Freedom of Information shifts part two

“…3. (1) The object of this Act is to extend the right of members of the public to access to information in the possession of public authorities…”
—Objects statement in FoIA

“…Because outside of national security matters and matters of the Cabinet…there are few other matters on the government files, that should really be secret…”
—PM Dr Keith Rowley at the post-Cabinet press briefing on 23 May 2019.

Continue reading “Freedom of Information shifts part two”

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VIDEO: Interview on The Morning Brew on FOIA amendments

CNC3 LogoAfra Raymond appeared on CNC3’s The Morning Brew with host Hema Ramkissoon on Monday 10 June 2019 to discuss the proposal to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The FOIA has been an instrumental piece of legislation in the quest for transparency and accountability in governance. Any amendments to this act necessarily affect this process. Video courtesy CNC3 Television

Programme Length: 00:27:04
Programme Date: Monday 10 June 2019

Freedom of Information shifts

OGP_logo“…Trinidad and Tobago maintains that the principles of open government-accountability, transparency and citizen participation are essential for effective democratic governance…In the execution of good governance, efforts are currently underway to increase the availability of information about governmental activities, support civic participation, implement the highest standards of professional integrity throughout the administration and increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability…”
—These extracts are from the T&T official statement on the Open Government Partnership, which this country joined in 2013.

The ongoing Information War is increasingly driven by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA), which in 1999 created the right to obtain information held by Public Authorities, subject to certain limitations as to State security and private or commercial information.

The relationship between a bank and its customers is a useful analogy to understand these principles. The customer depositing money into her account does so for safekeeping and to earn some small interest. Although the bank is responsible for that money, at no point in time is it the property of the bank – indeed, it is a liability in the bank’s accounts. The bank merely has custody of that money and must follow the customer’s lawful instructions as to how that money is dealt with.

The FoIA at S.4 defines ‘official documents’ held by Public Authorities as – “…a document is held by a public authority if it is in its possession, custody or power…”.

The Privy Council ruled on 20th May 2019 in favour of well-known UNC activist, Ravi Balgobin Maharaj, who was seeking leave to file a judicial review of the refusal of Petrotrin to release two witness statements made in intended legal action against a former Board of Directors. That was a PNM-appointed Board, chaired by the late Malcolm Jones, and the intended US$97M legal action was in respect of alleged negligence in Petrotrin’s large-scale investment in the Gas to Liquids project. That legal action was stopped during the term of the current PNM administration, so the air was rife with allegations and denials.

At the post-Cabinet press briefing on 23 May 2019, PM Rowley made a commitment to have refusals of FoIA requests by Public Authorities subject to vetting by the Attorney General so as to reduce ‘unnecessary liabilities’, in terms of legal costs, on the State. Dr Rowley made two further important statements –

  1. A general principle – “…Because outside of national security matters and matters of the Cabinet…there are few other matters on the government files, that should really be secret…
  2. In relation to the Petrotrin matter, on which the Privy Council had just ruled – “…I am instructing the Minister of Energy to use the authority that he has under the Constitution to instruct Petrotrin to make the two witness statements, the same thing that went to the Privy Council, that they (the UNC) claim is the smoking gun, available and public, so that the public can read them and determine whether Malcolm Jones can rest in peace…

The FoIA judicial review against Petrotrin has now been reportedly re-filed, since those two witness statements have not been released –

“…Maharaj said Rowley and Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi have both said there is nothing incriminating or conspiratorial in the witness statements. He questioned why the statements have not been released. Maharaj also claimed the law firm representing Petrotrin, JD Sellier and Company, refused to accept service of the claim. He alleged the firm said it had no instructions on the matter.

As such, Maharaj said he now has to serve the FoIA claim directly on Petrotrin…”

While the PM’s statements on the application of the FoIA are welcome, I am aware of a cosy consensus across the so-called political divide. Let me explain.

