By Raffique Shah
Sunday, May 18th 2008
I have spoken with Calder Hart only once, when he belatedly responded to a call I had made to UDeCOTT seeking to talk with him on a story I was working on. It turned out that he had been out of the country when I had tried to reach him. He was very polite, even effusive, promising to talk with me anytime, on any matter concerning UDeCOTT. He came across as a journalist’s delight: most people in his position normally refer lowly plebs of the Fourth Estate to some PR “spin doctors”, who, in turn, ask for questions to be formally e-mailed to them, and then take forever to give half-answers.
Now that Hart has hogged the limelight for several months, but never more so than in the past few weeks, I regret not having reverted to him. Because like most people, I am intrigued by this superman who oversees some fifty government projects (all listed on the company’s website), and that’s only wearing his UDeCOTT hat. In that capacity alone, he sits atop billions of dollars. He is chairman, too, of the NIB and its subsidiary, NIPDEC, which together control billions of dollars in contributors’ funds. And as chief honcho of the TTMF, he oversees another huge chunk of what government spends in housing. In fact, Hart’s overall portfolios must amount to at least 40 per cent of government’s annual budgetary allocations for capital expenditure.
True, as he indicated at last week’s press conference, UDeCOTT is not Calder Hart. Krishna Bahadoorsingh and Michael Annisette, who both serve on the board (along with Madan Ramnarine, Wendell Dottin, Devanand Ramlal and Anthony Cherry), underscored his claim that the now-controversial company is no one-man show. If anything, Annisette roared his way onto the stage in a manner only a trade unionist could. And based on facts presented about projects delivered by UDeCOTT, in contrast to others falling under other agencies or contractors, the company was made to look like God’s gift to the construction sector.
This is all the more reason why Hart, Annisette and Prime Minister Patrick Manning should welcome a public enquiry into the company’s operations. In fact, I’d suggest they go even further: commission a forensic audit headed by the ultra-expensive but seemingly reliable Bob Linquist. Maybe to satisfy all who seem to think Hart and others are “milking” the Treasury, have both the enquiry and audit. After all, if one has nothing to hide, one can bare one’s butt anywhere, anytime. I write with authority here.
As member of the board of a corporation in which government has majority holding, and which is publicly traded, accusations of irregularities and worse have been hurled at me and my colleagues. We commissioned two external investigations into specific allegations. The baying hounds were not satisfied with those reports, nor, I might add, was government. So the latter called in Linquist. He was quietly conducting his investigations when I found out about it-and demanded to be heard. I appeared before one of the firm’s principals, had my say, and was questioned. That was some two years ago. I have heard nothing further. No one in government has had the decency to indicate if I was implicated in wrongdoing or if my name was cleared. I imagine in the fullness of time I shall learn what Linquist concluded.
But unlike others who must have had many sleepless nights after the fearsome forensic auditor investigated them, I sleep well very well. Because I know I did nothing wrong. It is based on these personal experiences I go with the flow in UDeCOTT’s case and call for a full commission of enquiry, and for the PM to add a Linquist audit for good measure. Speculation, allegations, poison-penned e-mails and Trini-mauvais-langue must either be laid to rest, or UDeCOTT’s principals hauled before the courts-and possibly sent for a rest in jail!
Without prejudice to any such investigation being undertaken, I should add that according to the records, Hart came to Trinidad back in 1986 to assume the top position at the Home Mortgage Bank. That would have been in the twilight of the NAR stewardship. He obviously survived the PNM administration of 1991-95, and the UNC government of 1995-2001. It is true he was given broader authority and responsibilities since the PNM returned to power thereafter.
But not the NAR, and more so not the UNC, can claim not to have known about Hart prior to his elevation to “superman” status by Manning. It was the UNC that appointed Hart’s fellow-director, Ramlal, to head the T&TEC board. Presumably, that party in government had great faith in Ramlal, and possibly Hart. Why else did they not fire one or both men then?
I agree with those who argue that Hart wields too much power, holds too many portfolios. Surely there must be others, especially qualified nationals, who can perform as good, if not better, than him. But let’s settle that by way of a public enquiry and a forensic audit of UDeCOTT. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear.