Re-Route Reboot

The continued dispute over the Debe-Mon Desir Link of the Point Fortin Highway and the growing public debate over this issue require further attention to certain critical aspects.

The Armstrong Reportcover-tilt was published in March 2013 after a process agreed between parties to the dispute over this highway link.  It is a significant achievement in the journey to a more considered and consultative approach to national development.  Given the shifting grounds of the dispute and the nature of the various statements, it is necessary to clarify some of the key issues.

The three main issues to be clarified are –

The Armstrong Report

The State’s position in relation to The Armstrong Report is a critical element of the dispute, so it is important to detail how this has morphed, like so much else in this matter.  The Ministry of Works & Infrastructure Press Statement of 3 December 2012welcomed the inputs…from the JCC, FITUN, T&T Transparency Institute and Working Women‘ and went on to note that ‘the discussions had been very fruitful‘.  That statement settled a basic framework for a Review of the elements of the link which were in dispute, with the preliminary Report to be provided within 60 days ‘to NIDCO for its consideration and publication thereafter’.  Some people have tried to restrict the meaning of NIDCO’s ‘consideration’ of The Armstrong Report to a merely editorial vetting which implied no commitment to any post-publication consideration.  The only conceivable reason for a party to this kind of process to have the right to review the preliminary Report would be to address factual errors in a situation in which the completed Report is of some significance.

At the post-Cabinet Press Briefing on Thursday 14 February 2013, the then ‘line Minister’ for NIDCO, Emmanuel George, said that the Report gave the State the ‘green light’, thanked the members of the Highway Review Committee and was reported to have agreed to ‘…as far as possible, accommodate their suggestions and recommendations…‘.

The only reasonable meaning to put to the State’s actions and agreements at the time was that there was a commitment to consider the recommendations of the Report.  Of course we are now hearing from officials that there was no commitment to adopt or consider any of the recommendations in The Armstrong Report.

As a reality check, just ask yourself what would have been the position if The Armstrong Report had fully vindicated the State’s actions.

You see?

The Highway Contract

The high cost of halting construction is the main argument being used by the State to criticise The Armstrong Report and in its litigation with the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM).  On 25 February 2013, NIDCO wrote to JCC with its comments on the preliminary Report and the first page of that letter noted its concern that no consideration had been given to the fact that a $5.2Billion construction contract was in existence for this project. (Comment #2 on p. 30)  That complaint is fundamentally misplaced, to say the least, since technical and scientific reviews do not normally take financial or commercial elements into account as material considerations.

At the level of general principles, two examples can clarify the position. In the widely-used two-envelope tendering situations, the tenderers submit separate technical and financial proposals, which are examined independently, with points awarded for each.  The eventual selection is made after considering both those scores.

The most recent Commission of Enquiry was announced by the Prime Minister on 18 September 2014 into the HDC apartment blocks which had to be demolished in 2012 at Las Alturas in Morvant. (pp. 68-70) When HDC recognised that the stability of these newly-constructed hillside apartment blocks was in jeopardy, they obtained technical advice from professional engineers. It is doubtful whether those reports considered the financial and commercial fact that the building had already been erected or the losses that would accrue if they were to be demolished.  Very doubtful.  Indeed, one would rightly be suspicious of technical advice which was coloured by commercial considerations.

SIDEBAR: NIDCO’s reply to JCC

The JCC wrote to NIDCO on 10 October 2014 to request a detailed statement as to how the ten recommendations of The Armstrong Report had been treated and we met with NIDCO’s team on 17 October to discuss that request.  NIDCO agreed to provide the details to JCC by Friday 24 October, but that reply is still awaited at the time of this writing.

Now, to deal directly with NIDCO’s criticism of The Armstrong Report, we need to note two facts –

  1. Terms of Reference – If, despite the general principle, NIDCO had wished to have the construction contract for the highway considered alongside the other factors to be examined during the 60-day Review, it could have made that request.  The fact is that NIDCO never made that request, so the construction contract was not included in the terms of engagement for this review exercise.
  2. The Highway Review – If, having not requested that the construction contract be included in the review, NIDCO subsequently wanted it considered, there was an option to submit it. NIDCO never submitted the contract to the JCC or the Highway Review Committee.

Proceeding from the general principle to the particulars of this case, it is therefore clear why the Highway Review Committee did not consider the contract as part of the review process.

Note also that NIDCO has not submitted the contract to the Court during this extended litigation with the HRM.

Submitting the contract to either the Highway Review Committee or the Court would have exposed the underlying financial and commercial arrangements, as well as the repeated claims of adverse cost implications, to critical scrutiny.

Tender Truths

Lastly, there is now a series of new statements emerging from the HRM and its supporters which did not form part of the original concerns of that group. The most striking of these is that the highway contract was not tendered. That allegation can be found in the HRM’s International Media Release of 24th September 2014 on their Facebook page and on the AVAAZ campaign webpage, as well as in other media statements by various persons supporting the HRM.  That assertion is most alarming for two reasons.

Firstly, that is an entirely false assertion since the highway contract was tendered in 2010.  Consider this extract from the top of page 19 of The Armstrong Report

…On May 07, 2010, the closing date for this procurement, three proposals were submitted by 1.00 p.m. (from the 29 Request for Proposals issued)
The three entities submitting tenders were, in alphabetical order:

  1. China Railway Construction Corporation Limited;
  2. Construtora OAS Ltda (OAS); and
  3. GLF Construction Corporation…

On May 13, 2010 The NIDCO Evaluation Committee submitted its Final Report and recommended OAS as the Preferred Respondent, and so informed OAS by letter dated May 25, 2010…”

Secondly, those baseless assertions by the HRM show a lack of familiarity with the contents of The Armstrong Report.  The HRM has relied heavily upon The Armstrong Report in its recent campaigning, so one can only wonder at the implications of these repeated claims.
Given the public positions taken by the protagonists, it seems unlikely that mediation can be a real option.

The Armstrong Report is a serious advance in terms of our nation’s development, being to my knowledge the first Civil Society review of a State-sponsored project in the Caribbean region.  That Report would not have existed without Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh’s sacrifice, but the full benefits of the Report can only be realised by a proper and open consideration of its recommendations.  Only then can we gain from the increased public attention to the complex issues of national development and really start to learn the lessons.

