On today, Uff tomorrow

By Raffique Shah
October 11, 2009
Trinidad and Tobago News Blog

Prof John UffSOMEONE determined many moons ago that there are three sides to every story-yours, mine, and the truth. Maybe that person lived in Norway, a country long seen as heaven-on-earth, which has consistently ranked at the top of the world in human development. He (or she) obviously knew nothing of faraway Trinidad where there are 100 sides to every rumour, and maybe more to every truth, if the latter at all exists in this country.

I think of this as I watch the saga of the Uff Commission unfold with more plots and sub-plots than a Ludlum thriller. Reading Prof John Uff’s profile, I wonder why this obviously very bright person-extensive qualifications and experience in construction and engineering, and a distinguished attorney-would have accepted the brief from the Patrick Manning Government? His descent into the living hell that is life and politics in this country defies logic.

But then the good professor probably never heard the Trini-slang, “like he going off?” Obviously Prof John went off. He and his team were asked to probe the activities of UDeCoTT, that hydra-like state behemoth that straddles umpteen billion-dollar projects, at a time when allegations aplenty were made against the company’s head, Calder Hart.

Hart is himself like an octopus. He is chairman or director of five huge state-owned entities, among them NEL, TTMF, NIB and NIPDEC. These companies, along with UDeCoTT, control-I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess-possibly TT$60 billion. That sum is bigger than the country’s annual budget, and close to 40 per cent of the country’s 2008 GDP. Other than the sheiks and kings of oil-rich countries, I can think of no other mortal anywhere on earth who controls that kind of public loot ‘er, capital.

How does a commission probe a company like UDeCoTT that simultaneously undertakes 20 or so major building projects costing taxpayers billions of dollars? Worse, while the probe is underway, the Prime Minister sings hosannas to Hart, all but naming him as the country’s greatest human import since India’s Uthara Rao (whatever happened to him?). Hart must be the Sun-God or some similar deity: we know the PM is a pious man who bows only to gods, but who has little regard for the commoners whose collective wealth he is custodian of.

Worse for Uff and his fellow commissioners, how must they feel when, in the midst of the Commission’s on-and-off sittings, they see the PM cavorting with the main man they are probing? I am not suggesting that Mr. Manning should stop talking with, or be seen in the company of Hart. After all, the man is guilty of no crime-not yet, anyway.

But what if Chief Justice Ivor Archie or any of his fellow-judges were seen fraternising with, say, Silas Mack, the man accused of multiple kidnappings and murders?

Not only is Mack presumed innocent until a jury finds otherwise. But the prisoner’s claims that he was beaten to pulp by prisons officers warrant intervention by someone on the Bench. Still, the CJ and his colleagues are mindful of the signals any such display would send to a people under siege by heartless criminals. One would think that the PM would stay aloof of main personae involved in the probe until the issue is closed.

Having written all of the above, I am not about to pass judgement on Hart. Oh, I surely would like to ask him how he straddles the many companies he does. When does he sleep? Or sail? He must hold a doctorate in time-management, not to add a professorship in money-management. A simpleton like me who can hardly count past one thousand would be lost trying to imagine one billion. How does he monitor the billions in the NIB’s coffers, more billions that NIPDEC invests or expends, or the huge loans-portfolio of the TTMF? I would relish some valuable tutorship under this “little magician”. Only I’d hope he achieves far better results with our money than our other wizard, Russel Latapy, achieves by way of goals!

I started this column by outlining the three versions of the truth one has to sift through to get to the fourth truth. Having listened to most of the testimonies that came before the Commission, I am more confused than ever. Maybe that’s why, while I’m not Uff, I seem to be going off. The JCC and its team gave their version of why local contractors were excluded from most of UDeCOTT’s projects. Dr. Keith Rowley had his take on several aspects of the company’s operations, including a hotel that seemed to materialise from nowhere.

Amidst all the bacchanal and confusion, up comes a fella named Khan who swears he is Hart’s man-in-law, and he has proof of some suspect dealings by his ex-wife’s husband. UDeCOTT immediately moved to shut him out by calling judicial halt to the enquiry. Then my trade union comrade, senator and UDeCOTT board member, Michael Annisette, plunged head-first into the fray with the fire and brimstone of a latter-day Butler.

