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Baksh paid Birk Hillman $30M for work not done

Works Ministry rule bypassed

By Charleen Thomas

Former Works and Transport Minister, Sadiq Baksh, was yesterday identified as the person who bypassed procedures and his Permanent Secretary, and instructed that TT$30 million be paid to Birk Hillman Consultants for work that had not been done.

The disclosures were made by former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, Justin Paul, at yesterday's sitting of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the Piarco Development Project, when the inquiry continued at the Caribbean Court of Justice building, Port-of-Spain.

Paul, who was assigned to the Ministry in 1995 has since retired. He now works as a consultant involved in the development of technical education. He is on contract with the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) in Guyana.

In a sometimes heated session, Paul was questioned for two hours yesterday by Theodore Guerra, SC one of the attorneys for the Commission. Paul said he was responsible for air, land and sea transportation in the Ministry, and had some initial duties at the start of the Piarco project.

He said that at the first meeting called to see the designs for the project at the Hilton on October 17, 1996, he found it strange that the Finance Minister, Brian Kuei Tung, and Planning and Development Minister, John Humphrey, left the session after hearing Birk Hillman Consultants. Scott and Associates, the other consultant Paul said, later complained of being treated unfairly and with hostility, and accused government of having its "mind made up".

Also attending that presentation were Baksh, Chairman of the Airports Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (AATT), Ameer Edoo, and officials of the Works Ministry.

Paul said he never questioned why the ministers left, and felt Baksh was the person to make notes of the complaints from Scott and Associates.

Paul said as the "conduit" between the Ministry and the AATT, and part of a task force to look at designs for the project, he couldn't recall if any tenders were invited for the designs. He said Baksh, whom he took instructions from, nominated the two consultants. He said he knew about the consultants through information from AATT. He said he was never involved in the negotiations for the awarding of the design contract to Birk Hillman, and admitted to being "bypassed" because Baksh had direct contact with the AATT.

Paul said that was the procedure for the project. He said he later learnt that the AATT was drawing up a contract for Birk Hillman. He said he wasn't aware when that decision was taken, but it was "behind his back".

He said he didn't know who made the decision, but assumed it was the AATT. That contract was signed on January 9, 1997.

Paul said he was in charge of requesting disbursement of funds from the Ministry of Finance, and did so when Baksh instructed. He said he couldn't recall how many times he was instructed, but said it was unusual for the minister to request release of funds.

Paul said he approved an authorised payment of TT$30 million for Birk Hillman, whose first invoice in January 20, 1997, claimed for services provided as of October 1996. Paul said he couldn't justify the payment but he authorised it, because it was approved by Cabinet on the advice of Baksh.

Asked if he complained about being prevented from discharging his duties, especially since he was not consulted about hiring Birk Hillman, Paul said he did not, because the manner in which he worked, you did not ask, but Baksh "tell you to act according to his instructions".

Paul said Baksh had instructed him to prepare a Cabinet note for approval of Birk Hillman as consultants. Paul later wrote and signed a letter, edited by Baksh, for the AATT indicating Cabinet's approval.

Paul was at times prevented from giving explanations to his "yes" and "no" answers. However he was assured by Chairman Clinton Bernard, he would have the opportunity to explain, when he resumes his testimony on Thursday.

Baksh has so far not attended the COI. The Commissioners indicated on Monday they would have to issue a summons for him in due course.

The other Commissioners are Victor Hart, Marie Ange Knights, Peter Bynoe and Keith Sirju.

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