National development is a real and inescapable challenge which will continue to evolve, whoever is in government.  That challenge can only be properly addressed by a fact-based approach adopted by all parties.

Money is the Problem

One of the big unanswered questions arising out of the recent ‘grand corruption’ cases in relation to the Public Sector remains – ‘How can we lawfully punish those wrongdoers who are looting our country?

Most discussions proceed along the lines of what I call the ‘bag of money‘ idea, in which we are looking for the actual stolen money.  The belief being that the stolen loot can actually be located and linked to the thieves, who will then face a harsh penalty.  My preferred solution is for full disgorgement of all the stolen monies as a starting-point, even if that is a remote goal.

In re-examining the issue practically, one has to ask “Why do we persist in these ‘pipe-dreams’, while ignoring the ‘low-hanging fruit’ all around us?”  So I am considering a new strategy for action on these critical issues.

‘Public Money’ is the term used to describe money due to or payable by the State, including those sums for which the State would be ultimately liable in the event of a default.  Public Money is sometimes called Taxpayers’ Money, it is our Money. Continue reading “Money is the Problem”

Everything but the Truth

On 1st June 2014, my former colleague and Business Guardian Editor, Anthony Wilson,  made a call for a ‘national debate’ on the proposed disposal of CLICO’s traditional portfolio of insurance business.  This is the first of my responses.

We are now entering the chaotic endgame of this epic CL Financial bailout fiasco. Some of the recent official statements are –

  • CL Financial’s other assets, including majority shareholdings in Republic Bank Limited and Methanol Holdings to be sold;
  • Full repayment of Public Money advanced in this bailout is expected.
  • CLICO’s traditional insurance policy portfolio is being professionally valued prior to its intended disposal;
  • Atrius Ltd., set up in 2013 as an alternative vehicle for CLICO’s continuing business, is to be effectively abandoned;
  • All of CLICO’s sales agents are to be terminated by the end of this month, June 2014;

jwala-howaiThe recent statements of both the Minister of Finance, Larry Howai, and the Governor of the Central Bank, Jwala Rambarran, could give the public an impression that this financial disaster has now been mostly resolved and we are on some kind of smooth track to a complete solution.

I remain sceptical as to the extent to which these problems have been resolved. The complete lack of detailed information, despite many requests by myself and others, leaves one to wonder just what is the basis for these serious decisions.

So, why am I saying this?

The money being used in the CL Financial bailout is ‘Public Money’, which we sometimes call tax-payers’ dollars. The leading learning from which we have to draw serious lessons is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament ‘Holding to Account‘, which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money’. In the Public Procurement campaign we expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money’ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money’ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and transparency than Private Money – see 2.23 on pg 15.

The contemporary, best-practice position in respect of the management of and accountability for Public Money being that the private sector rules are the bare minimum.

CL Financial Ltd. is a holding company for the Duprey empire, comprising major companies such as Republic Bank Ltd.; the Angostura Group; Methanol Holdings Trinidad Ltd; Home Construction Group of Companies; British-American Insurance Company Ltd; Lascelles-Mercado Ltd. (the Jamaican owners of Appleton and Wray & Nephew rums).

The last audited accounts for the CL Financial group were published on 18 November 2008, for the financial year ending 31 December 2007. The function of consolidated audited accounts is to give investors and management the necessary information with which to make decisions as to the future of the company.

Since 2009 I have been making requests under the Freedom of Information Act for these items of information –

  • Audited Accounts for the CL Financial group, or the basis of the various statements by successive Ministers of Finance;
  • Senate Briefing – details of the high-level briefing given to Independent Senators in September 2011 prior to the vote on the two new laws – one to allow the State to borrow an additional $10.7 Billion to settle the bailout and the Act to shield the Central Bank from the supervision of the Courts;
  • Payments – details of the payments to the various claimants under the terms of the bailout, in particular EFPA-holders;
  • Integrity Commission – confirmation of whether the Minister of Finance was requiring the CL Financial Directors to file declarations as required by law.

I have effectively withdrawn the last of those requests and am now in litigation against the Minister of Finance & the Economy for the first three items. The State has resisted those claims and the litigation continues. I have continued my quest on the compliance of CL Financial’s Directors with the Integrity in Public Life Act with the Integrity Commission, despite the serial delays and unresponsiveness which have beset those requests.

The question before us now is, “How can the State and our government be making these serious, long-term decisions in the absence of the basic information?” Put another way, “How can we continue to allow these serious decisions to be made in our name on our behalf and supposedly, for our benefit, while the State continues to withhold the basic information?

We have now entered the unimaginable territory of unexamined State power being exercised on an unprecedented scale in the pursuit of an unknown agenda.

This is the big picture and it is an ugly one.

Try to imagine the Board of a major, privately-owned, holding company proposing to its Shareholders that its major assets be disposed-of without the basic information, such as audited accounts or details of meetings with major stakeholders. Such an action would be seen as a gross violation of elementary norms of corporate governance and quite likely be rejected with swift, high-level dismissals. Yet, here we have our government (the Board of Directors) proposing these actions while refusing the reasonable requests of shareholders (citizens such as myself and others) for the rationale for and basic information underlying this process.

The fundamental, best-practice principle that Public Money is to be managed to and accounted for to a higher standard than Private Money has seemingly been rejected. Rejected by the Minister of Finance & the Economy and the Governor of the Central Bank.

That is the scale of this ‘thing without a name’. I tell you.

We, the citizens and taxpayers of this Republic, are being told that this unprecedented expenditure of Public Money of $25 Billion is to be resolved by a questionable process. The long-time saying is buzzing through my head – ‘What eh meet yuh, eh pass yuh‘.