This enquiry gets “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice in Wonderland said, every hour, every day. On today, Uff tomorrow. Where else but in sweet Trinidad?

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5 thoughts on “On today, Uff tomorrow”

  1. Abuse upon abuse

    Tuesday, October 13 2009

    The news that Udecott has just awarded another major contract to Sunway Construction is almost beyond belief. How can a state agency, already so tarnished by the revelations coming out of evidence presented at an ongoing Commission of Inquiry, award a contract of some $300 million to a company also deeply implicated in the questionable practices at Udecott?

    Udecott, which stands charged with deep abuses of the public purse, nepotism, and gross inefficiencies in fulfilling its mandate to the people of Trinidad and Tobago, is now thumbing its nose at all of us and heaping further abuse upon us.

    Where will this abuse end—if indeed it can be brought to an end at all? And who will be able to stop it? The Uff Commission tenuously hangs on to its existence, being required to practically seek Udecott’s permission to restart its hearings or submit its reports to the President of our sovereign nation.

    So, assuming that the Commission can still continue its background work without Udecott’s permission, there is no assurance that they can submit a report on their findings. And there is no assurance that they can investigate the alleged nepotism in the awards of major contracts.

    And this brings us to wonder on the purpose of that 28 day “moratorium” imposed upon the Commission in starting further hearings or submitting reports.

    It seems to us that the 28-day moratorium is just enough time to have the contract “awarded” and started — all in the name of efficiency and urgent requirements.

    Ignoring for the time being the gross improprieties of even considering Sunway for this new contract award, we need to ask what were the tendering procedures, if any, for the project? Who else, if anyone, bid on the work, and what were the bids received?

    These are standard procedures of transparency in the award of any contracts involving the state, and Udecott cannot be shielded from providing this information, assuming that such information even exists.

    During the course of this tortured Commission of Inquiry two of the commissioners have already stepped down, on grounds of “apparent bias.” These actions were deemed to be “required’ by the population at large, for it would be improper for Udecott to issue a report from commissioners who may have been seen to harbour some bias against the parties being investigated.

    However, no such protocols seem to apply to Udecott and its favoured contractor Sunway.

    How can this be allowed? And who will bell the cat on this issue and mount a legal challenge to this unbelievable new contract award? Can an unsuccessful bidder — if there was one at all — challenge this in the courts? Can other parties file an injunction to prevent this award pending the Report of the Uff Commission of Inquiry?

    If that Report — should it ever see the light of day — clears Udecott and Sunway, they can seek their damages in court.

    In the meantime however, Sunway, under its present cloud must not be allowed to work for Udecott on any new projects.


  2. Govt, Udecott indifference shows

    Guardian’s Editorial
    Published: 15 Oct 2009

    The Government is continuing to allow Udecott to act with indifference for public opinion, notwithstanding what has so far been revealed before the Uff Commission of Enquiry.
    And this is most evident with the confirmation by Udecott that it has hired Sunway Construction Caribbean Ltd to outfit the Ministry of Legal Affairs Tower with furniture.

    To remind readers, Sunway is the Caribbean subsidiary with the Malaysian parent and it is the company which succeeded CH Development, a company that was a few months old before it was awarded the original contract to construct the MLA Tower. Before the Uff Commission, quite an amount of testimony has emerged alleging less than forthright connections between Calder Hart, his wife and family members back in Malaysia and the Sunway company. One bit of evidence has been a sharing of a fax number between Calder Hart and the Sunway company, a matter yet to be suitably and convincingly explained. Now in the face of all of that, Udecott calmly awards the contract for Sunway to follow through from constructing the tower to outfitting it with the necessities and to do so without engaging in a process of tendering. While not addressing the issue of the lack of tendering, Udecott has affirmed that the award was made “after careful consideration of value for money, maintaining the completion schedule of the building and having the building fully operational, occupied and generating income in the shortest possible time frame.”

    General assertions about value for money and maintaining deadlines are all well and good, but for the fact that the $269 million contract for the construction of the building was awarded in May 2005 and the contractor envisaged that the building would be completed in 27 months. While changes in the scope of work may account for some of the slippage beyond the original August 2007 deadline, the public has no way of knowing how much weight to give that issue as against other issues such as inadequate manpower, poor planning or flawed management systems. But the performance issues are only part of the picture. Udecott should also provide information to the public on the extent of the cost overruns at the Legal Affairs Tower and all of the buildings under its supervision. And the state-owned company should provide the public with the current per square foot cost of outfitting this building compared with other buildings in the Richmond Street campus and, indeed, whether other contractors there would be fortunate enough to be granted contracts “in line with the design-build option.”

    There is too the consideration of how the public must feel about such a matter given all that has happened, more so when it is considered that Udecott is spending funds which do not belong to the company or indeed the Government, but rather to the taxpayers and owners of the resources. From the start of the building boom, the Government has displayed the same kind of indifference for public opinion in these matters. It must be remembered too that for months the Government refused to heed public opinion on the seeming runaway operations of Udecott and the Prime Minister only responded to the call for a public inquiry when it was clearly politically detrimental for him to continue ignoring the evidence that was being put into the public domain about this company which is spending billions of public funds. But even before establishment the Uff Commission, Dr Keith Rowley was terminated when he dared to raise concerns about the seeming lack of Cabinet oversight over Udecott.

    What all of this means is that the Government may have tied its political fortune to Udecott and its executive chairman, Calder Hart. The Government will find it difficult to disentangle itself from the eventual findings of the Uff Commission—especially if wrongdoing and gross incompetence are determined by the commission.


  3. Udecott ‘Attacks Unfair’
    MINISTER of Planning Emily Gaynor Dick-Forde yesterday defended Udecott’s award to Sunway Construction Caribbean Limited (formerly known as CH Development) of a $300 million contract to furnish the Ministry of Legal Affairs Tower.

    Imbert: Where are the family ties?
    Works and Transport Minister Colm Imbert and Housing, Planning and the Environment Minister, Emily Gaynor Dick-Forde, both dismissed allegations of nepotism in the award of multi-million-dollar contracts to Sunway Construction Caribbean Limited, the firm linked to the wife of executive chairman of the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (Udecott), Calder Hart.

    …Minister: UDeCOTT no rogue elephant

    Lecturer: Just a political ploy
    THE Commission of Enquiry into the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago and the construction sector, chaired by Prof John Uff, is a political ploy that never intended to find any damning evidence against UDeCOTT, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies (UWI) says.

    Commission of Enquiry a farse, says Transparency head
    CHAIRMAN of the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute (TTTI), Victor Hart, has described the Commission of Enquiry into the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT) and the construction sector as a farce.

  4. Rowley: Udecott affairs smelling
    In a scathing attack on his political leader and Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley yesterday said the affairs of controversial State-owned Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott) “smells to the high heavens.” He said the PNM was being put on trial because of the support its political leader Manning was giving to the controversial Udecott.

    PNM on trial
    Rowley on Bill to save UDeCOTT enquiry

    He wasn’t fired over Udecott —Manning
    Prime Minister Patrick Manning is insisting he fired Dr Keith Rowley from the Trade and Industry Ministry because of his behaviour and not because of concerns raised by the Diego Martin West MP over the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott).

    AG: Lucky report on UDeCOTT in 2 weeks

  5. On inceptions I know that this inquiry was bound to fail. We are living in a society that is complacent and dont even think of our children future, a society that lacks morality and ethics ask Max. The prime Minister understand his people or so he thinks and would walk all over them. That why we are known all over the world as trickidadians a culture that we proven daily from top to bottom. Inquriy!, inquiry what to investigate who, to prove what something that we all know. We have the power to stop such wicked acts in this country but are going to used it in the next general election. or are going to fight among ourselves along racial lines whilst the wealth spread across the top and not a drizzle for the poor working class and the poor.

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