This article will delve into the roles of the various officials and public Institutions who are responsible for this Tobago Sandals MoU.
This process followed the familiar pattern of information management, in which the ‘Underlying Commercial Arrangements’ are intentionally obscured, while other details are selectively provided.
It is clear that there was no intention to disclose the MoU, given the strong official resistance to my request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). The entire nine-month period of my challenge was one of Carefully Crafted Confusion, with both sides claiming repeatedly that there was no secret, yet at the same time there were serious issues of commercial confidentiality. Of course, only one of those could be the truth. My litigation forced both Sandals and our public officials to decide which version was true, so the MoU was released on the day before our first Court hearing.
That MoU also contains a confidentiality clause which only permits any disclosure with the agreement of the other party. The parties promised each other to keep those important secrets safe.
The public was intentionally placed in the most uninformed position, by its paid servants, no doubt on the basis of learned advice. That is how we have been proceeding along this Independence journey. Ironic that in this so-called Information Age we all have to suffer that secretive approach, even those of us who are yet unborn.
All the costs of this huge project are to be funded by Public Money, even if Public Private Partnership or other innovative financing approaches are adopted.
On those issues, the leading learning is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament ‘Holding to Account‘, which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money’. In the Public Procurement campaign we expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money’ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money’ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and transparency than Private Money – see 2.23 on pg 15.
The role of the Public Service
An established, educated and politically-neutral Civil Service are part of our post-Independence arrangements for a stable and progressive society. Sometimes I wonder at that accepted wisdom.
On 25th October 2016, I caused a request to be sent, from my colleagues at Disclosure Today, to the Ministry of Finance for information under the FoIA. We requested copies of any Audits or Management Reviews conducted at any of the three State-owned hotels – Trinidad Hilton, Magdalena Grand and Hyatt Regency. On 10th November 2016, the PS of the Finance Ministry responded, with-in the 30-day limit set by the FoIA, to confirm that no such Audit or Management Review had ever been done. Over $1.6 Billion TTD in capital is invested in these three hotels, not counting the land value. All of that is Public Money and the Finance Ministry confirmed that there have never been any Audits or Management Reviews.
That alone is bad, but there are even more serious implications when one considers the current situation. Our PM and Minister Stuart Young have repeatedly assured the public that this approach – of the State building the hotel on public land to be operated by a hotelier under a Management Agreement – is a familiar model which has worked. All intended to offer a degree of comfort to the public. There has never been any proper accounting for the performance of those State-owned hotels. Unless something can be measured, it is near-impossible to say whether it is working. In this case, the Ministry of Finance never even tried to measure the performance.
Finally, consider that the PS Finance who signed that response confirming no Audits or Management Reviews was Mr Maurice Suite. PS Suite became Head of the Public Service upon his appointment as PS in the Office of the Prime Minister in 2017. You see?
The role of the government’s advisers
Next, there are the various groups of eminent advisers appointed to deal with these important negotiations. These include –
- Former Finance Minister, Wendell Mottley, the most recent recipient of our highest national award. Mottley is also the author of ‘Trinidad & Tobago Industrial Policy 1959-2008‘;
- Dr Terrence Farrell, who recently resigned as Chairman of the Economic Development and Advisory Board. Dr Farrell is a Director on the Republic Bank Board and one of his three books is ‘The Underachieving Society: Development Strategy and Policy in Trinidad & Tobago 1958-2008‘;
- Dr Rolph Balgobin is a leading business management expert who has served as an Independent Senator and Executive Director of the Arthur Lok Jack School of Business (UWI);
- Conrad Enill has served as Minister in the Ministry of Finance, Minister of Energy and Chairman of the PNM. Until recently, Enill served as Group CEO of the Eastern Credit Union group;
- Wilfred Espinet is a successful businessman who was recently appointed as Chairman of Petrotrin before the closedown.
What is the role of these leading lights in this matter? Do they endorse the terms of the Tobago Sandals MoU?
The role of the Cabinet
Of course it could be that the Cabinet received sound advice, but chose to proceed under its own advice, so to speak.
For a Board to ignore sound, competent advice is not an illegal or impossible course of action, but it is one which is fraught with peril. In the case of the Cabinet, there is no escape from Collective Cabinet Responsibility, unlike a Board of Directors in which one could record dissent.
Recall the initial point about the higher standard to which Public Money is to be managed and ac-counted for. Recall also that the performance claims on the existing State-owned hotels cannot be validated without audits or reviews. A private investor approaching a private lender to borrow a huge sum of money for a new project could not simply make unverified claims as to the performance of the previous three such projects. That loan application could not proceed without proper information, yet our Cabinet has seemingly agreed to these detrimental terms in the Tobago Sandals MoU.
Robert Le Hunte was appointed as Minister of Public Utilities in September 2017. He is a highly-accomplished professional as an accountant and banker who has headed Republic Bank in both Barbados and Ghana. At this stage, as a member of Cabinet, one must assume that Le Hunte is in agreement with the astonishing terms of that MoU.
The role of the Academy
Finally, I ask myself, what is the position of the UWI on this proposal in general and the MoU in particular.
For whatever reason, I am remembering the statement of a former President of our Republic as to the failure of our post-Independence professional class.