Some points to remember in thinking about this issue –

  • CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement expires at the end of June 2014;
  • Asset Sales have continued with the unadvertised sales of Valpark and Atlantic Plazas;
  • No Interest was charged on the huge sums of Public Money spent to settle the indebtedness of the CL Financial group. The Board of Inland Revenue is a Division of the Ministry of Finance & the Economy and annual interest of 20% is charged to taxpayers who are late in their payments.
  • ‘Fit & Proper’ regulations have never been applied to this CL Financial collapse, as mandated by Central Bank’s regulations, despite my continuing calls. One has to wonder if the stage is being set for a return of Lawrence Duprey & his cohorts to our country’s high-level corporate lifestyle.

On 28 May 2014, the Business Express ‘Opinion‘ was entitled ‘Bringing closure to the CLICO debacle‘ and one of the statements in that editorial was stunning –

“…Thus far, Rambarran and Finance Minister Larry Howai have been forthcoming in their handling of the CLICO issue…”

I could not agree less. The taxpayers and citizens of Trinidad & Tobago are being abused in this entire process.

The Elephant in the Room – part 2

Port of Spain
Port of Spain

The recent announcements as to the upcoming completion of the ‘Government Campus Plaza’ offices in POS and the relocation of significant State agencies to central Trinidad are charged with meaning for the office sector. The previous article on this topic examined the huge quantity of State-owned incomplete office buildings in greater Port-of-Spain, the impact of that on the incomplete private office projects and the role of the ongoing process of decentralisation.  For the purposes of this discussion, greater POS is the area bounded by the sea to the South, the WestShore Clinic to the West, the Queen’s Park Savannah to the North and the Lady Young Road to the East. This is going to be a closer look at those aspects, so that we might discern how this issue is going to be settled. There are interlocking issues which have created the Elephant in the Room –

  1. the incomplete State offices, which will impact on the private office rental market as they are completed;
  2. the existing offices leased by the State, which need to be re-examined;
  3. the trend towards decentralisation, with its own profound implications.

To understand the issue requires the reconciliation of these large, seemingly-conflicting, elements.  The first is of course, the ‘sunk capital’ in terms of the State-owned, incomplete office buildings in POS.  The second is the existing leases the State holds from landlords of office space in POS.  The third element is the ongoing programme to relocate significant Ministries and State Agencies out of POS, generally to Central Trinidad.   I am also of the view that we need to enquire into the progress of the ongoing decentralisation process.  The details we need are – Which Ministries/State Agencies are to be relocated from POS?  What are the preferred locations for these offices?  What progress has been made on those relocations?   Has land been purchased/leased?  Has State land been allocated? Has a building been identified?  If a new building is to be constructed, what progress has been made in terms of project scoping, design, tendering and construction?  When are these new non-POS State offices anticipated to be occupied? The key enquiries in this matter would be –

  • State Leases

    We need to know exactly what offices the State is leasing and that info would include – the Ministry or State Agency in occupation; the addresses of the buildings; the size of the office space and its facilities; the number of carparking spaces; the rent paid; the service charge paid; the parties; the extent of the lease/tenancy agreement (when did the lease start and for how long was it agreed).  Apart from the info being presented in that type of detail for each rental, the overall picture will be instructive, as it will show the amount of space occupied  and at what cost. That information will in turn disclose the average (mean) rent per square foot paid.  Without details on the present arrangements for State offices, we cannot properly judge the alternatives.

  • Empty Buildings

    Alexandra PlaceAn additional enquiry has to be raised on the particular instances where the State is paying a rent for property which remains unoccupied.  The same details listed above need to be sought in those cases, but in addition, we need to be told why those properties are still unused.  A great concern was raised recently on #One Alexandra, which concern was mostly justified in my opinion, but the fact is that it is not the only one.  The public needs to be told the full extent to which the State pays rent for unoccupied offices.

  • Re-location progress

    On 2 April 2014, Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, gave some details in the Senate on these relocations –

    • Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training and some of its portfolio agencies are to be relocated to an ‘integrated administrative complex‘ 15-acre site north of the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size was given for the complex and construction was noted to have started in April 2014.
    • Ministry of Community Development is to be relocated to new offices at a 10-acre site near the Divali Nagar on the eastern side of the Uriah Butler Highway. No size or start-date was given for these offices.
    • Ministry of Food Production is considering relocating out of its long-established offices at St. Clair Circle, at the northern end of the Magnificent Seven strip, to either Chaguanas or Farm Road in Curepe.  That decision is pending.

    COSTATT2-595x340

    In the last week we have been told that the headquarters of COSTAATT, which is a part of UTT, is to be relocated from Melville Lane in POS to a location near the new Chaguanas Administrative Complex.   The main building occupied by COSTAATT is said to comprise 86,000sf, which is rented for $13.00psf – the total annual rent is $13.473M.  We were also told that COSTAATT’s POS operations require further rental space to the annual amount of $1.64M.  The new building is costing $168M inclusive of VAT, but no details were given as to its size or proposed completion date.  There are other relevant questions as to the convenience of the new location for students and faculty, but the fact that Chaguanas remains the fastest-expanding town in the country for the past 20 years is a part of that issue.

  • UDECOTT’s rollout

    governmentcampus
    Government Campus

    As per the previous article in this series, the State has built, but not completed, a total of 1,329,000sf of offices in POS.  According to Minister of Finance & the Economy, Larry Howai, on 5 May 2014 –  “Cabinet has approved a sum of approximately $1.5 billion to complete the Government Campus buildings in downtown Port-of-Spain,” said Howai. Once this is completed in the next 12 months I expect that the OSH problems being complained of at the BIR will be a thing of the past.”

    That Cabinet approval equates to $1,129 per sq ft, which seems high unless one considers that a significant part of that money is stated to be for remedial works and not strictly for fittings and finishes. The impending completion of those offices will be a sea-change in the fortunes of POS, since their occupation will force the landlords who were renting to the State to seek other tenants. In my estimation at least half the rented offices in the capital are occupied by the State, so that office market is largely driven by the public sector.

    I have heard many colleagues attempting to rationalise the coming change by reference to OSHA requirements which require more office space allocated to each worker and therefore those requirements would ease the impact of the impending new offices.  Another rationalisation I have heard is the one about how some landlords would be leaving their places locked-up so they will not actually be offering those on the market, so there will be no real effect and so on.

