Property Matters – The Ethics Gap

Property Matters – The Ethics Gap

The previous article ended with pointed questions on the delay in the implementation of the Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Act. I directed those questions to the President, who had invited applications for the post of Procurement Regulator with a closing-date of Friday, 1 September 2017.

The Ministry of Finance, in response to serial allegations of political delays, issued a Press Release on 1 November 2017 to emphasise that the implementation delay was coming from the President. That Release ended on a hopeful note anticipating complete implementation by the end of 2017. In response to a request from the Trinidad Express newspaper, The Office of the President issued a Press Release on the same day to advise of the various steps being taken to attain appointment of the Board of the Office of Procurement Regulation by the end of 2017.

This delay forced me to reconsider the approach of having this law effectively implemented by appointments made by Presidential discretion. Under our Constitution, the President is effectively immune from legal challenge if a decision is in his discretion.

Even when the new law is fully operational, we will have to confront the issue –

Can law alone reduce corruption in the absence of ethical standards?

If we are collectively unable to recognise up from down, or right from wrong, we are in peril. It is always comforting to think of a few individuals who keep pointing out these troubling issues, but what is the collective position? Writing as a surveyor, it is important to recognise our boundaries and of course, to take our bearings.

Let me give an example in the Eden Gardens case, in which HDC paid $175M for a parcel of land which could have been compulsorily acquired for no more than $35M. That was a complex fraud in which parties within different agencies and firms collaborated for personal benefit.

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The Eden Gardens fraud would have been impossible without a signed opinion by a valuer. It was the Commissioner of Valuations’ office which issued a report stating the property value at $180M. When I started writing about that case in these pages, I was confronted with long, threatening letters from a certain colleague in the said Commissioner of Valuations’ office. I never named that individual and simply kept detailing this huge fraud, culminating in the Joint Consultative Council for the Construction Industry’s (JCC’s) July 2015 formal Report to all the relevant law-enforcement agencies.

At the same time I also approached the Law Association with my serious concerns, since the entire series of transactions relied on a directing legal mind and several misleading legal documents. All those documents are authored by named parties – the name of the attorney who prepares a deed appears in the upper right hand part of its first page. I asked the then-President of the Law Association and the then-head of its Disciplinary Committee, separately, when they would be taking action. Their reply was simply that they had not received a complaint and that my articles were not complaints. They both went on to say that I was not eligible to complain since I had not suffered any losses nor had I engaged any of the offending attorneys. Both of those men are worthy of my serious respect, but I tell you.

I pointed-out the flagrant double-standard which we routinely apply to white-collar crime. We don’t expect the police to wait on a formal report when a crime being committed in plain view, and rightly so. So why do we reserve those weak standards for these white-collar bandits? The JCC’s formal Report on Eden Gardens also went to the Law Association, so we may see some action at some stage, but I am not hopeful on that front.

rohan sinanan
Minister of Works & Transport, Sen. Rohan Sinanan

More recently, we have seen extended statements from Minister of Works & Transport, Rohan Sinanan, on the questionable actions of certain valuers in the Commissioner of Valuations office. The key allegations were of inflated valuations being made on behalf of claimants for properties required for NIDCO’s project to extend the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway to Point Fortin. The further allegation was that the professional civil servant in the Valuation Division handling those claims was the same person who prepared the same claims.

Several of those situations are known to me, but it is my view that the Minister needs to go further. If indeed he is satisfied, after proper checks, that those acts of fraud were committed by professionally-qualified civil servants, then we are still some way from a satisfactory position. My first question would be whether those persons are still employed by the State and if so, have disciplinary proceedings been taken against them? Have formal police reports been made in respect of these multi-million dollar frauds alleged by the Honourable Minister? Has the State made formal Reports to the professional bodies with which these civil servants are qualified?

RESPONSIBLE PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATION

On Tuesday, 14 November 2017, the Institute of Surveyors of Trinidad & Tobago (ISTT) issued this formal statement to recommend that the Minister of Works & Transport make formal reports of the alleged wrongdoing.

In all these cases of complex fraud, it is literally impossible for a small number of people to commit the crime in isolation. There are always other parties, outside the conspiracy, but in the know.

If we do nothing these dishonest professionals will continue to hold the same qualifications as the rest of us and we will all be the poorer for it. We must rusticate these bandits and banish them to obscurity.

There is little point in having strong laws if unethical conduct goes unpunished because it is not identified by our collective conscience.


Setting the Boundaries

This article condenses certain key points from my address on Public Procurement Law to the 6th Annual Caribbean Valuation and Construction Conference hosted by the RICS, IPT and ISTT at Trinidad Hilton on Friday, 3 November 2017. The video of that address is posted to my blog with the requested statement that these views are my own and not those of the professional bodies.

© 2017, Afra Raymond. All Rights Reserved.