Under S.40 of the FoIA –

“…40. (1) The Minister shall, as soon as practicable after the end of each year, prepare a report on the operation of this Act during that year and cause a copy of the report to be laid before each House of the Parliament…”

foia2That Report was a valuable examination of the operation of the FoIA, but the last such Report was laid in Parliament in 2010. Since 2010, we have had no official Report on this important aspect of our rights as citizens, but it does not seem to have disturbed either political camp. I am subject to correction, but no protest or strong statement on that breach of the law comes to mind.

More particularly, the Invaders’ Bay matter was an action by the JCC to disclose the legal advice relied upon by the Minister of Planning and Development in relation to the proposed large-scale development of public property at Invaders’ Bay in POS. In that case, the State lost at both the High Court and Appeal Court stages, with no further action taken to file an appeal to the Privy Council. Indeed, para 38 of that Privy Council ruling on the Petrotrin FoIA matter refers to that Invaders’ Bay ruling as “…the leading decision of the Court of Appeal…”. Yet that Court of Appeal ruling that those legal advices be published remains unenforced. Of course, it is entirely unrealistic to expect that the UNC would ever protest that failure or refusal to satisfy the Court of Appeal ruling, since the illegal decision to refuse disclosure was made during its term in office as the Peoples Partnership.

That is the cosy consensus which binds us, in this Information Age.

Property Matters – The Show Tell Hotel

Tax transparency is the series of laws or rules to require businesses or people to disclose their income earned and taxes paid.

What re-ignited my interest in this was the recent Daily Mail article on the Florida lawsuit against Sandals Resorts International (SRI) by a former guest on allegations of tax fraud. The allegation is that the 12% accommodation tax charged to guests at Beaches in the Turks & Caicos Islands was not all remitted to the government, with a significant percentage of those monies kept by SRI (owners of Beaches).

beaches-tandc

SRI has denied those allegations and will be fighting the case strongly, but I wondered – just how did that guest get enough information to decide to file this lawsuit? Recently in the TCI there has been serious political fallout arising from certain secret tax and duty concessions to SRI now being published, which once again shows just how imperative it is to have transparency. Without those secret deals having been disclosed, how would that person know they were being charged in the incorrect and dishonest way as alleged in their lawsuit? Continue reading “Property Matters – The Show Tell Hotel”

Property Matters – New Public Housing

“…that this is “a defining moment for the housing construction industry in Trinidad and Tobago”, the Minister stated that “the Government through agencies like the HDC, remains committed to providing affordable, well-designed housing accommodation and adequate infrastructure and amenities for the various low and middle income citizens…”
—Statement by Housing and Urban Development Minister, Major-General Edmund Dillon at launch of the HDC’s latest housing initiative.

Signing-hdc.jpg
Official signing photo. Photo credit: The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development

On Friday 17 May 2019, the HDC signed contracts for an extensive program of new public housing with China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Co. Ltd (CGGC). The arrangement is that CGGC will design, finance and construct 5,000 new homes for the HDC in phases.

The first two-year phase is for 204 flats at South Quay in POS and 235 at Lady Hailes Avenue in San Fernando at a cost of $71,739,411 USD. The contract sum for the first phase was stated in USD, which raises for me questions as to why it was not stated in TTD. The contract sum is equivalent to $490M TTD, so the average cost per unit exceeds $1.1M. That does not count the land of course, since we always seem to place no value on the land. Continue reading “Property Matters – New Public Housing”

VIDEO: Interview on The Morning Brew on new Chinese housing contract

CNC3 LogoAfra Raymond sits with Hema Ramkissoon on the Morning Brew to discuss the newly revealed public-private agreement to finance and build 5,000 apartment units in Port of Spain and San Fernando with China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Co Ltd (CGGC). Opinions on whether this is a good deal or not. Video courtesy CNC3 Television.

Programme Length: 00:10:40
Programme Date: Wednesday, 22 May 2019