitted questions on the project delivery shortfall to the Enquiry to direct to the Minister of PHE. One would expect that the Enquiry would require that the Minister make a written reply to those legitimate queries. Secondly, the Bob Lindquist report is also in question. The renowned Canadian forensic accountant, Bob Lindquist, was hired by the HDC, amidst much fanfare, in January this year, to investigate the alleged missing funds from the Cleaver Heights housing project. We have never been given an update on his findings, but have recently seen reports of this Minister refusing to answer questions as to whether the report has been completed or will be published. I smiled while reading the Minister’s firm statement – “…We aren’t interested in all the bacchanal and back and forth people seemed to be focused on…” That story is at http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,106338.html. We would also suggest that the Enquiry use its legal powers have the Bob Lindquist report submitted without delay.
Finally, we come to the big and truly disgusting one. Yes, I am referring to UDeCOTT’s missing accounts. According to the Ministry of Finance guidelines published in January 2008, State Enterprises are “…required to publish…audited financial statements…within 4 months to (sic) the end of their financial year…”. UDeCOTT’s last audited accounts are up to the end of 2006.
On Monday 8th June, the Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Mariano Browne, addressed a corporate governance meeting for leaders of State Enterprises. In doing so, Senator Browne set out some very clear points – “..you are now required to ensure the timely submission of board minutes, strategic plans, financial statements, cash statements of operations and loan overdraft portfolios…”.
Calder Hart told the Enquiry, under oath on 28th January, that all the outstanding issues for UDeCOTT’s 2007 accounts had been resolved and that those accounts should be available in about 2 weeks’ time. Yet it seems that we are drifting into the closing chapter of this Enquiry without any accounts for either 2007 or 2008. That is a breach of the published Guidelines and I am again suggesting that the Enquiry use its powers to seek some public account of these colossal sums of our money.
Afra Raymond is Managing Director of Raymond & Pierre Limited. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org