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VIDEO: Address to 6th Annual Caribbean Valuation and Construction Conference – 3 November 2017

This is my address to the 6th Annual Caribbean Valuation and Construction Conference: Best Practices and Experience Sharing hosted by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the International Property Tax Institute, and the Institute of Surveyors of T&T held at the Trinidad Hilton on Friday 3 November 2017.

I spoke on the topic “Best Procurement Practice” in which I outlined the new Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act and posed the question, “How effective are laws if we do not conduct ourselves ethically?” Video courtesy PixelPlay Media.

Programme Date: 3 November 2017
Programme Length:  00:28:26

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are mine and not those of the RICS, the IPTI or the ISTT.

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VIDEO: INVADERS’ BAY ISSUES on ‘The Morning Edition’ on TV6 – 20 September 2016.

tv6_logoJCC Immediate Past-President, Afra Raymond, interviewed by TV6’s Kejan Haynes on Morning Edition on Tuesday 20 September 2016 on the ongoing issues at development site at Invader’s Bay and their connection to the larger procurement public policy issues. Video courtesy TV6

  • Programme Air Date: Tuesday 20 September 2016
  • Programme Length: 0:20:45

‘Unconquered’ discussion series

The ‘Unconquered‘ discussion series is hosted by Robert Young’s The Cloth at #24 Erthig Road, Belmont…Attilah Springer – aka Tillah Willah – is one of the livewires driving this initiative…

I was invited by Tillah to speak at the ‘Conscious Citizenship‘ meeting on Wednesday 13th August 2014, along with Dr. Kevin Adonis Browne, author of the searching new work ‘Tropic Tendencies’…the session was both heated and edifying…it was real, even when Browne ramoujayed on rhetoric!

Public procurement pressure

The complete overhaul of our country’s public procurement system is urgently required, given the daily reports of large-scale theft and waste of public money.

The last administration lost public confidence due largely to the high levels of corruption, as revealed in the Uff Enquiry into the Public Sector Construction Industry.

The JCC met in April 2010 with the leadership of the People’s Partnership at its request and with the media in attendance.

At that meeting, the People’s Partnership made three significant promises:

  1. Implementation of the recommendations of the Uff Report – This was the first item at the first post-Cabinet press briefing on July 1, 2010, with the Justice Ministry being tasked to implement those critical recommendations. That promise has been broken.
  2. Tabling of legislative proposals for public procurement within one month of an electoral victory. Then Finance Minister Winston Dookeran did lay two draft bills — a 1997 draft to repeal the Central Tenders Board Act and a 2006 draft Public Procurement Bill — so that promise was fulfilled.
  3. Creation of new laws for Public Procurement & the Disposal of Public Property within one year of an electoral victory.  Despite the statements at pg 18 of the People’s Partnership Manifesto, the appointment of a Joint Select Committee (JSC) and many public pronouncements, that has not happened. Continue reading “Public procurement pressure”

Property Matters – The EFCL Query part 3

On Thursday 14th July, the EFCL published a full-page response to the first article in this series – it was also the same day that the second article in this EFCL Query was published.  Although it was comforting to see the clear statements on EFCL’s ‘speak out’ component, Whistle-Blowing policy and procedure and Fraud Policy, the central concerns are greater, if anything.

I deliberately used the word response, since no reasonable person could consider that advertisement to be a reply to my emailed queries.

If EFCL were really replying to my query, it would have been no problem to provide a copy of the documents and answer the simple questions.

EFCL’s preferred course of action is to spend more taxpayers’ money on expensive artwork and advertising, so the further question is ‘Why?’.

Considering that all I was doing was questioning the existence and origin of an important policy of this State-owned company, it is perturbing to be having this level of challenge in getting a simple clarification.

As I wrote in this space last week – ‘So, what is the secret?

What could be the delay or difficulty in providing a copy of the EFCL’s Confidentiality Policy, as requested?

In the first article in this series, I posted the documents which had been passed to me.  The simple question is whether these are the genuine documents.  There was no attempt by EFCL to even answer that important query.

It is important because the EFCL advertisement told readers that “…Employees were not asked to sign under threat of dismissal…

The first sentence of the preamble of the Staff Confidentiality Agreement is –

All new and existing employees will be given a copy of this confidentiality policy and will be required to sign a confidentiality agreement at the time of hiring or during their service to the company.

The emphasis is mine – yes, it reads ‘required to sign’.

But there is more, because the EFCL advertisement also stated that –

Staff who asked for time to get external advice, were allowed to.

However, clause 1 d. of the Confidentiality Agreement states –

The existence of this agreement and its terms are confidential and none of the parties to this agreement may disclose anything about this agreement or its subject matter or implementation to any person except if required by law to do so.

It is clear that the EFCL advertisement and the documents sent to me cannot both be true.

So, which is true?

Why did EFCL not send or publish the documents?

Quite frankly, it appears that EFCL is making a great effort to conceal or obscure its true policy on confidentiality, for whatever reason.

