The previous article examined the ways that a culture which accepts unethical behaviour can stop even the best laws from working. This week, I will go deeper into those large-scale examples of improper practice in my own profession in relation to State property acquisitions.
As a context note, those are large-scale transactions in Public Money which therefore would be overseen by the new Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Act. Property acquisitions must be subject to robust oversight if we are to properly control transactions in Public Money.
This week I will delve more deeply into the details of these cases of valuation fraud in the State property acquisition, so that readers can appreciate just what is at stake here.
Some main points to establish are:
- The scale of the fraud is immense – in the case of Eden Gardens, the State paid $175M for a property which could have been lawfully purchased for $35M. That is five times more, coming out of limited Public Money which is supposedly allocated to ease the housing situation amongst our needy citizens. In one of the land acquisitions for the Point Fortin Highway, the State agreed to pay about ten times more than the original value of the property;
- There are named, qualified professionals who facilitate these acts of major fraud – In both the cases being discussed, the decisive valuations were issued by the State’s Commissioner of Valuations, which is a Division in the Ministry of Finance. The dishonest professionals who facilitate this kind of large-scale fraud are themselves subject to a variety of penalties;
- Professional Institutions have a special responsibility to identify and penalize those crooked members who put the society at risk and undermine the honest professionals. In my experience, it is only a small minority of professionals who do those acts of gross corruption, but their opinions are so outlandish that they literally cannot be hidden. If all the ingredients for stopping this rising tide of white-collar crime are readily available, why do we still have to have this discussion?
In the Eden Gardens case, the HDC paid five times more for a property than was necessary and a civil lawsuit has been started against the public officials who were responsible for that series of decisions. There is an extensive, contemporaneous series of my detailed critiques of that complex fraud which appeared in these pages That culminated in the JCC’s July 2015 formal Report to all the relevant law-enforcement agencies. As far as I am aware, it is the first time that a professional body has made a formal report of fraud committed by one of its members to law enforcement.
I spoke on Public Procurement Law to the RICS/IPTI/ISTT conference at Trinidad Hilton on Friday, 3 November 2017 and took the approach of challenging our professional bodies to reset their ethical compass if we were to really get a grip on the endemic corruption.
So you can imagine my surprise to be requested to edit my speech in the parts related to Eden Gardens, since the matter was ‘still in Court‘. After a full and frank exchange of views, we agreed that I would post a disclaimer alongside the video. That small episode illustrates the real pressures to make as if/turn the other cheek/live and let live/you drink your rum and so on which is so disfiguring our society. It was really a learning experience for me.
In the case of the property acquired by the State for NIDCO’s project to extend the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway to Point Fortin, there were statements from Minister of Works & Transport, Rohan Sinanan, on the questionable actions of certain valuers in the Commissioner of Valuations office. In the main case we were told of a property valued at the outset at $7M and which the State eventually agreed to buy for $79M. The valuer in the Commissioner of Valuations’ office who approved that purchase is the same professional who prepared the excessive valuations and case for the claimants. This person, just like in Eden Gardens, is a senior professional in the State valuation department. I tell you. We all know each other, as you could expect in our small society, but the actions of his colleagues were notable.
Some of his colleagues in that Division of the Finance Ministry took the necessary action to report those fraudulent acts to the proper authorities. This is a good moment to thank them for having the fortitude to act with rectitude.
The acts by that public official on behalf of private claimants are blatantly in conflict with his official duties and there are immediate steps which can be taken to have that official put on disciplinary charges under public service regulations. What is more, the State must report that crooked public servant to his professional bodies, both local and international.
I was very encouraged to see that on Tuesday, 14 November 2017, the Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad & Tobago (ISTT) issued a formal statement to recommend that the Minister of Works & Transport make formal reports of the alleged wrongdoing.
We must rusticate these bandits and banish them to obscurity.
Next week, I will shift focus to the HCU aspect of the Colman Enquiry and the struggles emerging from the efforts of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of T&T (ICATT) to uphold proper professional standards.
© 2017, Afra Raymond. All Rights Reserved.