Integrity Inquiry

ic-logo

“…The question really is integrity, and if he or she does not have it he or she should not be a Commissioner in the first place. The simple fact is that try as we might, we cannot legislate for integrity…”

From Press Release of 21 June 2013 by then Integrity Commission Chairman, Ken Gordon, in response to strong criticisms of his meeting privately and alone with opposition Leader, Dr Keith Rowley.

Once again we are beset by what appears to be yet another fiasco at the Integrity Commission, so Ken Gordon’s fateful words echo in my mind.

Given the current political season, there is every temptation to discuss this crisis as being caused by the impending election, together with either the improper behaviour of the present Peoples Partnership government or the ‘PNM operatives’ who infest the public service. You can take your pick from those prevailing theories, but I think these recent and alarming events were preceded by earlier ones. So much so that when the entire situation is placed in context, we are facing a troubling scenario in terms of the extent to which we can trust high public officials.

The current crisis is serious enough grounds to require a full Commission of Enquiry into the conduct of the Integrity Commission since the 2000 revisions to the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA).

I do not agree with those who call for the abolition of the Integrity Commission, since it is critical that any progressive society establish what are its aspirations and work towards those. Despite the social, religious and legal restrictions on murder, robbery and rape, those acts occur all the time. That sobering truth is no reason at all to retreat from putting strong legal and social prohibitions in place. Society needs laws and institutions to promote its values, so I am not calling for any move towards abolition of the Integrity Commission at all.

Such a Commission of Enquiry is necessary to clear the air on strategic issues and its Terms of Reference would cover aspects such as –

General

  • What is the record of the Integrity Commission in deterring corrupt and improper behaviour by Public Officials?
  • To what extent would the amendments to the IPLA, as proposed by the Ken Gordon-led Commission in its 2012 Annual Report, be effective in improving the Commission’s performance?
  • Given their growing importance of Public Private Partnerships in large-scale projects and commercial enterprises, to what extent should the IPLA apply to those organisations.
  • Apart from the legal framework as outlined above, how can the limited resources of the Integrity Commission be best applied to promote ‘Integrity in Public Life’?

