The Uff Commission – The Final sitting

John Uff. Photo courtesy Trinidad Guardian
John Uff
The controversial Uff Commission is to start the final round of its hearings tomorrow. Please click here for the timetable. This Commission of Enquiry was established to examine and report on the Public Sector Construction Industry, with particular reference to UDeCOTT and the HDC’s Cleaver Heights housing project in Arima.

The huge sums of money involved and the egos of the parties all combined with irregular practices in this matter. The combination produced an unflattering and unforgettable picture of our nation’s leading players under the bright lights of the Uff Commission.

The legal challenge against and resulting resignation of Israel Khan as a Commissioner was just one outcome of the bold stance taken by the UDECOTT Board in this matter. The continuing legal challenges mounted by UDeCOTT against the Uff Commission have greatly diluted the credibility of this government, even in the eyes of its most loyal followers.

The failure to gazette the Enquiry was yet another strange aspect of the matter and, although that lapse has now been rectified, we are yet to hear a cogent explanation as to who was responsible and what was the reason for the failure. On this count alone, we are nurturing irresponsible behaviour by allowing this to pass quietly.

The Commission of Enquiry can only make findings based on the evidence which is properly submitted to it and that is where my concern is rooted. We are down to the final few days of hearings and it is my view that the proposed agenda for the final week of hearing is deficient since it leaves some seminal issues outstanding.

These are key points which could be addressed, even at this late stage, by the Commission issuing the necessary legal notices to have these items placed in evidence.

In order of importance, the outstanding issues are:

  1. UDeCOTT’s missing accounts – The main subject of the enquiry is the operation of UDeCOTT and we have not had their audited accounts for 2007 or 2008. The Performance Monitoring Guidelines for State Enterprises, published by the Investment Division of the Ministry of Finance, requires that these should have been published by now. UDeCOTT’s Executive Chairman, Calder Hart, while testifying to the Commission under oath on 28th January, stated that all the outstanding issues with the audit had been resolved and that those accounts would be published in “…a week or two…”. That testimony can be accessed from the CoE website at http://www.constructionenquiry.gov.tt/getattachment/6f957486-f0f4-4aad-b585-d644f3212806/COE-Construction-Industry-20090128-Merged-doc.aspx on page 43. For any Enquiry into the operation of UDeCOTT to make sound findings, those accounts need to be published now. At the least, UDeCOTT should write to explain the breach of the guidelines issued by its shareholder and the undertaking, given under oath by its high-performing Executive Chairman. Again, I ask, “Is UDeCOTT insolvent?”
  2. Bob Lindquist’s missing report – The original concern on the Cleaver Heights housing project arose when the Prime Minister raised concerns as to ‘Where the Money gone?’ and much was made of $10M or $20M which was said to be missing. The PM used the Budget debate in Parliament last year to ask the question of the former Minister of Housing – Dr. Keith Rowley. We were told that the Housing Development Corporation had appointed the respected forensic accountant, Bob Lindquist, to probe the project in question. The Minister of Planning, Housing and the Environment was reported to be silent on details when questioned on the results of that probe by reporters. [See – ‘Not me and the bacchanal’ published in Newsday on August 29th 2009 – http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,106338.html That is simply not good enough and the Commission needs to get Mr. Lindquist’s findings into evidence. We cannot have a satisfactory Enquiry if the government is able to control the flow of evidence.
  3. Housing Development Corporation’s output deficit – The Uff Commission’s terms of reference include ‘project delivery’ and the HDC has failed to account for this chronic deficit in satisfying its prime objective – Housing Development. The entire time spent by this Enquiry on housing has been only in respect of the Cleaver Heights project, but the HDC has never produced more than 50% of its target output in terms of the numbers of new homes built each year. The question remains as to whether the HDC is aware of the reasons for this continuing shortfall. This is a flagship state policy and the shortfall in numbers of new homes produced is itself deserving of proper attention from this Enquiry and the responsible State Enterprise. I submitted a series of written questions on this to the Enquiry and one would hope that some written response is forthcoming from the HDC or the Ministry.

The remaining Commissioners can take steps to preserve their reputations and have the key elements of outstanding information put into evidence. We await with interest.

Afra Raymond is Managing Director of Raymond & Pierre Limited and President of the Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad & Tobago. Comments can be sent to afra@raymondandpierre.com.

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