All of those are coping mechanisms for dealing with the reality of change on an epic scale.  This is the Manning Plan, in full effect.  To quote the CEO of leading private sector office developer, RGM, Gerard Darcy, in a May 2013 interview  – “…The Government Campus is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room because it is too large to ignore…”.  I expect a significant adjustment in office rent levels in POS in the medium term. The financial sector, especially those who have expanded their loan portfolios on the basis of the property boom, will need to take careful stock of the extent to which these rapidly-approaching changes imply severely impaired assets.

TSTT Inquiry

The Trinidad & Tobago Parliament is now conducting an Inquiry into TSTT and this article is an edited version of my submission to that Inquiry.

The Joint Select Committee’s (JSC) ‘Invitation for Written Submissions‘ was published on the TT Parliament website on Wednesday 23 April 2014, with the deadline for submissions set at 4:00 pm on Friday 2 May 2014. Only ten (10) days.

When one considers the far-reaching scope of the Inquiry as specified in its ten (10) objectives; the size and role of TSTT and the recent published reports as to the proposals for the State to relinquish a critical 2% of its share in TSTT, it is clear that these matters are of the utmost, long-term public importance. Placed in that context, the JSC decision to Inquire into these matters is commendable, but the time-frame is so short as to raise serious doubts as to the quantity and quality of submissions which could comply.

The deadline for submissions to this JSC Inquiry should be extended to allow a greater degree of public and stakeholder participation.

This submission is focused on the third of the Inquiry’s ten objectives –

  1. “ To determine the adequacy and effectiveness of the Company’s policies and procedures as it pertains to ensuring accountability, transparency and sound Corporate Governance in its operations and to determine whether these are being adhered to…“

It is my considered view that TSTT has engaged in a series of determined and long-range legal manoeuvres to place itself outside two of our Republic’s principal accountability and transparency laws. Those two laws are the Integrity in Public Life Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

The Integrity in Public Life Act

ictt-vs-tsttThe Integrity in Public Life Act established the Integrity Commission, which states its role to be “…to promote integrity, particularly among “persons in public life” – from the level of Ministers of Government and Members of Parliament to Permanent Secretaries, Chief Technical Officers and members of the Boards of Statutory Bodies and State Enterprises…

In 2005, the Integrity Commission applied to the High Court for an interpretation of its remit, the particular aspect of that matter which has a bearing on this Inquiry was specified at para 1. (2) of the Court’s ruling in that case –

“(2) What is the meaning of the expression ― “Members of the Boards of all Statutory Bodies and State Enterprises including those bodies in which the State has a controlling interest” in paragraph 9 of the Schedule to the Integrity in Public Life Act as amended?”

TSTT was granted leave to be heard on the application, according to paras 3 & 4 of that ruling.

In 2007, the High Court ruled, in relation to that aspect that the IPLA applied to Directors of State Enterprises and bodies in which the State had a controlling interest. The plain meaning of which was that TSTT’s Directors were required to comply with the provisions of the IPLA.

TSTT appealed that ruling, once again seeking to place its Directors outside the remit of the IPLA. That appeal was part of the deliberate, long-term series of legal actions by TSTT to challenge the stated intent of the Integrity Commission in relation to its Directors. The fact that the legal action proceeded that far is ample testimony to the support extended by the government (the Executive) to TSTT in this endeavour.

On 27 June 2013, the Appeal Court ruled that –

CONCLUSION

  1. TSTT is not a State Enterprise. The members of its Board are not subject to the Integrity Provisions.”

That ruling marked the successful completion of the TSTT campaign to remove itself from oversight by the Integrity Commission.

One could view these events as being the lawful exercise of various parties’ rights to seek the Courts’ interpretation of the law and the result as being the product of due deliberation.

That view is too limited, since the wider constitutional question is begged as to the true intent of Parliament in creating the IPLA. This situation represents nothing less than an open dismantling of the clear intentions of Parliament by the concerted actions of the Executive and its agents, together with the independent Integrity Commission.

On 6 October 2000, the Parliament passed the IPLA, but on 13 October 2000, the Parliament passed an amendment to the Schedule of the IPLA. The clear intention of the Parliament in approving that amendment was to include members of the Boards of State Enterprises and those bodies in which the State has a controlling interest.

The intended result of this TSTT litigation was to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight and that was achieved. The intended will of the Parliament was effectively frustrated by these legal manouevres.

The Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information Act 1999 is intended to give the public the right to obtain information about Public Authorities. The Freedom of Information Unit (within the Office of the Prime Minister) provides a list of Public Authorities which are subject to the provisions of the FoIA. TSTT is listed as the 145th on that list of 199 No. Public Authorities.

On 17 January 2006, Magdalene Samaroo filed suit against TSTT under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain publication of a copy of “…the letter from the Integrity Commission to the Directors of the Board of TSTT informing them that they are not required to give annual declarations…in accordance with the IPLA as amended…”.

The requested letter is itself astounding, given that it would appear to be a formal undertaking from the Integrity Commission intended to subvert the law requiring that Directors of State Enterprises submit declarations to the said Commission. As far as I know, the existence of that letter has never been officially denied.

On 19 July 2010, the High Court ruled that TSTT is a Public Authority (para 18) and further, that it was required to provide the requested documents (para 25).

TSTT filed an appeal against that ruling, which ended in a final hearing before the Appeal Court on 28 October 2013.

The appeal was compromised by consent, meaning that the parties agreed to end the litigation, so costs were not awarded by the Appeal Court. The Court, having accepted that the matter was at a close, went on to set aside the 2010 ruling by the late Justice Carlton Best. To cite the transcript of that final hearing

“…we can say that the appeal is compromised, we can set aside the decision of Justice Best and enter the Order that there be no Order to costs which does three things, or two things, at least: it meets your agreement; it removes the precedent that is creating some difficulty for you…” (emphasis mine)

The action of the Appeal Court in removing the difficult precedent facilitated TSTT in achieving its desired outcome of no transparency or accountability in relation to these issues.

Here again, we are witness to another determined effort by TSTT to seek the assistance of the Courts to frustrate the proper intentions of the Parliament.

I asked the Inquiry to recommend to Parliament that it –

  • Rectify the contradiction arising from the Appeal Court judgment in #30 of 2008 with respect to TSTT’s obligations under the IPLA. The Parliament must ensure that TSTT is formally and conclusively brought within Integrity Commission oversight, as is the case for all State Enterprises.
  • Ensure prompt publication of the Integrity Commission’s letters to the TSTT Directors exempting them from compliance with their obligations under the IPLA.
  • Ensure TSTT’s compliance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, as lawfully required for all Public Authorities.

There is now the unacceptable contradiction of a JSC of our Parliament convening this Inquiry into TSTT’s operations, in the proper exercise of its supervisory responsibility for that State Enterprise, while the Appeal Court has ruled that TSTT is not a State Enterprise for the purposes of the IPLA. As I complete this column, TSTT officials are live on the Parliament channel giving evidence to this Inquiry on Friday 9 May.

To add to the brew, Cable & Wireless, the 49% shareholder in TSTT, is proposing that the State relinquish 2% of its shareholding into an arrangement which would effectively end State control of this important national asset.

How can we find out what is the true position of TSTT in our nation’s affairs if our lawful rights to accountability and transparency into its operations are being eroded in this fashion?

This unacceptable situation is a challenge to the Parliament to reassert its proper authority in this matter.

G2G Policy

The current Government to Government (G2G) arrangements are a direct threat to our country’s fundamental interests.

The key element of the G2G arrangement is that a larger, more advanced, country will assist a smaller, less-advanced country by building or operating complex facilities which are beyond the reach of the smaller state.

One of the features the G2G arrangements have in common with the other large-scale projects is the high degree of secrecy with which the proposals are developed.  That secrecy raises doubts as to whether proper Needs Assessments are undertaken and as to the degree to which the views of citizens and stakeholders are sought, far less considered.  The fundamental issue as to the necessity for these projects is thus routinely sidelined, which is inimical to the public interest.

The main criticisms of the G2G arrangements are –

  • Sidelining of the elementary Tendering Process – the procurement process is effectively outsourced, since the more powerful country has the right to select the contractor;
  • Limited, if any, role for Local Participation in terms of labour, professionals, suppliers, or contractors;
  • Weak or nonexistent contract controls, due to the disparity in power between the parties;
  • Serious drain on Foreign Exchange;
  • Lack of the promised Transfer of Technology.

These arrangements have been heavily criticised in our country for almost 35 years, starting with Winston Riley’s October 1979 paper which identified many of the emerging problems.  As a result of that rising tide of criticism, an official enquiry was established by then PM, George Chambers.  In March 1982, the Ballah Report was published and the G2G programme was brought to a halt as a result of its dire findings.

Despite the learning, successive political administrations seem unable to resist the appeal of these G2G arrangements, so we have today’s situation as shown in the table.

Physical Development Projects via G2G – April 2014

Readers who access this article online can view the background info via the hyperlinks

COUNTRY PROJECT/S DATE AMOUNT COMMENTS
CHINA NAPA – North & South 2008
  • TT$818M as’final cost’
  • TT$207M for ‘remedial works’
NAPA (POS) completed in 2009, NAPA (San Fernando) completed in 2012stated final cost of both projects was $130M USD ($818M TTD). A further $207M was borrowed from EXIM Bank of China in 2011 for ‘remedial works‘ on NAPA (POS). Design & Build contractor was Shanghai Construction Group.
AUSTRIA San Fernando Teaching Hospital 2011 TT$739M Opened in January 2014
CANADA Penal Hospital 2012 Undisclosed Involvement with Canada’s nominated designer SNC-Lavalin was discontinued after serious concerns over that firm’s international banning for corrupt business practices.
CHINA
  1. Couva Children’s Hospital,
  2. three national sports facilities in Couva,
  3. three multi-sports facilities in other parts of the country.
2012 TT$1.8 Billion Loan Agreement signed in March 2013 with EXIM Bank of China, with Shanghai Construction Group selected as the contractor for all the projects.These projects include the swimming & cycling complex at Balmain and the sporting complex at Tacarigua Savannah in Orange Grove.
CHINA Lake Asphalt 2013 Undisclosed MoU, with a Confidentiality Agreement, signed on 30 May 2013 between Lake Asphalt T&T Ltd and a Chinese contractor. One of the official objectives of the February 2014 State visit to China, according to the Office of the PM, was “…Removal of asphalt from the Pitch Lake in greater capacities…”.
CHINA La Brea Port and seven industrial parks. 2014 US$750M (TT$4.83 Billion) Agreement signed in February 2014 to have these facilities built by China Harbour and China Construction.

The total cost of these projects is just under $8.4 Billion TTD.
That is the background, against which we must consider these further elements –

  • china-caricomRegional Strategy – As a leading nation within CARICOM, it is important for Trinidad & Tobago to give serious consideration to the role of the various bilateral G2G arrangements China is pursuing in our region and the implications of those arrangements on our aspirations for healthy regionalism.  I have been reading the February 2013 Research Note by UWI’s Dr. Annita Montoute – ‘Caribbean-China Economic Relations: what are the Implications?‘  The scope of Dr. Montoute’s research and her findings are sobering – at pg 115  “…CARICOM Trade with China is on the increase; however it is overwhelmingly in China’s favour…”.  The regional issue is a serious one to which we must address our energies.
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s Strategy – Now consider these statements by then Finance Minister, Winston Dookeran, at the September 2011 ceremony to sign the $207M TTD loan for NAPA (POS) ‘remedial works’ –

    “…Dookeran said it was now imperative that TT deepens its ties with China…’In the first instance China has now emerged as a very significant player, especially in light of the recent tremors and uncertainties in the world economy,’ he said. ‘China…is now an economy that we will have to rely upon. It is in that context that it is very appropriate and timely for Trinidad and Tobago to start to intensify its relationship with China.’..”