The specific issues

  • 19th October 2004 – The Integrity Commission wrote to then PM Patrick Manning seeking detailed instructions on how to handle Ganga Singh’s complaint against Dr Keith Rowley. According to the ruling in the case brought by Dr Rowley against the Commission – “…The Court does not accept the Integrity Commission’s explanation as to why it wrote to the Honourable Prime Minister on the 19th October, 2004, to ascertain whether an inquiry was to be undertaken and if so, the names of the persons to man the enquiry and their terms of reference…”. The public needs a full and proper explanation as to how and why the Integrity Commission took such an extraordinary decision.
    gordondeane-johnmartin
  • The TSTT exemption – In 2006 the Commission was alleged to have written to TSTT Directors to confirm that they were exempted from filing declarations as required by the IPLA. That letter was the subject of Freedom of Information litigation at both High Court and Appeal Court levels – Magdalene Samaroo vs TSTT CV 2006-0817 and CA 180 of 2010 – and it is fundamental that at no point was the existence of that letter denied. A simple denial would have readily defeated the request for that letter since the Court cannot order publication of a document which simply never existed. The matter was ‘compromised’ by agreement between the parties at an Appeal Court hearing on 28 October 2013, which means that both sides agreed to discontinue the lawsuit. There is obviously something substantial and improper at work here, so an Enquiry can force publication of that suppressed correspondence.
  • The TSTT litigation – Since 2005 TSTT has been in prolonged litigation to remove its Directors from Integrity Commission oversight. The High Court ruled in 2007 that TSTT’s Directors were required to file declarations under the IPLA. That judgment was reversed in the Appeal Court ruling of 27 June 2013 that TSTT was not a State Enterprise, with its Directors therefore not required to file declarations to the Integrity Commission. Upon careful reading of those judgments it seems clear that the Integrity Commission offered little, if any, resistance to the TSTT challenge. This sustained collaboration between the Executive, the supposedly-independent Integrity Commission and the Public Private Partnership also known as TSTT is nothing less than remarkable, given the challenges in getting agreement on important and beneficial matters. A proper account is also required for how and why the Commission agreed to this course of action.
  • The 2009 collapse – The newly-appointed Commission collapsed in early 2009 due to disastrous appointments by then President Max Richards. One of the several outstanding issues at that time was the strong complaint from Justice Zainool Hosein who claimed that President Richards had promised him the position of Deputy Chairmanship and then reneged on that commitment. President Richards proceeded on an extended leave before deigning to make a public statement on 29th May 2009 which amounted to a stunning ‘I don’t have to explain myself’. An important part of this Enquiry would be to establish just how this series of unfortunate appointments were made.
    max-and-martin
  • CL Financial group of companies – The Commission has never explained its failure or refusal to seek declarations from the Directors of the CL Financial group of companies, which have been under State control since June 2009. I have personally checked and those Directors do not submit declarations to the Commission. CL Financial is the largest by far of the ‘bodies under the control of the State’, yet the Commission has not exercised its lawful duties in respect of proper oversight, so a full and public examination is necessary.
    3-wise-monkeys
  • Emailgate Fiasco – The Commission’s role in this charged affair certainly needs a full, public Enquiry if trust is to be restored. Fixin’ T&T claimed, in its 7 May 2015 letter to the Commission, that the PM had claimed to have had possession of certain files ‘containing information which the IC had requested from Google’. The Commission was asked in that letter whether it was aware of any information being passed onto the PM or any other person. The Commission’s response on the same day was remarkable, in that there was neither confirmation or denial of any information being passed to anyone else. That reticence on such a critical point is even more remarkable when one examines the Commission’s letter of 19th May 2015, which confirmed the end of its ‘Emailgate’ investigation. The first part of that letter states that the provisions of S.35 (1) & (2) of the IPLA prohibits any release of information unless charges are to be recommended. On the one hand, the Commission declines to say if information was released to the PM or anyone else, yet, on the other hand, it stresses the legal rules against such a release. So what is really happening here? What is more, the resignation of two of the IC’s five Commissioners can only add to the sense of confusion in the air. The first resignation came from Dr Shelly Ann Lalchan, supposedly for personal reasons, but the clear statements from the second Commissioner to resign, former Deputy Chairman, Justice Sebastien Ventour, are worrying to say the least. Can it be true that the media was the first place the Commissioners were made aware of that important letter of the 19 May? If that is indeed so, it is clearly unacceptable for a public body to conduct itself in that fashion.

A final issue for an Enquiry to consider would be the role of whistleblowing within bodies such as the Integrity Commission. On the one hand the Commission could not perform its work without reports from people who are reporting suspected wrongdoing, probably in breach of their employers’ rules, yet the very officers within the Commission are prevented from reporting wrongdoing in its own operations. That is the true irony at work and a proper Enquiry will be able to take evidence and make recommendations to deal with this.

A full and urgent Commission of Enquiry into the Integrity Commission is now required.

Advertisements

Our Land – The Caroni case Part 2

The previous article outlined the size of the Caroni lands and some of the intended uses to which that land would be put. I contrasted the positions taken by UWI in 2003 and my own from 2004, with the current situation.

UWI’s July 2003 Position Paper – ‘A Framework for National Development: Caroni Transformation Process‘ – was developed by diverse contributions, mostly made at a special seminar on 27 April 2003. At that time there were strong rumours that the then PNM government, headed by Patrick Manning, intended to close Caroni (1975) Ltd. The expressed fears at the time were that PNM supporters, friends, family and financiers would all benefit from a ‘land grab’. Caroni was a State Enterprise which had made heavy losses in the virtually 30 years since it had been purchased from its British owners, sugar giant Tate & Lyle.

The UWI Seminar was most timely since their Position Paper was issued in July 2003 and presented to the then Minister of Agriculture, Land & Marine Resources, John Rahael, in September 2003. Caroni (1975) Ltd was closed on Emancipation Day 2003.

The UWI study took a long-range view of the Caroni issues and as such it is an important document which set a framework for these Caroni lands. The land area was determined, at Appendix 1, to be 74,780 acres. At page 30, ‘Consultation’ is specified as the first requirement for the development of these lands.

The UWI Position Paper sets out its Recommendations at Chapter Eight on pages 71 & 72 –

  1. Govt to prepare & publish a comprehensive plan for Caroni.
  2. Govt to convene an urgent National consultation on the Caroni resources and the published plan.
  3. Any departure from the National Physical Development Plan be done through the legally- stipulated process which includes bringing those proposals to Parliament.
  4. That all terms and conditions for the leasing and tenure of the Caroni lands be detailed to the public in a public document, to meet the requirements of transparency.
  5. That Govt establish a skills bank so that the Caroni workers would have choices as to how they would be integrated in future planned enterprises.
  6. That the State establish an independent Screening Committee to stringently screen potential investors who seek Caroni lands as their location of business.
  7. That the Ministry of Agriculture Land and Marine Resources establish an independent authority charged with the implementation of plans for agriculture and agriculture-related industries.
  8. That Govt establish a comprehensive system of water control on the Caroni lands, in order to facilitate irrigation, as an essential pre-condition for the establishment of agricultural enterprise on the Caroni lands.
  9. The the Govt establish a Lease Income Funding Enterprise System and embark upon a comprehensive joint funding venture with companies in the heavy industrial sector, in order to fund national platforms for development, such as the following ones proposed by this Position Paper:
    1. A Botanical Plan
    2. A Technological & Vocational Institute
    3. A Buffalo Reconstruction program
    4. A Model Program for Untenured Residents
    5. A Food Park Plan
    6. A Research and Development Mandate, for the University of the West Indies and other research institutes in order to support Agro-Industrial Development.

As far as I am aware, none of those sensible recommendations have been implemented.

Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment
Dr. the Honourable Roodal Moonilal, Minister of Housing and Environment

After Caroni was closed, there was a serious debate in the Parliament – here is Dr Roodal Moonilal MP, speaking in the Agricultural Census Order debate on Friday, 14 May 2004

“…We want to challenge the Government yet again, as we did with the Member for Port of Spain North/St. Ann’s West to come to the House and bring the plan for Caroni (1975) Limited to the House. Let us debate their plan for Caroni (1975) Limited…” (pg 601)

Chandresh Sharma MP, speaking in the same debate (pg 637)

Chandresh Sharma MP
Chandresh Sharma MP

“…Mr. Speaker, I was talking about UWI ’s recommendations based on the Caroni (1975) Limited lands that say there should be no land grabbing. These qualified minds thought of the process and they have looked at what obtains in the Government. Some of the best agricultural lands in this country were taken by the PNM —Aranguez and Trincity—and some of the best sugar came from there, and also cocoa in the earlier days. They built houses to secure PNM votes. They must not forget that the East-West Corridor—stretching from Chaguanas to Arima—has 14 seats, which the PNM hopes to control all the time. The seats that they do not control are the ones involved in agriculture like Barataria/San Juan, St. Augustine, St. Joseph, and Tunapuna would return to us soon. So they took the best agricultural lands and built houses on them. The thinkers saw the PNM at work…”

Also –

“…I have just identified some of the thinking from the University Position Paper which is A Framework for National Development Caroni Transformation Process produced by UWI in July 2003. It is instructive to note that to date the Government has not responded to any of the proposals obtained in this document. This is another clear demonstration of how they intend to treat with agriculture and those who are involved in agriculture…” (pg 638)

So, the UNC’s key speakers were insisting, in 2004, that the UWI plan must be considered.

It is striking to consider the identity of some of the Contributors listed at page i of the UWI Position Paper –

  • Winston Dookeran (then an MP, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, after serving as Minister of Finance)
  • Dr Roodal Moonilal (then an MP, now Minister of Housing and Urban Development)
  • Rudranath Indarsingh (then President of the All Trinidad General Workers’ Trade Union Union, now Minister in the Ministry of Finance)
  • Professor Clement Sankat (then at the Engineering Faculty, but now UWI Principal)
  • Dr Asad Mohammed (then a UWI academic, now Chairman of the National Planning Task Force)

It seems clear to me that the Caroni lands were identified as critical national resources which needed an urgent, strategic intervention from our leading thinkers to preserve the Public Interest. That UWI Position Paper is extremely important for our long-term collective interests. Sad to say, but it seems to have been sidelined and forgotten, just like the 1992 Land Policy.

What is more, we do not have any clear account as to what happened to those Caroni lands in either the period between 2003 and the PP’s election victory in May 2010, or the period between May 2010 and now.

After one time, is really two times.

