PM CAN'T STOP THA
By KARL E CUPID Tobago Bureau Friday, October 12 2012
Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar has no authority to stop any deal of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Orville London declared yesterday.
Even as he fired back at Persad-Bissessar over her call for a halt of two THA transactionthat run into hundreds of millions of dollars, London said he welcomed any probe into the THA’s affairs, confident that its actions are above board.
“I welcome any investigation by any authority into the affairs of the THA,” London said.
He put down the Prime Minister’s questioning of a $320 million land and office lease arrangement, and a $250 million plan to construct an aquatics centre, to electioneering as the People’s Partnership Government pressures the THA to set a date for its elections which are due next year.
“This whole thing is political. It is obvious, and all of us know what is going on,” said London, adding that legal counsel had advised him the Prime Minister had no authority over the PNM-led THA.
On Wednesday, Persad-Bissessar announced the Ministry of Finance would conduct a central audit of the two deals, which would also be referred to the Attorney General, Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Integrity Commission for investigation. During the Budget debate, she said the transactions were never put to tender, raising concerns about a lack of transparency and possible breaches of the THA Act.
In one deal, the THA entered into an arrangement with companies owned by the Rahael family, which has ties to the PNM, for the lease of land and construction of an office complex to house the Division of Agriculture, Marine Affairs, Marketing and the Environment (DAMME) worth an estimated $320 million. The second transaction relates to the construction of the Bacolet Indoor Complex and Aquatic Stadium with Zoit Developers Ltd to the tune of $250 million.
London however said the Prime Minister had nothing to probe since the two deals were not in progress, he told reporters at an “emergency” press conference at the THA Administrative Complex, Calder Hall, Scarborough. Present were the THA’s Senior State Counsel Alvin Pascall, Finance/Enterprise Development Secretary Dr Anselm London and Deputy Chief Secretary/Secretary of Infrastructure and Public Utilities Hilton Sandy.
London, the Chief Secretary, said no contract had been signed for the aquatic stadium as the THA was only in discussions with the prospective developers. As for the DAMME office complex project, at the Shirvan Road/Claude Noel Highway intersection in Tobago’s west end, the Chief Secretary said this was an arrangement that would only take effect when there is a building to lease and rent. The DAMME transaction involved the $12 million purchase of three acres of land from companies owned by Rahael Holdings Ltd (RHL), which was leased back to the family business for 199 years at $10 a year. It also includes the construction by RHL of the office complex to be leased to the THA for $1.2 million a month for 20 years, after which ownership would be transferred to the THA. This is a build, own, lease and transfer (BOLT) arrangement.
London said advice from the law firm Hamel-Smith and Company supported that of Pascall, the THA’s Senior State Counsel, who indicated the THA was not breaking any law on the RHL deal. He said Hamel-Smith and Company advised the THA was a statutory authority which must “closely adhere” to the provisions of its governing legislation. London said “the length of the lease is inconsequential” in the RHL deal. He said leasing the land to the developer so the developer could establish a connection with the property to satisfy banking requirements was “normal practice”.
Pascall, the THA’s lawyer, said the BOLT arrangement did not contravene the THA Act. “This is a pure lease arrangement. There is no law that prevents the THA from leasing property from anyone.”
He said the lease agreement, from which he quoted, was prepared and registered by Port-of-Spain law firm Fitzwilliam Stone Furness Smith and Morgan, and if any aspersions were being cast, it was being done against the character of reputable attorneys.
London said while the People’s Partnership administration was on one hand promising increased autonomy for the THA through internal self-government, it was also “undermining” the limited autonomy the Assembly now enjoys.
He repeated his view that the Prime Minister’s motives were politically motivated, in light of the upcoming THA election tipped to be held next April. “The politics of Trinidad and Tobago has changed for the worse,” he declared, stating the prevailing political culture was one where “to win you must destroy people’s character”.