    Winston Dookeran is now Trinidad & Tobago’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

  • The Uff Report – The 42nd and 43rd recommendations of the 2010 Uff Report deal directly with this  issue –
    1. The Government’s policy on the use of foreign contractors and consultants for public construction projects should be transparent and open to review.
    2. Local contractors and consultants who compete with foreign companies should be provided with the same or equivalent benefits as enjoyed by those foreign companies and should be protected from unfair competition through matters such as soft loans…

    Uff was calling for the establishment of a national policy on this series of issues and the JCC has been requesting a consultation between government and stakeholders, so that a proper strategy can be developed in open collaboration. That would include labour, professionals, the State, the contracting sector and all the associated elements such as suppliers of building materials, financiers, skills training and so on.  The JCC wrote to the PM on this in April 2012, but to date there has been no response to our calls for those consultations in the national interest.

  • NAPA, again – The Minister of Culture, Dr. Lincoln Douglas, told the Senate on 8 April 2014 of the serious issues arising at NAPA (POS), with an estimated further $100M being required for more repairs.  It is not certain if the issues of disrepair are all due to inadequate maintenance, but it is unacceptable for such issues to have emerged for a structure less than 5 years old.
  • Shanghai Construction Group – Despite the bad record at NAPA, the selected contractor for the $1.8 Billion Couva Children’s Hospital and the other sporting facilities is the said Shanghai Construction Group.
  • Proposed Public Procurement Law – most alarmingly, Clause 7 of the proposed Public Procurement & Disposal of Public Property Bill 2014 specifically excludes Government to Government Arrangements and projects funded by International Financial Institutions from oversight.  That proposed exclusion is entirely unacceptable as it further jeopardises our national interest.

The PM has made a call for a National Conversation and this is one topic which needs addressing. Our country cannot continue exporting our jobs, capital and skilled people in favour of unexamined and undisclosed foreign policies.

The Elephant in the Room

The huge potential supply of State-built, unfinished office buildings in our capital is the ‘Elephant in the Room‘. There are potent elements at play here in terms of the viability of the long-term and large-scale investments which have been made in Port-of-Spain by private and public capital.

At this point, taking account of offices over 25,000 sf in size, there are over 1,500,000 sf of incomplete offices in our capital. This article will examine the likely outcomes for our capital and those investors as the various projects are completed.

Incomplete Port of Spain offices at February 2014 (Over 25,000sf)
Incomplete Port of Spain offices at February 2014 (Over 25,000sf)

The State has 1,329,000 sf of incomplete offices in POS and the private sector has 224,800 sf. The State has virtually seven times more incomplete offices than the private sector and that is the ‘Elephant in the Room’. This chart portrays the reality – the details are set out in the table below.

The legacy of the POS offices built during the previous administration is a matter which deserves serious consideration. The sheer volume of offices built by the State during the previous administration is sobering – 2.3M sf. Given that Nicholas Tower – that elliptical, blue tower on Independence Square – contains 100,000 sf, it means that the State built the equivalent of ‘23 Nicholas Towers‘ in our capital in that period of rapid development.

We also know that there was no attempt at public consultation or feasibility studies by the State or its agent, UDECOTT. At the Uff Enquiry, the Executive Chairman of UDECOTT, Calder Hart, admitted that a feasibility study had been done for only one of those projects. That project is the International Waterfront Centre (IWC), which comprises the two office towers of 890,000 sf, the Hyatt Hotel, New Breakfast Shed and car-parking/outdoor facilities. Hart also admitted, under oath, that the value of the land had been omitted from the viability study for the IWC, so it was a bogus exercise. The break-even rent is the amount which must be earned by a project to repay the cost of land, construction, professional fees and finance. The IWC, repeatedly boasted-of as UDECOTT’s flagship project, is not a viable project, since its break-even rent exceeds the highest rents now earned by A-class offices in POS.

The Parliament has now relocated there during the Red House repairs and renovations. A number of other Ministries and Public Bodies have also started to occupy those offices.

The Office of the Prime Minister is now in the new 75,000 sf building on St. Clair Avenue, opposite to QRC grounds.

The rationale advanced by the Manning administration for that surge in office construction in our capital is that it would free the State from the payment of large monthly rents to private landlords. Although I made several requests, I was never able to get the actual figures for the rents paid by the State in POS. My own familiarity with that market allowed me to estimate the average rent at that time (2007-2009) at about $8-9 per sf. The break-even rents of those new buildings exceeded $25 per sf, so the costs of those office projects would never be recovered. I have read reports that the estimated cost of the Government Campus Plaza, which is the largest element in the POS offices, was recently stated by UDECOTT’s Chairman, Jearlean John, to be of the order of $3.2 Billion.

We can reasonably estimate that the rate of rents paid by the State for office buildings has now increased since 2007, in terms of dollars paid per sf.

The completion of those State-owned office buildings is therefore a matter of the first importance, given the high carrying-costs. There is also the significant issue of the high opportunity cost of the State continuing to occupy rented offices alongside virtually-completed offices.
elephant tablet

Against this background, we are now seeing an active policy of decentralisation of POS offices by the present administration, with several Ministries and Public Bodies being relocated to south and central Trinidad. The decentralisation discussion is one which has been going on since the 1970s and it is an important issue to be pursued, in my opinion. That said, one has to wonder how is the decentralisation to be rationalised, given the existence of this over-supply of State-owned offices in our capital. That is a serious question which needs to be discussed if we are to achieve any proper resolution.

The completion of the State-owned offices is under the management of UDECOTT, the original developers, with recent disclosures from the Finance Minister of plans to sell the buildings and lease them back as a means of financing their completion. The terms of any such proposals would have to be carefully considered to avoid the mistakes and fraudulent behaviour of the past.

The completion and occupation of the State-owned office buildings in POS will pose an existential challenge to those private investors who have built offices for rent. The rental levels for offices in POS are likely to decline significantly, which will impact on the revenues of those investors.

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”

The Uff Bluff

Jearlean John. Photo courtesy Trinidad Guardian
Jearlean John, Chairman UDeCOTT

On December 11, I wrote ‘Invader’s Bay Review‘ in this space, calling for an immediate public review of that improper large-scale development being proposed on reclaimed State lands in west POS.  I also took the opportunity to make the point that there had been no consultation on that proposed development and that UDECOTT’s repeated public statements that its operations are now compliant with the Uff Report recommendations are false.

