Property Matters – State land acquisition

Property Matters – State land acquisition

Recent concerns over the State’s land acquisition process, especially in relation to the Curepe Interchange project, have virtually coincided with the appointment on 12th January 2018 of the first Board for the Office of Procurement Regulation (OPR).

The $222M contract for this project was awarded in August 2017 to China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) by National infrastructure Development Co. (NIDCO). NIDCO is one of the implementing agencies for the Ministry of Works and Transport, which is headed by Senator Rohan Sinanan. Twenty-Two parcels of private land have to be acquired to build this interchange between the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and the Southern Main Road. That includes a part of the disused Kay-Donna Drive-Inn Cinema, which is at the south-western corner of that intersection.

rohan sinanan
Sen. Rohan Sinanan

Minister Sinanan has confirmed his part-ownership of the Kay-Donna property, which, together with the long-standing problems within the State’s land acquisition process, have given ground to the sceptics. In my view Minister Sinanan’s position is a direct conflict of interest, if ever I saw one. That said, it is not an irremediable conflict, indeed it must be remedied, since we ought not to either halt this project or delude ourselves to think that recusal is some kind of cure for this Executive Proximity.

This situation is a learning opportunity to re-establish some proper standards of transparency and accountability in the land acquisition process and for the OPR to issue strong regulations to assure best practices for the future. This article will outline the key issues in State land acquisitions and propose a best practice approach which could ease some of the legitimate concerns arising in relation to the conflicted situation of Minister Sinanan. Continue reading “Property Matters – State land acquisition”

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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.

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?