UWI must, as a matter of urgency, reconvene a seminar to examine what has happened to the Caroni lands. That is imperative.

Next, I will consider the role of EMBD and the LSA in developing our lands, particularly the Caroni area.

SIDEBAR : The SIS episode

Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources
Hon. Jairam Seemungal, MP. Minister of Land and Marine Resources

One of the controversial episodes arising recently in relation to Caroni land is the occupation of 35 acres of land at Couva by SIS Ltd, the contractor company linked to many controversial State projects. There were claims by farmers who had been in occupation of the land that SIS had put them off the site before fencing it, with further statements by the Commissioner of State Lands (who has responsibility for management of State Lands) that SIS did not have a tenancy for that land and were in illegal occupation. To add to the brew, the Minister of Land & Marine Resources, Jairam Seemungal, was reported in the Trinidad Express newspaper on 12 March 2015 as denying that there was no agreement for SIS to occupy that land. When asked what were the terms of that lease or tenancy, the Minister is reported to have said –

“…When you enter into an agreement the arrangement in the agreement itself is private, the State land is State land but when you enter into an agreement when the Commissioner enters into an agreement or anybody enters into an agreement with any person whatsoever then the process itself whatever documentation all these things inside of the agreement those become a private matter unless it is registered in the Ministry of Legal Affairs where one can go and do a search…”

A private agreement for Public Lands. I tell you.

To crown-off the entire episode, the Prime Minister told Parliament, on Friday 13 March 2015 –

“…I have spoken to the hon. Minister of Land and Marine Resources. He has indicated that at no time did he state that lease or other agreements with regard to state lands entered into between SIS and the Government is a private matter and therefore should not be disclosed…”

Complete denial. What is clear is that there is a serious hostility to the truth on display here. Simply appalling.

Riding the Dragon

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

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

The role of Enquiries

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

The role of the Chinese contractors

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

Culture of non-enforcement

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

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

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

The role of targets

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

SIDEBAR: The Outline Timeline

This is only an outline, but it is instructive –

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

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

SIDEBAR: Uff’s understanding

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

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

At page 271 –

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

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

Integrity Reflections – the background

SIDEBAR: THE MEANING OF THE LAW

“…legislation must be followed or driven by will. Laws are just what they are, convoluted and meaningless blocks of text until they are made alive/and relevant by human effort, human with a reasonable degree of collective/societal rectitude…”

—Quote from one of the several FaceBook convos emerging from last week’s column.

It was alleged, in a 2006 lawsuit (CV 2006-0817), that the Integrity Commission wrote to the Directors of TSTT to exempt them from filing declarations as required under the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA). The existence of that letter was never denied and that litigation ended by compromise at an Appeal Court Hearing on 28 October 2013.

It seems improper for any Public Authority to issue a letter which negates the law. I have on several occasions requested that the Commission publish the 2006 letter, but to no avail. Given the inaction on my complaint in respect of CL Financial’s Directors, these questions arise:

  1. Was that TSTT letter an isolated episode?
  2. Have there been other unspoken compromises in relation to the oversight of the Integrity Commission?

This article gives the detailed background to the Integrity Commission’s inaction in relation to the CL Financial Directors. At the very least, the facts in this matter speak to a severe lack of focus on the critical aspects of the Commission’s role to secure good standards of integrity in Public Life. It is my view that this is a matter of the first importance on which the Commission’s inaction could only have been detrimental to our collective interests. Continue reading “Integrity Reflections – the background”

Public Procurement Priorities

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

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

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

CL Financial – Bait & Switch

“They’ve got twelve Aces up their sleeve!
So who the Hell can we believe?”
—Rudder, David Michael. “Back to the Same Ole Same.” The Autobiography of The Now. Lypsoland, 2001. Used with permission

The CL Financial bailout seems to be entering its end-game, with repeated claims from the Minister of Finance that the recovery of the $25 Billion of Public Money spent is now on the cards. The consistent failure or refusal to publish any audited accounts and my ongoing research are telling. We are witness to yet another ‘Plot to Pervert Parliament’, this time it is the biggest project to ever hit this country. The CL Financial bailout.

