This article will delve deeper into the State Enterprise sector and its role as an agent of government policy with huge transactions in Public Money. I will do so by continuing my focus on the State-owned hotels and their performance, drawn from the official record.
The poor quality of investment decisions with our limited Public Money has left us saddled with projects no private investor would have contemplated beyond an initial appraisal stage. Public Money ought to be managed to and accounted for to higher standards than those applicable to Private Money. That standard learning appears to have evaporated in our country.
The Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in relation to our State-owned hotels are evidently beneficial to the hoteliers but of limited, if any, benefit to the Public as shareholders. PPPs here in T&T are ones in which we have privatised the profits and nationalised the losses. That is what happened at Tobago Hilton and, in significant respects, at Carlton Savannah – as detailed in ‘Carlton Savannah Swirl‘ published in this space on 15 February 2015. What is more, some of the leading beneficiaries of those arrangements, such as Arthur Lok Jack, can declare – “Government has to get the hell out of private sector business.”. Continue reading “Property Matters – Cycle of Consequences”→
“The Upholder is worse than the Thief”
—from the defunct Trinidad & Tobago value system, decades ago…
The reported statements of the PM and Minister Sinanan on this cost reduction of about $300M achieved for the Curepe Interchange project and the alleged role of corrupt engineers in that process are ones I welcome. Any savings of scarce Public Money are to be welcomed, whatever the political administration. That said, those recent statements are necessary but not sufficient.
In the previous article, I dismantled the false narrative as to the satisfactory ‘Underlying Commercial Arrangements‘ for our State-owned hotels. To do so, I used the official records of the Parliament and its Joint Select Committees. Those records actually tell this sorry story, but it is possible to rely upon the sheer mass of material to effectively mask reality.
The defenders of these rotten arrangements are unable to rebut the official record, so some have now taken to claiming that the accounts do exist and that I should admit my errors. Well I tell you.
In between the political loyalists who have a unique way with facts and the very shortage of those facts, one needs to establish certain cardinal points if we are to make sense of all this Carefully Crafted Confusion.
So here are my cardinal points to understand this puzzle –
Capital Expenditure is all ours – every cent is our Public Money;
Repairs and Maintenance – Ditto;
Returns to Private Sector – These are obviously at or above target rates, since both Hilton and Hyatt have persisted in their POS operations. If the returns were below target, those operators would have exited, which is what Hilton International did in Tobago in 2008;
Returns to Public Sector – Unknown – since there is no commitment to accountability or transparency, despite the periodic claims to the contrary from various high-ranking officials;
Private Sector Audited Accounts – We can be sure that those exist at the Private Sector level and are made available in a timely manner to the shareholders and stakeholders of those companies. No Chief in that arena could survive a failure to produce audited accounts in the required manner – that would be grounds for instant dismissal, for cause and without compensation. Of course there is no way a Private Sector Chief could ever refuse to provide those records to its shareholders and stakeholders;
Public Sector Audited Accounts – These are never available, for whatever reason. The Public Sector Chiefs routinely fail to produce these records and even when formal requests are made via the Freedom of Information Act, those are refused. No Chief in that Public Sector arena has ever been removed or disciplined for their flagrant failure/refusal to account;
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.
Two weeks after the publication of the Tobago Sandals MoU yet there has been no cogent defence of these detrimental provisions. The stark analysis is that the provisions of that MoU all favour Sandals’ interests, so much so that I am frankly wondering if they were the authors. Serious and inescapable questions of professional responsibility arise, given the eminent named persons and State Agencies said to have been involved thus far.
The reputable economist Dr Vanus James, writing in the TapiaHouse blog on 10th December 2018 described the Tobago Sandals MoU as ‘A road-map to economic ruin’.
On Thursday 13th December 2018 I addressed a public meeting at the Scarborough Public Library on this issue organised by my esteemed elder, Reginald Dumas. That was a full house and there was strong engagement on the implications of these large-scale proposals.
The starting-point for me was to tackle the question put to me the morning before by a media colleague from Tobago as to my being ‘a Trinidadian‘ and my role in questioning these proposals for what is certainly the largest-ever single development in Tobago. The simple fact is that ours is a tiny Republic such that those positions hardly seem to be credible. After all, if one were to adopt such a position we could end up excluding the Charlotteville opinion for a Buccoo proposal. More seriously, that position is entirely incompatible with our Regional aspirations – after all, why should we in T&T bother with Grenada which is 90 miles away or even Barbados, which is a whole 270 miles away. You see?
The previous article examined the clauses of the Tobago Sandals MoU and I took the position that those provisions were entirely in favour of Sandals, which was investing none of the capital. What is more, the MoU offers unspecified incentives and exemptions to Sandals, as well as a free hand in terms of purchasing and employment. Incredible, but true. This is where we are.
This article will examine the MoU further, starting with the question of just why was it released at this advanced stage after 9 months of claiming that its contents were secret and that disclosure would damage the ongoing negotiations.
It could be that the Cabinet, acting in the public interest and in the face of my litigation, decided to release the MoU as a tangible show of transparency. On the other hand, it could be that the ongoing negotiations have now settled to the point that the release of the MoU was literally immaterial to the desired outcome. That second version seems to me to be the more likely one, given the mid-December date disclosed for signing the real contracts. If that is really the case, we are witness to a sobering moment in terms of the implications of this Public Private Partnership. Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals MoU, part two”→
29th November 2018 was the first hearing of my Judicial Review of the refusal of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to provide a copy of the Tobago Sandals Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which I had requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) since 27th February 2018. At that hearing, the OPM agreed to provide the MoU and pay my costs, so my lawsuit was withdrawn.
This Tobago Sandals MoU was signed on 10th October 2017 and should have been disclosed long ago, without any necessity for legal action on my part. The PM and Minister Stuart Young repeatedly told the public that these details could not be published as that would undermine these important negotiations and so on and so forth.
Nine months of delays and obfuscation verging on an abuse of process, but that is just my opinion, as the OPM was advised by eminent Senior Counsel, Deborah Peake.
When the MoU was released at a press conference the evening before, Minister Stuart Young was emphatic that the decision to publish had nothing to do with me or my litigation. One has to wonder at the quality of advice being taken by the Cabinet. Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals MoU”→