UDECOTT’s response was to place full-page advertisements in the three daily newspapers, on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 December, in an expensive attempt to refute my criticisms.  My letter to the editor, carried in this newspaper on the Sunday, put UDECOTT’s misleading advertisement in context and reaffirmed the continuing falsehood of their claimed compliance with the Uff Report.  The episode is recounted here.

There are several lessons one can draw from this exchange – the sheer hostility to the truth which is now becoming a disturbing ‘new normal‘ in our society; the invisible hand of the bureaucracy in devising large-scale developments, stated to be for the benefit of citizens, without citizen inputs; the inescapable reality that these obstructive forces operate across and within all our political administrations.

Sunity Maharaj wrote a fine overview of these burning issues in ‘Amandla!  Now listen to the people‘ in the 15 December Sunday Express.  In that article, Sunity detailed the development of a perverse consultation industry “Its specialty is in designing events that look like consultation, sound like consultation but do not actually involve consultation…”.

There is a serious challenge facing us here, since there is no will to implement the beneficial recommendations contained in the Uff Report, despite the repeated false promises.  The failure to implement those proposals is deeply detrimental to our society as it entrenches the colonial idea that development is not something which really concerns the people of this country.  Worse, the deceptive policy of politicians claiming to intend to do the right thing, while doing the underhanded thing, is imposing a neo-colonial reality.  The State has a duty to be exemplary in its conduct and for the State to fail to do so and to act deceptively in that failure, is to increase cynicism and instability in our society.

In addition to failing to implement the Uff Report recommendations, there was also another significant setback.   The Enquiry website – www.constructionenquiry.gov.tt – which held all of the proceedings and evidence, became inaccessible at the end of 2010, about 6 months after the Peoples Partnership electoral victory.

moore-volneyThe JCC has been pressing for the implementation of the Uff Report recommendations and the restoration of the Enquiry website.  Those efforts have ranged from the Attorney General, who directed us to the Minister of Justice, to the then Minister Volney who ignored our three letters on the matter – see http://www.jcc.org.tt/uff.htm.  When we pressed-on with Volney’s successor, Christlyn Moore, the exchanges were sobering.

The two previous Ministers of Justice – Volney and Moore – both claimed that the Uff Report recommendations were to be implemented by the impending Public Procurement legislation.  Quite apart from the inordinate delay in bringing these critical new laws into being, that claim is entirely false, since only one of the recommendations, the 56th, relates to new Public Procurement laws.  90 of the 91 recommendations could have been implemented by now with no need to get any new laws passed or any use of valuable Parliamentary time.  The JCC’s repeated offers to assist and advise in any working party for that purpose have also been ignored.  The implementation of those 90 recommendations would have greatly reduced the criminal theft and waste of Public Money with which we are now beset.  The failure to implement those recommendations is probably the largest single ingredient in the continuing decline in our ‘morality in public affairs‘.

Even worse is the steadfast refusal to reinstate the Uff Enquiry website.   There is no way to tell if the website was deliberately removed or if there was a mundane technical reason for its disappearance.  What we do know for sure is that there is solid official resistance to even offer a sensible explanation for the continuing refusal to reinstate.

It is critical for us to learn from our errors if we are to avoid a repetition and it is therefore important that we excavate those lessons so that they can be considered.  To fail to do that is to thwart the entire move to a ‘developed nation status’.  Our nation’s primary information needs to be properly documented and published so that anyone who wants to learn the lessons can do so.

The evidence in the Uff Enquiry offers a deep, unprecedented insight into the state of affairs in our country and the conduct of our substantial business dealings.  That information is first-class primary source material for research and teaching in critical fields such as Government, Finance, Engineering, Surveying, Planning, Economics, Sciences, Law and Management.  We cannot become a ‘learning society‘ if first-class primary information is suppressed.  It does not matter how many universities we build or how many pupils we certificate, the ignorance of our own primary information will frustrate the drive to a higher level of education.

On 26 March 2013, then Minister Moore replied to the JCC –

“…It is inappropriate to make available the evidence revealed in the Uff Enquiry at this time as they may ground future criminal enquiry…”

On 23 May, we invited the Minister to reconsider her position, pointing out that –

“…To quote from the final remarks of the Enquiry Chairman, Professor John Uff QC Ph.D. – “…Finally we would like to thank the Press for their continued and expert coverage of the Enquiry; and the public for their unflagging interest in the proceedings. There are few countries in the world where an Enquiry into the construction industry could fill a prime time television slot for over a year. For me it has been a unique experience and I am personally honoured to have had the opportunity, as I hope, to serve the interests of the construction industry and the people of Trinidad & Tobago…” There can therefore be no doubt that the entire proceedings of the Uff Enquiry were published widely…”

This is the Minister of Justice, claiming that our request to reinstate this invaluable website, would amount to ‘making the evidence available‘.  Evidence which had been widely televised, all day long and rebroadcast at night. I tell you.

The Minister promised to revert to us by the end of June 2013, but that reply never came.

So now UDECOTT’s stance is clearer, given the overarching policy of the State on these critical matters of public concern. I maintain that UDECOTT did not conform to the 17th Uff recommendation in its involvement in the Couva Children’s Hospital.  That recommendation is –

“User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made.”  (emphasis mine)

Procurement_NoticBut the current concern goes beyond the ongoing Couva Children’s Hospital, since UDECOTT is playing a leading role in the Invader’s Bay development. In December 2013, UDECOTT published full-page Requests for Proposals in the newspapers for Designers for Infrastructure Development of Invader’s Bay.  UDECOTT is seeking to hire a designer for the infrastructure element of this large-scale development which means that the selected designers would have to conform to the client’s instructions in preparing their plans.  The client’s instructions would have to be based on some kind of concept, proposal or outline.  That raises the obvious questions of when were these concepts, proposals or outlines conceived and by whom?  Most importantly, who approved these?  We know for sure that there has been no consultation with the public, user groups or other interest groups.

So, we are witness to yet another episode of large-scale development being undertaken, in this case by UDECOTT, with none of the promised consultation.

Hence my title – The Uff Bluff.

Invader’s Bay Review

There now needs to be a complete and open review of the Invader’s Bay matter. That is imperative if the public interest is to be safeguarded.