If this is the kind of effort being put into obscuring the elementary policy of this State-owned company, I can scarcely imagine their reaction to queries on particular projects, Directors’ benefits or tender procedure.

The behaviour of the State and its agents must be exemplary.  Public Officials have an obligation, in my view, to behave in a fashion which fosters trust and good order.

It is all starting to resemble a tangled web, sad to say.

Again, I hope that my doubts are misplaced.

SIDEBAR

Five simple questions for EFCL…

  • Is there a new EFCL Confidentiality policy?
  • When did that come into effect?
  • Would you please provide a copy of that policy?
  • Was that policy approved by the Board of Directors?
  • Is the Ministry of Education aware of this new policy?

Property Matters – The EFCL Query part 2

efcl-confidentialDespite the first column in this series, I have had no direct reply or even acknowledgement from any of the EFCL officials to whom my initial queries were directed.

It seems that the people concerned would rather not write, on this matter at least.  A meeting has been indirectly suggested, which of course would have to be properly recorded and minuted – no word on that meeting as I write again.

What could be the delay or difficulty in answering the five simple questions posed last week –

  1. Is there a new EFCL Confidentiality policy?
  2. When did that come into effect?
  3. Would you please provide a copy of that policy?
  4. Was that policy approved by the Board of Directors?
  5. Is the Ministry of Education aware of this new policy?

Four of those questions require basic yes/no responses, while only one requires a date.

I closed Sunday Guardian’s article by reminding readers of the equation

Expenditure of Public money – Accountability – Transparency = CORRUPTION

The elementary accountability of a public company having its policies available for the public to consider seems to be either lacking or of low priority in the case of EFCL.  As we move along, it will be interesting to see how the Transparency part of the equation works out.

In researching this article, it emerged that our country is a signatory to two relevant international conventions.  As I understand it, the effect of our State having become signatory to those agreements is that the country has adopted those standards.

The first one is the Inter-American Convention against corruption, which was signed by our country in April 1998.  At that time, UNC was in power, under PM Basdeo Panday.  At Article III, clause 8, we are obliged to

…consider the applicability of measures to…create, maintain and strengthen…Systems for protecting public servants and private citizens who, in good faith, report acts of corruption, including protection of their identities, in accordance with their Constitutions and the basic principles of their domestic legal systems…

The second convention is the United Nations’ Convention against Corruption, which was signed by our country in December 2003.  At that time, PNM was in power, under PM Patrick Manning.  At Article 8 – Codes of Conduct for Public Officials, clause 4 obliges us to

4. Each State Party shall also consider, in accordance with the fundamental principles of its domestic law, establishing measures and systems to facilitate the reporting by public officials of acts of corruption to appropriate authorities, when such acts come to their notice in the performance of their functions…

So, what is the big secret?

I do understand that staff at companies like this can jeopardize the integrity and effective operations of the organisation by leaking certain confidential information.  That would be a proper concern of management and a confidentiality policy is one of the ways that could be dealt with, just one.

During the Uff Enquiry, UDeCoTT claimed several times that this or that document was confidential and used its lawyers to protest strongly, sometimes even seeking the protection of the High Court.  That was outrageous conduct by a state-owned company, which appeared to be trying to frustrate the Uff Commission, appointed by the State, by seeking to conceal documents.  A case of ‘the tail wagging the dog’.

This situation is one in which it seems that the dangers of leaks in relation to tendering estimates, for example, has been conflated to cover all information in the company.  It appears to be part of a new policy which does not conform to either good labour relations or our country’s international obligations with respect to Whistle-Blowers.

Given the electoral promises made by this government and the importance of the struggle to reduce the menace of corruption in our society, it is very important for us to be attentive to these matters.

UDeCoTT wanted to conceal certain documents and one had to wonder why, given that they are not involved in secret work.  If it was not so serious it would be comical, they are not a spying, military or health institution.  UDeCoTT is just a facilitator for erecting buildings, yet their chiefs were able to pretend to the public that a large part of what they did was confidential. That kind of secrecy could never be in the public interest.  Not ever.

Similarly with EFCL, one has to ask – What is the secret?  That organisation is responsible for the repair and maintenance of schools, using Public Money to do so.

I wonder if that document, which a number of EFCL staff have now been required to sign, is legal and binding?  Could it withstand a challenge in the Courts?  Did EFCL take proper legal advice in this matter?  Was that advice followed?

The legitimate interests of taxpayers require that the management of State Enterprises take proper steps to handle these integrity challenges – Does the EFCL Confidentiality Agreement achieve this?

There is a certain kind of way in which this episode with EFCL is starting to remind me of the early UDeCoTT grappling, before Uff and so on, with tremendous difficulty in getting basic dialogue going, shadow-boxing and bizarre positions being taken.

I really hope that I am wrong, because the correct, encouraging attitude to Whistle-Blowers is essential for the success of the larger Public Procurement agenda.