Property Matters – Pay Day? Part Two

past-dueI previously estimated State debt to the construction industry in the $3.2-3.5 Billion range. I have since been reliably informed that construction industry claims against WASA are estimated to be in the $600M range, which of course would be subject to verification as discussed previously. My revised estimate (see table below) is now in excess of $3.8 Billion, compared to the JCC’s 27 July 2016 estimate of $2.3 Billion.

The size of my more recent estimate gives a severe picture of the State’s indebtedness to the construction industry, which is the sector that Central Bank research shows to be the largest employer in the national economy. Apart from that, the construction industry also has deep links to other important parts of the national economy such as quarrying; banking/finance/insurance; hardware stores; a range of manufacturers; transportation and so on. Continue reading “Property Matters – Pay Day? Part Two”

2016 Budget Review

The 2016 budget statement was made on Monday 5 October 2015 by newly-appointed Minister of Finance & the Economy, Colm Imbert MP. Imbert is a professional engineer, so the fact that he lacked any formal certification in the financial field sparked much debate. The budget proposals have been made, so we are well past that point now.

These expenditure and revenue figures are from the Budget Statements, so no account has been taken of either actual outcomes or supplemental appropriations – this is the process used by the Government to obtain authorisation from the Parliament to exceed the approved spending limits in the national budget.

Continue reading “2016 Budget Review”

Dismantling the Code of Silence

This letter was published in Sunday Express on 27th September 2015.

From: Afra Raymond <afraraymond@gmail.com>
Date: Thu, Sep 24, 2015 at 10:00 AM
Subject: Dismantling the Code of Silence
To:

The Editor,

lasalturas-signNoel Garcia served as General Manager of the Housing Development Corporation during the period in which critical decisions were made on the Las Alturas housing project. That project, in which two apartment buildings failed, is now the subject of a Commission of Enquiry. There have been several reports in the press (see below) that Mr Garcia was unwilling to testify to that Enquiry. We have been unable to locate any published responses from Mr Garcia to those reports.

Noel Garcia has now been appointed as Chairman of the UDECOTT Board. The JCC’s position is that the penalties for the failure or refusal to appear as a witness to a Commission of Enquiry must be increased sharply so as to discourage this deplorable behaviour. The present fine for non-attendance is only $2,000, which is why so many persons can show open disdain for a request to testify at a Commission of Enquiry.

The prospect of the Chairman of a State Enterprise declining to testify at a Commission of Enquiry is unacceptable and of course any continuing ambiguity can only feed suspicion.

The Las Alturas Enquiry resumes its evidence hearings on Monday 28th September 2015 and it would be a refreshing change from the ‘bad old days‘ if Mr Garcia, or his attorneys, were to promptly confirm his willingness to appear as a witness.

Afra Raymond
President
JCC


Noel Garcia responded via a media release, which was copied on social media on Sunday 27 September 2015 as follows:

Getting the Facts Right

I refer to a letter to the editor from Afra Raymond entitled “Dismantling the code of Silence” published in the September 27, 2015 edition of the Express Newspaper.
In his letter, Mr. Raymond, in reference to me and the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project, speaks disparagingly of “the prospect of the Chairman of a State Enterprise declining to testify at a Commission of Enquiry”.

I wish to categorically state that I have never refused to give evidence before the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project. Despite what Mr. Raymond claims to have read (and what he erroneously plainly believes), the Commission has never at any time contacted or subpoenaed me on the matter of the Las Alturas Project. This, although my postal address, email address and telephone number have remained unchanged for years.

For the record, I have never shirked my duty or my responsibility to give evidence before any court or any tribunal with respect to matters within my knowledge as a former employee of the HDC. I have previously given evidence in the High Court on behalf of the HDC and I have only recently filed an affidavit in support of the HDC’s position in another High Court matter. I am no stranger to and have given evidence repeatedly at Commissions of Enquiry including in the Piarco Airport Enquiry, the Landate Enquiry and the UFF Commission.

I wish to make my position abundantly clear that, were I to be subpoenaed or contacted to give evidence at the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Project, I would have absolutely no difficulty in assisting the Commission.

In his self-appointed role as guardian of the public conscience, Mr. Raymond ought to be more careful about permitting his officious zeal to lead him into making what can be considered to be defamatory imputations about others. Mr. Raymond’s self-confessed inability to locate any published responses from me to press reports he has read is no licence for him to do so.

Noel Garcia.


This clarification was all we were seeking, so I responded later that night, on social media, as follows

“…Noel Garcia’s post ‘Getting the Facts Right’ is very helpful, it is the first public response I have seen to the several articles earlier on this issue – I thank him for it…as I said elsewhere on FB yesterday, one of the Officials in the Las Alturas Enquiry told me that they had been ‘unable to locate’ Mr Garcia, to which I responded that as he was the new UDECOTT Chairman, it was now impossible to sustain that claim…”


For ease of reference – these are the previous press reports

  1. Trinidad Guardian of 7th April 2015 – ‘Las Alturas Hearing resumes today
    …Singh also assured Ibrahim that efforts were being made to locate former executive chairman of the Urban Development Corporation of T&T Calder Hart, and former HDC general manager Noel Garcia, to have them appear before the Commission…” then “…Garcia is said to be living and working in Ghana. HDC’s attorney Vincent Nelson, QC, had previously indicated that Garcia had declined to provide a witness statement when asked, following which they lost contact with him. Seemingly dissatisfied with Mohammed’s answer that every effort was being made to have Hart present himself before the Commission, Ibrahim suggested that there were legal means which could be employed to compel him to appear.”Ibrahim has promised that accommodations would be made not to keep Hart unduly when he does appear, while there was also the recommendation that an offer be made to pay Garcia’s travel expenses back to T&T, in order for him to testify. Both Hart and Garcia have been deemed “important witnesses” in the enquiry. During the 13-day enquiry four witnesses have so far testified before the Commission…
  2. Trinidad Express – 20th March 2015 – ‘HDC lawyers ‘lost all contact with Garcia’‘ –
    …Attorneys representing the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) have lost all contact with former HDC managing director Noel Garcia. This was revealed yesterday during the sitting of the commission of enquiry into the Las Alturas housing project at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain.Garcia, who was expected to be called as a witness in the enquiry, is said to be currently residing in Ghana.Junior counsel for the commission Jagdeo Singh told the commission all attempts by HDC’s legal team to locate Garcia had been unsuccessful. “Every effort has been made thus far to locate Mr Garcia and at some point in time Mr Garcia was in communication with the legal team for the HDC, but he has since ceased all communication with them,” Singh said.Nelson had said at a previous hearing that Garcia did not appear to be willing to testify in the proceedings.

    Chairman of the commission Mustapha Ibrahim noted Garcia’s participation in the enquiry was necessary, as he was a “very important witness”…

  3. CTNT News – 5th March 2015 – ‘QC: Garcia’s presence crucial to Las Alturas Enquiry‘ –
    …The absence of former HDC Managing Director Noel Garcia at the Commission of Enquiry into the Las Alturas Housing Project was raised by the company’s Attorney on Day Four of the proceedings. Mr. Garcia is one of the key persons who would be best able to add the pieces to the already puzzling situation which led to the partial demolition of two towers at the million dollar housing complex due to shifting soil.”At Thursday’s session, the Attorney representing the Housing Development Corporation, Queen’s Counsel Vincent Nelson, mentioned that Mr. Garcia currently works and lives outside T&T.”The position there is that Mr. Noel Garcia, who is a pivotal person in the project at the time, is someone who really, although it is difficult because he is outside the jurisdiction for the Commission to summon him, he is an important and pivotal person in terms of what occurred at the time.”Mr. Nelson was then asked by the Commission Chairman Mustapha Ibrahim if any efforts were made to bring him back to T&T for the Enquiry, including offering to pay his airfare.

    No. We haven’t done so but obviously that is something that I could take instructions on. I am told we lost communication with him at the moment. So that is the position but we will make further efforts but in the meantime, the position is the Commission may consider whether to call the Board at the time and/or see when Mr. Garcia is available.’…” There is also a TV clip here.

  4. Newsday of 6th March 2015 – ‘Noel Garcia not willing to testify‘ –
    …NOEL Garcia, former managing director of the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), has indicated to lawyers for the HDC, that he is unwilling to testify at the Las Alturas Commission of Inquiry, attorney Vincent Nelson QC said yesterday…

I have not seen any responses from Noel Garcia before his response on Sunday 27th September 2015.

Riding the Dragon

las alturas
Las Alturas buildings cracked. Courtesy T&T Guardian.

This article is about the Las Alturas Enquiry into the collapse of two new Morvant apartment buildings erected by China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) for the Housing Development Corporation (HDC). This Enquiry seems a politically-motivated one into a serious failure of professional practice which could have cost human lives. It is only in its opening stages, but it is already clear to me that this episode is one which contains serious lessons for our country in terms of the role of Enquiries; the role of the Chinese contractors; the culture of non-enforcement which we practice and of course, the impact of targets and political objectives on proper process. In the case of Las Alturas this is a large-scale multiple-housing project constructed on a former quarry-site on the Lady Young Road, just south of the lookout. Two apartment buildings which were completed in late 2010 were eventually declared uninhabitable due to severe cracking and the proposed demolition of those structures was announced at the end of May 2012. Each building comprised 24 three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartments, with the total cost of those buildings stated by HDC to be in the $29M range. The buildings were erected by CJIC on the design/build basis which usually places all responsibility for soil investigation, design and construction onto the contractor.

The role of Enquiries

The JCC offered to work with HDC in determining the causes of this serious failure and that offer was accepted, but our joint exercise did not last very long. The Commission of Enquiry was announced in September 2014 by the Prime Minister and despite the serious nature of the failure at this project, it seemed to suggest an attempt to discredit the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Keith Rowley, who was Minister of Housing between 2003-2007. I still feel that it was a poor choice of issue to investigate, given the burning questions at Invader’s Bay, the Beetham Water Recycling Project, UWI Debe and EFCL, to name just a few. The Terms of Reference of the Enquiry were published in the Gazette of 3 December 2014 and a five-month period was stipulated for its Report to be made to the President.The Enquiry, which is chaired by retired Justice of Appeal Mustapha Ibrahim, is to examine the causes of the structural failure of two blocks of apartments built in 2008-2010 for the HDC by CJIC. The other two Commissioners are eminent Structural Engineers, Dr. Myron Chin and Anthony Farrell. We have also seen reports of the contractor, CJIC, declining to appear at the Enquiry. I consider that refusal to be deplorable and a real sign that serious penalties need to be attached to that course of action. As it is, the fines for non-attendance are nominal, so people can refuse on a whim, since there are few prosecutions for that.

The role of the Chinese contractors

The really stunning revelation here is that the State was aware, since 2011, that these two buildings at Las Alturas had to be demolished. Despite this, CJIC was able, from early 2012 onwards, to compete for and secure the $500M+ contract for UWI’s Debe campus. The JCC protested at the poor process used in procuring that large-scale project. UWI Principal Professor Clement Sankat was advised that in view of the poor performance by CJIC in local State projects – including UTT Tamana, ETeck Wallerfield and various EFCL – no proper evaluation could proceed to recommend that further contracts be granted to that firm. Given that the normal pre-qualification process requires prospective bidders to identify claims, litigations or disputed matters, one can only wonder how CJIC was able to prevail in that project.

Culture of non-enforcement

One of the seldom-discussed findings of the Uff Enquiry was as to the lack of any culture of enforcement of contracts in the State construction sector, as set out in the sidebar. So, I was both thrilled and intrigued by the headline in this newspaper on Friday 6 March 2015 ‘HDC to sue Chinese contractor‘. The role and reputation of Chinese contractors in the local market have long been a bone of contention for the JCC. That statement was made in opening remarks by Vincent Nelson QC, who is the lead Counsel for HDC at this Enquiry –

“…The Housing Development Corporation (HDC) is moving to pursue legal action against China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC), the company contracted to construct the two towers at Las Alturas, Morvant, which subsequently had to be demolished because of structural damage resulting from land slippage. Attorney for the HDC, Vincent Nelson, was adamant about this as he delivered his opening statement at the Commission of Enquiry into the housing project yesterday at the Caribbean Court of Justice in Port of Spain…”

The culture of non-enforcement, considered with the chiefs at HDC (who transferred there after abruptly departing Caribbean Airlines), together with the special influence seemingly enjoyed by the Chinese contractors, all make me very sceptical as to whether a real and forceful lawsuit will ever emerge against CJIC.