The catalogue of irregular dealings and improper procurement practice at Invader’s Bay has now grown so that we are facing an important moment of decision. At this point there has been no announcement as to an award of contract or grant of any lease, so the threshold of binding legal agreement has not been crossed. In investment language, we are at the ‘inflection point’, which is where the prudent investor has to make a decision to continue or abandon a course of action.

This is the exact moment we should be calling for an open review of this major public project, before any binding commitments are made.

The Commission of Enquiry is an often-used device to probe into matters of serious public concern. In relation to construction and property development, we have had recent CoEs into the Piarco Airport Project, UDECOTT, Land-Date and the Biche School Project, to name a few.

The public has a sceptical attitude to these Commissions, since they never seem bring the desired results in terms of arrests of prominent public officials or disgorgement of stolen monies. Many people dismiss CoEs as ‘talk shops’ set up to enrich lawyers, but I do not dismiss them as effective ways to serve the public interest. Despite the imperfections of the Enquiry process, including the fact that key witnesses can refuse to appear without incurring any serious penalties, there are real benefits. The main one, in my view is that a CoE allows us in the public to learn about major matters of public concern which would likely have remained hidden.

That is the reason we need to retain this process so that the wrongdoing of the past can be exposed, so that we can have the possibility of avoiding those in the future. The weak point of the process is that it always takes place after the crimes have been committed, so during the Bernard Enquiry we were learning about the already-constructed Piarco Airport Terminal. Too late to prevent the massive theft and waste of Public Money.

That is why we need to consider a shift in our approach to the question of enquiries into questionable public projects, since the process is a reactive one, completely unable to stem wrongdoing.

At the ‘inflection point’ now occupied by the Invader’s Bay project, we have an opportunity to examine this large-scale development before any significant expenditure of Public Money so that we can detect and deter wrongdoing. I am not yet settled in my mind as to exactly what type of review is best here, but whatever happens, it must be independent and committed to publication of its findings.

Some of the main issues which such an Enquiry or Review should examine are –

  • Consultation – The complete lack of consultation in this large-scale development proposal for our capital city would be addressed by the process. The land is vested in UDECOTT via a lease and that organisation has repeatedly claimed to have implemented the recommendations of the Uff Report. The 17th of those recommendations states “User groups and other interest groups should be properly consulted on decisions regarding public building projects, to ensure that relevant views can be expressed at the appropriate time and taken into account before decisions are made”. Given the swiftness with which the Couva Children’s Hospital – which is being executed via UDECOTT – emerged in March 2012, we know for sure that those recommendations are not being observed by UDECOTT. Even looking beyond UDECOTT and its conflicting ‘versions’, we can see the contradictory actions of the Ministry of Planning & Sustainable Development supporting a public consultation process at King’s Wharf in San Fernando, yet refusing to hold public consultations on Invader’s Bay in Port-of-Spain.
  • Environmental Concerns – The Invader’s Bay lands are extensive waterfront holdings in State property. They proper development of those lands must take full account of drainage issues and the impact on the environment, including the marine-life issues arising in any waterfront project. I have before me the EMA’s letter of 14 November, which confirms that there have been no requests or Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) applications for the Invader’s Bay lands. In addition, the EMA records provided to me show that the most recent application for a CEC at Invader’s Bay was in January 2007. It is not possible to obtain planning permission without EMA approval, so there are other implications of the lack of these approvals.;
  • There is no link between the RFP and the other three strategic plans for the POS area. That violates the fundamental notion of strategic planning in that existing plans are ignored for no given reason. Piecemeal planning and development is detrimental to the Public Interest. So, who was the author of that RFP and who in the Ministry of Planning approved such a document?;
  • The Request for Proposals (RFP) published by the Ministry of Planning in August 2011 seeking Design-Build proposals for the development of these lands specified an entirely inadequate 6 weeks for submissions. Whose recommendation was it to truncate the development process in this fashion?;
  • The evaluation rules were only published after the closing-date for the tenders, so how did the proposers know what criteria to meet? That late publication is in breach of proper tender procedure, so the entire process is voidable and therefore illegal.
  • Legal Instructions and advice – Also critical to any review process would be the details of the legal advice sought and obtained at various stages of this process. The Ministry is adopting a bizarre, secretive stance in which the advice is claimed to vindicate their actions ‘thus far’, yet that legal advice is being suppressed. The JCC has taken legal action to challenge that unacceptable secrecy in this most public matter.;
  • Infrastructure – The 2014 Budget discloses a $50M allocation for infrastructure at Invader’s Bay, which of course is only a small part of this substantial cost. In the absence of environmental or planning approvals, it is difficult to establish the cost for proposals of this nature, since a design cannot be completed.
  • Allegations of squatting – Finally, we turn to one of the most vexed phrases in our lexicon where land is concerned. The issue of squatting, which is the unauthorised occupation of land not in your ownership. From the sequence of images shown below, we can trace some elementary conclusions:
    1. the first (left) is a map/plan, which uses a dotted line to illustrate the boundary between the Invader’s Bay property and adjoining Port Authority lands to the north…the physical boundary is occupied by a watercourse/ravine and those ‘Port’ lands are occupied by MovieTowne/PriceSmart, a green play park and the Marriott/BHP-Billiton building
    2. the second (middle image) is an aerial photo which shows the Invader’s Bay land bare of vegetation
    3. the third (image at the base) is an aerial photo which shows the Invader’s Bay land re-vegetated with mangrove and what appears to be a bare excision, immediately south of MovieTowne’s western carpark…that is a gravel-paved area, which is south of the watercourse I mentioned earlier…it is accessed via a basic bridge from the said MovieTowne carpark.

    (Click on images to expand)

    I am asking whether MovieTowne has a lease, licence or tenancy agreement to occupy those lands. Does MovieTowne pay any rent, licence fee or charge of any sort for the use and occupation of those lands? What action is UDECOTT taking on this? What action is the Commissioner of State Lands taking on this? It would be unacceptable for an entity in breach of State policy to benefit from the decisions of the State. I hope that is not what we are seeing here.

We need a full, independent and open review of this Invader’s Bay matter. Do you agree?