Plots to Pervert Parliament

In January 2013, I identified the first of these, otherwise known as the ‘S.34 Fiasco’, which of course led me to the CLF Bailout Perversion, committed in January 2009 when our country was presented with its largest-ever public expenditure. The original bailout, presented to our Parliament, as a fait accompli, was the original Plot to Pervert Parliament.

I have come to the sobering conclusion, after much research and consideration, that the Colman Commission is not ever going to provide the details we were led to believe it would. I am now of the view that once again we have been misled and bamboozled by our Parliament. Yet another sick trick, a third ‘Plot to Pervert Parliament’.

The rationale stated for the Colman Commission of Enquiry is in serious conflict with the terms of reference for and consequently, the conduct of that Commission. This article will detail those assertions and show how the public interest is once again being subordinated to powerful private interests.

To understand this crime, one must take a stern view of dates and time.

  • 30 January 2009 – The bailout is announced at a Press Conference on Friday 30 January 2009 at the Central Bank. At that time, we were told that the estimated cost was about TT$5 Billion.
  • 12 June 2009 – Ministry of Finance signs the ‘CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement’ which, for the first time, discloses that shareholders’ interests were to be specifically protected.
  • 8 September 2010Winston Dookeran’s first budget statement as Minister of Finance, following the Peoples Partnership electoral victory in May 2010, was notable since Dookeran announced a dramatic policy shift. The entire CL Financial bailout was declared to be the first of the ‘great uncertainties’ to be resolved. Dookeran outlined the problem before reducing the rate at which Public Money would be paid for this bailout. A huge storm of protest erupted, with several ‘Depositors and Shareholders groups’ emerging to represent those interests. With Dookeran isolated and the government under mounting pressure from these new protest groups, laws were swiftly drafted to stifle the protestors’ legal options.
  • 1st October 2010The PM’s historic address to Parliament on 1 October 2010  at which the Commission of Enquiry was announced. Most notable was the PM’s outrage at the mystery of the bailout – at pgs 25-26 –

    “…The $5 Billion has been spent—we are advised—to repay matured  EFPA policies in an ad hoc and unstructured manner where payment arrangements were entered into based on levels of funds invested. What criteria did you use to repay investors? Whom did you choose to pay? How were they chosen? These questions need to be answered. Because if it is today after the $7.3 Billion, all these EFPA people, the policy group and so on, they are out there, where is their money? Where is their money? Did you have a priority listing of who should be paid? Why did you go—and you are now crying crocodile tears about trade unions, credit unions, the poor man and the small man—why did you not pay them first? Why did you not pay them first? Where did that $7 Billion go? We need those answers, Mr. Speaker. We deserve those answers. The taxpayers need to know. Because when a parent  has to buy school books and bags to send his/her children to school but they have to pay tax out of the little money, they need to know where that money has gone…Where, how and why; we need to know…”

    The main argument made by the PM was that this was a case which needed serious investigation to establish what had caused this huge collapse and where had over TT$7 Billion of Public Money gone. I could not agree more.

  • 17 November 2010 – The Colman Commission with its Terms of Reference published in the Trinidad and Tobago Gazette. Those were divided into two limbs, causes and consequences. The first to examine the causes of the crisis and the second to make recommendations for prosecutions or other policy changes to prevent a repetition of the crisis.
  • In September 2011, the Parliament voted unanimously to pass two laws related to the CL Financial bailout. The first was to permit the Minister of Finance to borrow a further TT$10.7 Billion to fund the bailout and the second was to grant the Central Bank, which was administering the bailout on government’s behalf, immunity from any legal challenge. For those who consider these assertions of mine to be harsh, just look at Winston Dookeran’s closing words to the Senate on 16 September 2011 –

    “…I just want to give you the assurance which I gave to the Lower House when we debated this, that already the Ministry, along with the Central Bank and Clico, have begun the preparation of a public document—many questions that are still to be answered—to provide the necessary information. In addition to that, we did present to the hon. Senators, for those who afforded us the opportunity to accept our invitation, a document that is in the vicinity of 57 pages as of now, outlining all the necessary information that led to the story that assess what is the current challenges and why the proposals to go forward have been put forward. This document, I assure you, along with the questions and answers, will be converted into a simple, easy to read, hopefully, document for the sake of establishing that this Parliament has mandated us to put this as an anchor document for the purposes of evaluating our performance in the future…”.