The role of targets

Finally, one needs to consider the detrimental role of politically-motivated overambitious targets. The 2002 National Housing Policy set an unforgettable target of 100,000 new homes to be built in 10 years, which translates to an annual average of 10,000, which means a literally impossible 200 homes per week. Those are the facts behind the bizarre ‘numbers game’ which in turn likely had a decisive influence on the decision-makers at UDECOTT, HDC and of course the Housing Ministry. It would be useful, in this season of 100 houses a week and a billion dollars in land each year being promised, to reconsider the role of over-ambitious targets in distorting proper process.

SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline

This is only an outline, but it is instructive –

  • December 2002 – UDECOTT acquires the Las Alturas site.
  • 2003 – Initial layout prepared for a total of 120 apartments, which was revised later that year to 292 units given the Town & Country Planning Division’s advice on the allowable number of units.
  • December 2003 – CJIC wins tender to design & build 297 apartments.
  • November 2004 – Start on Site.
  • 2005/2006 – Soil problems identified on part of the site.
  • July 2005 – UDECOTT rejects project redesigns for lower units numbers of 142 and 167 apartments. Those redesigns were intended to avoid the unsuitable soils.
  • July 2006 – the project is transferred from UDECOTT to HDC.
  • 2008-2010 – Blocks H & I are built onto the areas reported to be unsuitable.
  • 2011 – Blocks H & I are recommended to be demolished due to severe cracking.

We have also seen reports that both UDECOTT and the HDC were resistant to any reduction in unit numbers on the site.

SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding

The 2010 Uff Report into the Public Sector Construction Industry contains remarkable findings which were not listed amongst the 91 formal recommendations. At page 269 –

“Holding to account 29.21. …A recurrent feature of practice in the construction industry in Trinidad & Tobago is the extent to which rights and obligations prescribed by the Contract are or are not enforced. A simple example, discussed above, is the apparently mutual ignoring of contract provisions…”

At page 271 –

“…29.26. Underlying all the foregoing, however, is the question of enforcement of contractual rights and duties. What has been observed by the Commissioners is a culture of non-enforcement of rights, which appears to operate mutually, for example, by contractors not pressing for payment of outstanding sums while the employer does not enforce payment of liquidated damages. Whatever the explanation, the non-enforcement of contractual rights available to Government is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of those charged with protecting public funds. Equally, the non-pursuit of sums properly owed to commercial companies is a dereliction on the part of the directors of that company…”

The key point disclosed here is that contractual rights are seldom enforced in State contracts. A move to such a regular practice would require a major shift in our country’s governance culture.

Balancing the Scale

This article is to engage the issues of falling national revenues due to price declines for fossil fuels, the ongoing commentary and the PM’s 8 January 2015 statement with its attendant criticisms. I am going to focus on the role of the real estate and construction sectors in this unfolding series of serious challenges.

This is the graph and table from my previous budget commentary ‘A Fistful of Dollars‘ to illustrate the trend in terms of how successive governments have attempted to balance revenues and expenditure.

T&T Budget overview 2005-2015
 

Year 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Revenue $24,016 $34,129 $35,126 $40,381 $49,465 $36,664 $41,284 $47,000 $50,736 $55,041 $60,351
Expenditure $27,918 $34,119 $38,054 $42,261 $44,206 $36,915 $49,016 $54,600 $58,405 $61,398 $64,664
Surplus/Deficit -$3,902 $10 -$2,928 -$1,880 $5,259 -$252 -$7,732 -$7,600 -$7,669 -$6,357 -$4,313

Continue reading “Balancing the Scale”

Public Procurement Priorities

The Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill was passed by the Senate on Tuesday 16 December 2014, completing its journey through the legislative process. That is an historic achievement for our country, so it is essential that we take our bearings and properly record the moment.

This important new law to control transactions in Public Money was the objective of a long-term, collective campaign by the Private Sector Civil Society group (PSCS) of which JCC was a member. The JCC met with the leaders of the Peoples Partnership in April 2010, with one of the key promises emerging from that meeting being that new Public Procurement laws would be passed within one year of an election victory. It has taken four and a half years for the government to achieve that.

This achievement was only possible because of our collective efforts. Ours was a diverse group which resolved to campaign together for this critical reform of our country’s laws to ensure effective control over transactions in Public Money. Continue reading “Public Procurement Priorities”