By Andre Bagoo
March 04, 2013 – newsday.co.tt
THE WOMAN known as Juliana Pena, who has been described as former Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s spiritual adviser, was granted access to the construction site of the Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre, La Fantasie, St Ann’s in order to pray on it before it opened its doors in 2007.
What’s more, Manning would later repay the courtesy by visiting the proposed site of Pena’s church at the Heights of Guanapo, according to evidence given to police by Chinese contractor Michael Zhang, managing director of Shanghai Construction Group.
Zhang’s disclosures to the police were detailed by Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard SC in a seven-page statement issued on Friday.
Although the DPP states there was “no indication of criminal misconduct” in relation to the construction of a church on State land at the Heights of Guanapo, Zhang’s evidence to police reveals links between Manning and Pena on the church project, as well as the $300 million Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre. Long before construction of a church at the Heights of Guanapo, called the Lighthouse of Our Lord Jesus Christ, even began in 2010, Pena was granted access to the construction site of the Prime Minister’s residence by Zhang, whose firm was hand-picked to build the facility on behalf of Udecott by the Manning administration.
“The evidence is that the Shanghai Construction Group completed the design and started to build the church,” Gaspard said. “Its director, Mr Zhang, had met Ms Pena when she came to pray at the Prime Minister’s project site at which Shanghai Construction Group was engaged. Mr Calder Hart (the former Udecott executive chairman and ally of Manning) asked him (Zhang) to help Ms Pena.”
The Prime Minister’s Residence and Diplomatic Centre was constructed between 2006 and 2007 at an estimated cost of $300 million. During the Uff Commission of Inquiry into the Public Construction Sector, the project was singled out as one of the few completed on time and within budget. The project was supposedly built pursuant to a so-called “government to government” agreement with China, the details of which little is known.
According to the DPP, Zhang stated that he agreed to build Pena’s Guanapo church, “at cost price by way of an act of goodwill to the people of Trinidad and Tobago. He (Zhang) firmly denied that this was in any way a corrupt contract and gave other examples of community projects that the Shanghai Construction Group had funded here.”The DPP does not list any of these projects but said Zhang told police that he stopped after Pena failed to pay him. “Mr Zhang said that he caused work to stop when Ms Pena failed to pay, as agreed,” Gaspard said. The Director of Public Prosecutions then notes: “Instructively, at the time of Mr Zhang’s police interviews, Udecott still owed money to the Shanghai Construction Group.”
Gaspard does not state when Zhang was interviewed. In 2010 it was reported that Zhang submitted a bill to the State seeking a payment of $54 million.
Though Gaspard said the police had found “no indication of criminal misconduct” – a finding which he appears to have agreed to upon review of Zhang’s evidence – there was much evidence making plain the ties Manning had with the church project.
Manning had, in a television interview in 2010, refused to confirm or deny his involvement or interest in the church project. He was asked to explain why the initial “PM” appeared on plans for the project. Manning, the then prime minister, said, “I am advised that in the construction industry, ‘PM’ also means project manager, eh. So that is one possibility.”
However, the DPP’s statement, based on the evidence gathered by the police, puts to rest any doubt about Manning’s ties.
“It is clear that the evidence establishes that the then Prime Minister had an interest in the construction of the church and that he had nourished his interest by visiting the proposed site and by making suggestions as to the proposed design of the church,” Gaspard said.
“Further, he had chaired the Cabinet meetings which had approved the granting of State lands for the building of the church.” The DPP noted that all such applications go to Cabinet but did not state whether investigations showed if Manning’s ties to the church were disclosed. It was also unclear whether Cabinet was apprised that the land – which was supposed to be used for agricultural purposes – would be used for a church.
However, in Gaspard’s view, there was not enough to connect Pena to Manning because of a lack of an employment contract.
“It is a commonly held view that the then Prime Minister and Ms Pena had a spiritual link from at least 2003,” he states. “However, there is no evidence that she was employed by him in any official capacity.” There have been reports that Pena was once appointed as a “special envoy” of the State to an African country. Special envoys are appointed by the Prime Minister.
Though on the one hand Gaspard found no indication of criminal misconduct, on the other hand he said there were clear breaches of the law in relation to the approvals process. In particular, he noted the contractor started construction in January 2010 without the planning approvals being granted (they were granted in April 2010). But, in Gaspard’s view, “the blame for this undoubted breach of the law, without more (evidence), cannot be attributed to any then minister or civil servant.”
The DPP’s statement reveals just how Pena went about obtaining approval for her church project, built on taxpayers’ State lands. In particular, he painted a picture of someone who artificially re- labelled the church project as being “for agricultural purposes” in order to get approval.
“Central Government approvals were not fully granted until April 2010,” Gaspard said. “This was after the Town and Country Planning Division had indicated to the Director of Land Administration Department that the land site was for agricultural purposes only and was unsuitable for a church…. The Town and Country Planning Division only relented after Ms Pena had revised her application and had indicated that the land would not only be for the church but for agricultural purposes.”
The DPP found “no illegal link between the Prime Minister and the granting of State lands for the construction of the church.”
In the television interview in 2010 Manning said in relation to the Cabinet’s granting of the land to Pena: “The Prime Minister assisted the Lighthouse of the Lord Jesus Church, as indeed he assists other churches.”
But if the DPP did not find evidence of an illegal link, he certainly found many other connections between Manning and the project. In particular, he mentions Calder Hart’s role in the project. (Manning has stated he referred the matter to Calder Hart – though this is not referred to in the DPP’s statement.)
According to Gaspard, “the evidence indicates that after Mr Calder Hart, then chairman of Udecott, had introduced Ms Pena to the architect who initially designed the church, that architect agreed to his designing of that church by way of a charitable act.”
While Zhang was interviewed by the police in relation to the three-year-old complaint, Pena and Hart were not.
The DPP did not state whether Manning was interviewed but simply stated that “the Judges Rules legally prohibit the police from treating them or the former Prime Minister as suspects, since the police appear not to have any evidence which would afford reasonable grounds for suspecting that they may have committed any offence arising out of this matter.”
The DPP did not state what other offences, particularly under the Integrity in Public Life Act, were included in his review of the case. However he noted that there is a suggestion by police that the Integrity Commission is conducting a “forensic audit”.