Property Matters – Only a matter of time

whooshThe way the Ministry of Planning & the Economy (MPE) is persisting in their course of action on the Invader’s Bay development is perturbing in terms of the long term consequences of short-term decision-making.

At Section 2.0 of the Request for Proposals (RFP) for Invader’s Bay we read

…For Trinidad and Tobago this is a “major waterfront transformation” along the line of other signature waterfront developments such as Darling Habour (sic) in Sydney, Baltimore Inner Habour (sic), the Habour-front (sic) in Toronto, London Docklands and Teleport City in Tokyo. Although the genesis of the projects may vary, the result has generally been bold and dramatic. With the change in the manner in which ports operate and cargo is transported, waterfront property is now more valuable for its residential, retail and recreational function than simply for port activity with heavy industry, docks and fenced off warehouses, as is the case currently in Port of Spain…

We are being asked to consider the Invader’s Bay initiative ‘along the line’ of other leading international examples, which in itself is a good place to proceed from.  The reality is that those developments cited by the MPE all took decades to conceive and what is more, the authors of the RFP know that.  Yet we are also being asked to believe that a workable concept/s could be devised for Invader’s Bay in an RFP which is silent on the current strategic plans for the capital and only gives proposers 6 weeks to prepare.

Of course the lack of consultation will severely limit the participation of many important developers, not to mention the public.

The point is that in all those cities cited by the RFP, there is a serious commitment to consultation, which means that those large-scale transformations took considerable time to conceptualise.

In the city of New York, for example, there has been a long-standing commitment to community-based development.  Check this 6 October webcast from The New School – the introduction is instructive –

For decades, deliberations over land use in New York City have included developers, community boards, elected officials, the Department of City Planning and other city agencies. Do the people who live and work in city neighborhoods have a sufficient voice? Do residents improve the process, or impede progress? Who is best positioned to determine a neighborhood’s needs, and what are the best structures for public participation? New York has long been a leader in community-based development but as the city recovers from the Great Recession, what does the future hold?

And that is just one reference, readers can ‘Google’ to find the many other supportive examples.  In the very RFP, as well as in the recent budget, there is a clear commitment to consultation in national development.  Except in this case.

But there is more.

As I wrote in the opening of ‘Reflections on Republic Day’, on the Raymond & Pierre website on 27 September 2007 –

The best example I can think of for the kind of broad commitment to consultation is, of course, the site of the World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan: Ground Zero. This is a very interesting example since the site is privately owned and the City of New York is controlled by the Democrats while the Republicans control the national government of the USA. Against this background of different players we have the fact that the destruction of the WTC was a most severe blow to US prestige and power. The entire defense apparatus was rendered useless by that attack. Arguably, there could be no site in the world with a more urgent claim to large-scale redevelopment.

Yet, the fact is that a sort of compact has been arrived at between the parties to the effect that no redevelopment will take place unless and until everyone has had their say. For example, there was a recently concluded international competition for the design of the 911 Memorial. There were over 5,000 entries from more than 60 countries and a winner was just selected.

As expected, the consultations have been controversial and emotional but the fact is that an environment existed in which such an understanding could work. Whatever one’s view of the American imperium, there is a potency to the existence of that huge crater at the heart of their main city while the necessary conversations go on. Time for us to think again.

At that time I was protesting the haste and waste of the then PNM regime, a consequence of their pattern of proceeding with huge developments without any consultation.

At Section 3.1 of the RFP –

TENURE ARRANGEMENT

The proposed Developer will be chosen via this RFP process and shall then enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago (Ministry of Planning and the Economy) for an agreed lease rate. It is expected that this activity would be finalized within one (1) month of the submission of the said RFP.

Which means that we can expect the choice of the proposed Developer will be made and the lease agreements completed in one month from the closing date. Yes, Friday 4 November.