    I requested that document via the Freedom of Information Act but it was not provided, which is why my litigation started.

In the course of recent research it became clear to me that the PM’s outraged demands for detailed information as to how the huge sums of Public Money spent in the bailout had been discarded, just like a flimsy Carnival Costume. At no point in its Terms of Reference was the Colman Commission required to examine the details of the actual Public Money spent on the bailout. A new species of lie is born here in T&T, once again…we used to have one called the ‘White Lie’ in those bad-old-days, now we have the ‘Bright Lie’. Right up in our face, as the Parliament is told one thing, with an entirely different thing being done. The Carnival was over, but the Ole Mas was now starting.

One can imagine the ebb and flow as these public promises were neutered in private discussions. Reasons are never given. I suspect that the influence of party financiers and voting blocks was a great element in this travesty. The public right to know how and why these vast sums of Public Money were spent is obviously of low priority for the highest public officials in this Republic.

Truth has a Power all of its own. At this point, in litigation against the Ministry of Finance for that information – the Ministry is represented by a five-member team headed by former AG, Russell Martineau SC and CL Financial is represented by three attorneys. Something resembling legal overkill to prevent publication of information which the PM told the Parliament it was her intention to unearth. Information which then Finance Minister Dookeran assured the Parliament he was compiling into a public document. Another writer has labelled the situation – ‘Afra, the Deviant‘. I tell you.

At every turn, the public interest has been subordinated to secretive private interests. The Courts are literally the last refuge to uphold the lawful rights of the public to obtain detailed information on these matters of the highest importance.

Accountability Calamity

Safeguard Status of query
Audited accounts for CL Financial? NONE
Details of Management accounts, Estimates, Drafts or any figures used by Ministry of Finance? NONE
Details of official briefing to Independent Senators in September 2011? CLAIMED TO BE EXEMPT
Details of Public Money paid out to people and institutions owed money by CL Financial? NONE
CL Financial is now under State control, so do its Directors comply with the Integrity in Public Life Act? NOT ACCORDING TO MY EXAMINATION OF INTEGRITY COMMISSION RECORDS.
Do we understand why the CL Financial group is enjoying this beneficial exemption from the lawful obligation to file declarations? NO WORD YET FROM THE INTEGRITY COMMISSION.

All of the usual integrity, accountability and transparency safeguards have been disconnected. All.

The Code of Silence rules.

Reality Check

Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie
Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie

After a flurry of attempted explanations from the Minister of Planning & Sustainable Development, Dr. Bhoe Tewarie, as to the real meaning of the High Court’s 14 July ruling on the Invader’s Bay matter, the State has now appealed that ruling and applied for expedited hearing of the matter while having the judgment stayed.

What that means is that the State is asking the Court to agree an extension of the Stay of Execution until the appeal is decided, so that the requested information could be withheld while the case is being heard.  Presumably, the State has asked for a speedy hearing so as to avoid any impression of them encouraging needless delay in this matter of high public concern.

This article will focus on the three critical findings in the judgment.  I will be examining Dr. Tewarie’s statement to Parliament on Friday 18 July, alongside the facts and the actual High Court ruling.

  1. Legal Professional Privilege

    The very first point to be made in relation to this is that the reason given by the State for refusing the JCC’s request for this information was not originally ‘legal professional privilege’.

    That reason for refusal was only advanced after the litigation started, literally arising out of the very briefcase of the State’s attorney, on his feet before Justice Seepersad on 4 December 2012.

    We contested the State’s late introduction of these new reasons for refusal, but the Court ruled at para 37 –

    1. The Court…is of the view that the Defendant is entitled to rely upon additional reasons with respect to the refusal to disclose the said information…

    The question of whether the legal opinions are privileged was ruled-upon by Justice Seepersad –

    1. It cannot be disputed that the said information requested, is information that would ordinarily attract legal professional privilege…

    So that issue is not in dispute, in the Court’s mind at least.  I continue to hold the view that it is highly-questionable to easily accept this notion of client confidentiality, given that the State ought to be acting on our common behalf.

    In fact, no evidence was tendered nor was any real case made by the State as to the difficulties which would result from publishing the requested information.  None.  It is only now, with a ruling in the JCC’s favour, that we are getting these positions being advanced.

    For the record, the JCC’s original request under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) was for the legal advices and the letters of instruction.

    Consider this, from Dr. Tewarie’s opening statement –

    The very first point that I wish to make with regard to the high court ruling is that there is no issue of disclosure here. There is no issue of failing to disclose or of wanting to withhold disclosures. The Government is not seeking to prevent disclosure of any matter nor is the Government fearful of making any disclosure of fact.

    The only issue we are contesting is whether the advice of an Attorney to his/her client, which is generally regarded as privileged information, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Freedom of Information Act or whether, since it is a privileged exchange of information between Attorney and Client, it is exempt from the Act…”

    If that is truly the case, with the State’s only concern being the possible adverse impact of releasing the legal advices, the question has to be – ‘Why not publish the letters of instruction now?

  2. Waiver of Privilege

    A significant aspect of the case was as to the impact of Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate on 28 February 2012, in reply to a question by then Independent Senator Dr. James Armstrong – see pg 716 of Hansard –

    The answer to (c); the publication of the request for proposals was not the subject of nor required to be in conformity with the Central Tenders Board Act. Advice to this effect was received from the Legal Unit of the Ministry of Planning and the Economy, and subsequently from the Ministry of the Attorney General…

    The point being advanced by the JCC was that a statement like that one, which purports to publicly disclose the very essence of the advice, has the effect of extinguishing the State’s right to suppress the document as being exempted.

    The Court ruled clearly on this –

    1. The gist and nature of the legal advice was in fact revealed when the Minister’s response was made and this amounted to conduct that is inconsistent with the stance that the said legal advice is exempt from being disclosed under the Act by virtue of section 29(1)…

    So, the High Court found that Dr. Tewarie’s statement to the Senate neutralized the State’s ‘legal professional privilege’. That is an important aspect of this ruling, given the frequency with which legal opinions and names are brandished by our leaders, always when convenient, of course.

  3. The Public Interest Test

    This ruling is significant in that Justice Seepersad weighed the existing ‘legal professional privilege’ – making a clear ruling on that at para 41 – against the ‘Public Interest Test’ set out in S.35 of the FoIA.

    At one point it was widely reported that Dr. Tewarie was insisting that the ruling had nothing to do with transparency, but was only on the narrow issue of legal professional privilege.

    The substance of Justice Seepersad’s ruling was at paras 85 & 86 –

    1. The nature of the project in this case and the process adopted by the Defendant to pursue the Request for Proposals process without regard to the provisions of the Central Tenders Board act, requires disclosure of all the relevant information that was considered before the said decision was taken and the refusal to provide the requested information can create a perception that there may have been misfeasance in the process and any such perception can result in the loss of public confidence. Every effort therefore ought to be made to avoid such a circumstance and if there is a valid and legally sound rationale for the adoption of the Request for Proposals process, then it must be in the public interest to disclose it and the rationale behind the process adopted ought not to be cloaked by a veil of secrecy.
    2. The public interest in having access to the requested information therefore is far more substantial than the Defendant’s interest in attempting to maintain any perceived confidentiality in relation to the said information…”

    The real point here is that Justice Seepersad has carried out the Public Interest Test, as mandated at S.35 of the FoIA and ignored by the State in this matter, to find that the ‘legal professional privilege’ is subordinate to the Public Interest in this case, given all the evidence submitted to the Court.

The entire process possesses all the ingredients for corruption, I maintain that view.

Dr. Tewarie has repeatedly claimed that the process was transparent because he disclosed the assessment rules for the Invader’s Bay development at the T&T Contractors’ Association Dinner on Saturday 5 November 2011.  That assertion is perfectly tautological, in that it is entirely true that the rules were revealed for the first time on that occasion, but it does not explain anything of substance.  The decisive fact is that the closing-date for the Invader’s Bay RFP process was 4 October 2011, a full month before the rules were disclosed.  That fact alone renders the entire process voidable and illegal.

What is more, we have to consider the widely-advertised public consultations on the redevelopment of King’s Wharf in San Fernando; the South-Western Peninsula development; the issue of ‘City-status’ for Chaguanas; Constitutional Reform and of course, the latest one, the Civil Society Board.  The glaring question has to be – ‘When is the State hosting the first in its series of Public Consultations on the Invader’s Bay development?

Finally, will this development process continue, while the legal arguments continue?