Sad to say, there is even more.  The RFP also specifies –

“…If financing has to be sourced from an external source, the Developer MUST submit a letter of guarantee from the financier as well as a profile of the financier. Failure to comply with this requirement will result in disqualification…”

When we raised the point that this is an impossible condition for new bidders to satisfy, given the sheer scale of the proposed development, both Ministers – Tewarie and Cadiz – attempted to indicate that this mandatory condition was flexible. Unbelievable, but true.

As leaders, whether in government or non-governmental organisations, we have an obligation to learn from the past. This is an effort to document the events in this episode, so that there will be a record, when the Invader’s Bay matter comes to be critically examined in the future.

The clear inconsistency of the position taken in the budget on urban planning was highlighted in last week’s column. With respect to this project, we noted the attempt to cast this development in the same light as other examples which all involved long-term consultation, the silence on the existing plans, the impossibly-short timetable to elicit fresh proposals, the even-shorter timetable for selection and agreement of lease terms, the wobbling on the financial requirements and incredibly, that the scoring criteria were to be finalized after the proposals were submitted.

It is literally impossible to determine which of these is worse than the others and it is beyond the imagination of any fiction writer I know to take a plot this far. But this is what is happening in our country today.

In my mind, all of these, taken together, show that the publication of the RFP is a form of sham dialogue and openness. If this is the genuine attempt by the MPE, to properly seek the public interest, then I am giving them an ‘F’ for effort.

What we are seeing here is a recipe for disaster, we already have all the ingredients of corruption, so what is next?

It really does make me wonder who runs this country and when, if ever, can we achieve consistent and equitable government. Who is the real power?

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CL Financial Bailout – The final AGM

bhoe-knows* In response to a question whether he took part in the reported decision to pay CLF dividends even after the approach to the State in 2009.

CL Financial’s final Annual General Meeting was the most interesting meeting in the saga of its collapse.

That meeting took place at the Trinidad Hilton on Friday 23 January 2009, so consider the timeline –

  • 18 November 2008 – CLF publishes its 2007 Annual Report, including its audited accounts, which showed assets of $100.666Bn and after-tax profits of $1.74Bn.
  • 13 January 2009 – CLF writes, under Lawrence Duprey’s signature, to the Governor of the Central Bank to request urgent financial assistance.  See pg 628 of Hansard of 4 February 2009 for the text of that letter, which specified that CLF’s asset value was $23.9Bn.
  • 16 January 2009 – CLF pays a dividend of $3.00 per share.
  • 23 January 2009 – CLF convenes its final AGM before the ‘official’ collapse.
  • 30 January 2009 – The bailout of CLF is announced at a Press Conference at the Central Bank.  All the speakers at that event stated the CLF asset value at $100Bn.

Given that the normal function of an AGM is to inform a company’s shareholders and stakeholders of its performance and prospects, that timeline raises some intriguing questions.

For whatever reason, there have been no published reports of that final CLF AGM, so I posed these questions to a CLF shareholder in an email exchange –

Q       Did you attend that AGM?
A        Yes
Q       Was it at the Ballroom of the Trinidad Hilton on Friday 23rd January 2009?
A        It was at the Hilton but not in their ballroom. It was in one of the restaurants/meeting rooms that overlooks the Savannah. Can’t remember the name.
Q       About how many shareholders were there in attendance?
A        I would guess about 30-40
Q       Which Directors were present?
A        Clinton Ramberansingh, Rampersad Motilal, Bhoe Tewarie, Gita Sakal and Michael Carballo.
Q       Which Executive Directors were present?
A        Roger Duprey (I think)
Q       What was the ‘tone’ of the meeting?  Was there any clue as to the grave difficulties facing the CLF group?  Was the ‘bailout letter’ mentioned at all?
A        The tone of the meeting was “normal”. There certainly was no indication that CLF  (or the CLF group) was in any imminent danger. The effects of the global downturn was mentioned in light of the reduced dividend (from $5 to $3) and we were told by Carballo that although the group, like everyone else, was feeling the effects of the global recession, it was still performing well and that he expected the performance to improve over the course of the coming year. One interesting “fact” that did emerge (I say “fact” because I have no idea as to the veracity of the claim) had to do with the value of CLF shares. One shareholder had complained about not really being able to derive any value from his CLF shares apart from receiving a dividend. No bank would accept it as security. Carballo advised that CIB would accept the shares as security for a loan………….had I known I’d have taken a big loan and never paid it back!! Certainly the bailout letter was never disclosed to the shareholders.

If true, this account of the events is deeply disturbing.

The question is whether CLF’s Independent Directors were aware of its true position.  Could it be that the Board was unaware of Duprey’s letter and that they were surprised when the bailout was announced?  If that were the case, it would mean that Board of Directors was kept in the dark over this bailout.

If the Board was informed as to the bailout letter, we would be contemplating an even more unacceptable case.  If that is what happened, it would have been fraudulent for the CLF Directors to have carried out that AGM without informing the shareholders of the company’s true position.

Michael Carballo was the CLF Group Financial Director since Andre Monteil’s retirement in early 2008. Given Carballo’s position in the group and the high quality of his professional skills, it is very difficult to accept that he did not himself know CLF’s true position.

Dr Bhoe Tewarie swearing-in
Dr Bhoe Tewarie swearing-in

According to this email exchange, neither Lawrence Duprey nor Andre Monteil attended CLF’s final AGM. With only one week to go, they would likely have been attaching more priority to the negotiations for the bailout.

So, Dr. Tewarie – a shareholder and former Director of CLF – is now appointed to Cabinet at the very moment that it is reviewing the bailout of the same CL Financial group.  That man, noted in the field of business education – his last post, before this appointment, being Director of UWI’s Institute of Critical Thinking – when asked about his attendance and participation in the Board meeting which approved those CLF dividends is reported to have said – “I cannot remember, I may have, I cannot remember the exact timing, I may have—I don’t know…The records would indicate whether I did or not...”.

We are being asked to believe that Dr. Tewarie cannot really remember this meeting, probably the final one before CL Financial folded and likely the most eventful in even a high-profile career such as his.  The old people have a saying that you start as you mean to go on.  Dr. Tewarie’s reply can hardly inspire confidence.  It verges on being dismissive and  disrespectful of the public.  We are paying for all the mess created by CL Financial and yes, that is the same public Dr. Tewarie just swore to serve.  It does not augur well.

The essential questions for Dr. Tewarie include his attendance and participation in this final AGM and what he knew about the state of the group at the time.

It seems unacceptable to me for holders of high office in our country to be persons who would be disqualified under the ‘fit and proper’ criteria.  That practice must be revised as part of the New Politics we are being promised.

Given the tremendous stakes and the complete silence by all the responsible people, we need to ensure that this affair does not carry our country any further into peril.

These responsible and silent people must be banished into obscurity, at the very least.

SIDEBAR

PricewaterhouseCoopers
It is a well-established custom that AGMs of large organisations are attended by the responsible partner of the auditor’s firm, who reads the auditor’s letter to the audience.  Did a partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers attend this meeting?  Which one?  Did a PwC partner read aloud that auditor’s letter?

Real Responsibility
On the one hand, a Cabinet Minister is dismissed over a $100,000 contract and I consider that to be good progress in the correct direction.  The fact that a reasonable suspicion had arisen cost that Minister her job, which is good.  In keeping with the State’s exemplary behaviour, our leaders should not behave in a fashion which causes suspicion or derision.

On the other hand, we are seeing a replacement Cabinet Minister, who at last record was known to be a shareholder of the huge, failed CL Financial group and one of its Board Directors at the time of the colossal crash.  The official version is that CL Financial is a $100Bn group.  There have been recent reports that the Cabinet is about to consider a new approach to the bailout and the public is bound to wonder at the timing of this appointment.

Fit and Proper
The Central Bank’s ‘Fit and Proper’ Guideline (sic) sets out the official position as to the type of person held to be ‘fit and proper’ to be a Director or Officer of a Financial Institution.

It states –

3.1 In accordance with governing legislation a person is considered to be fit and proper if the person essentially is of good character, competent, honest, financially sound, reputable, reliable and discharges and is likely to discharge his/her responsibilities fairly.