In a dramatic disclosure, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley revealed last night that the Cabo Star could have been available to the Trinidad and Tobago Government at a substantially lower cost, probably in the vicinity of US$5,000 to US$6,000 less per day.
Rowley also disclosed that an individual appeared at the Minister of Works' office and told the Minister “I am a PNM (People's National Movement)”, that he had a vessel available and he expected to get the contract. According to Rowley, the Minister said he would have to go through the established tendering procedure like everyone else.
The Prime Minister labelled the Port of Port of Spain a den of “conflict”, “corruption” and “iniquity”, warning that it was in “great danger” of “being obliterated”.
As he concluded his riveting testimony before the Joint Select Committee Meeting on Land and Physical Infrastructure, Rowley surmised: “A blind man on a galloping horse can see that something is wrong...and if we (the Government) do not intervene...and do something to bring it back, it (the Port) will be spinning off into oblivion”.
The Prime Minister made the report of the lone investigator into the acquisition of the vessels for the T&T seabridge, former Chamber of Commerce president Christian Mouttet, available to the JSC.
”Today, I have sent the report to the Parliament. It is a compendium of the documents, not he-say, she-say. And, of course, I am also sending the report to the Attorney General's Office for attention, said Rowley.
“I am also going to make it (the report) public, so that the public can read it and understand what has been happening with respect to public business.”
The Prime Minister emphasised: “This will not be one of those situations where a report goes on the shelf and gathers dust.”
The Prime Minister said the country had been brought to where it is today, in respect of the seabridge, because corruption and self-interest had permeated the operations and decision-making at the Port.
He stated that this questionable conduct was reflected in the procurement procedures associated with the Super Fast Galicia and continued to the Cabo Star.
Whistleblower goes to PM
In a startling revelation, the Prime Minister said that while he was in Barbados last month, a whistle-blower phoned him to ask if he knew that the Cabo Star was owned by a Mexican entity and that the owner had made a direct approach to the Port management with an offer to make the vessel available.
The Prime Minster said he told the whistleblower that any information to him had to be supported by documents. He said he received the following Monday, on his return to Trinidad, a copy of an e-mail and a letter, written by CEO of Bay Ferries Mexico, Oscar Romano, to Port CEO Leon Grant.
He read both documents into the record.
“Here is the owner of a vessel making the vessel [directly] available to the Port and the Port not obtaining that vessel from the owner but either allowing or taking steps for that vessel to be made available through a third party (Bridgemans, a move which increased the charter costs). And I take note of the fact that the letter points out that the owner is saying to the Port, 'I prefer to deal directly with you'.
“I summoned the chairman of the Port Authority (Allison Lewis) the following morning and asked whether she was aware either from the management or from the board of any owner of the Cabo Star before Bridgemans, and the chairman indicated that in dealing with the Cabo Star there was never any other owner in front of the Port's processes but Bridgeman's. I asked her if she was aware of any correspondence coming to the Port by way of a member or staff from the owner pre-Bridgemans. I then made the documents available to her,” said Rowley.
The chairman indicated that these documents formed no part of the processes that took place at the board level and that she was unaware that the management was in contact with this person, he said.
The PM said he inquired what would have been the circumstances had the Port accepted this offer from the Mexican entity.
“The general consensus was that the Port could have obtained the vessel at considerably lower cost,” he said.
He said the vessel could have been had for approximately US$5,000 to US$6,000 less than we are paying now, he said.
Rowley said the committee would be failing in its duty if it did not get to the bottom of this issue and to find out whether “my worst fears are being realised—that the laxness and the defence of conflicts and the encouraging of corruption on the Port on this particular occasion is a knock-on from the Galicia arrangement, where a lawyer could come on the Port as a legal adviser and end up getting the contract to supply a boat that she selected, getting involved in the selection process and put an agent into the evaluation process”.
“And the question that we ask is this—when your agent got the job to supply the Galicia where was your beneficial interest? Is it that you let the agent run away with the trophy or is it that the authorities under the Anti-Corruption Act need to find out whether those benefits have been had by that subterfuge that took place with the Galicia ?”
Rowley pointed out that the Port administration, far from answering questions, allowed all this to happen.
“Today you have all kinds of people (shouting) 'Galicia, Galicia, Galicia', defending the Galicia. I am telling you Mr Chairman (Dr Stephen Creese), it is my view that they are defending their personal interest,” the Prime Minister stated.
He said that while the Government takes responsibility for what happens, the defence of the Galicia, “especially in Tobago and the dissonance from Tobago” had the effect of doing as much damage as the corrupt practice that put the Galicia there in the first place.
He said there were people on the morning, midday and evening news “telling the world how bad Tobago is. They went as far as photographing empty shelves and putting it on the internet and the newspapers that Tobago running out of food and the people starving because the boat wasn't coming. This despite the fact that these persons have their hotels and guest houses that they want people to occupy.”
He said today the devastation of the US Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, but “not a voice from Tobago saying hotels are available and Tobago is looking for business. No, the voices are only available when it is time to talk stupidness and to defend wrongdoing because they have no interest in a procurement process that could stand scrutiny”.
At yesterday's meeting, the chairman indicated that the JSC received a letter from the Galicia agent, John Powell, who had been invited to appear before the Committee, that he would not be giving testimony before the JSC.
In dismissing the position that the Government had “gotten rid of the Galicia”, the Prime Minister said the agent for the Galicia engaged in a contract with the Government that he could not fulfil.
While the contract was due to expire in October 2017, the agent indicated clearly that the owner of the Galicia intended to pull it in February 2017, unless the agent could purchase it, the Prime Minister said. And it was in order for the purchase of the vessel that the agent sought a five-year contract, he added.
But the Government was not prepared to respond to “blackmail”, Rowley said.
The Prime Minister said it was because the agent was fully aware that he was obligated by contract until October 2017 that he offered a replacement vessel to the Port Authority, which was found to be unacceptable.
The Prime Minister also defended his decision to approve the contracting of the Cabo Star, pending the ratification by the Cabinet.
He said it was not unusual in instances where it was an emergency to have this arrangement. He said it was an emergency.
Rowley said he expects “push back” as Government seeks to “clean up that den of iniquity” where the “taxpayer gets the rough end”.
He said if he had acceded to the calls for the Minister's head, some people would have been happy, “While those who are benefitting from the corruption...would have been there waiting for the next government and the next board and the next government and the board” so that they could continue what they are “accustomed to”.
He again apologised to the people of Tobago for the hardship they have experienced, but he likened his Government's role to that of a doctor that administers the needle and the nurse who aids in the surgery in order to save the patient.
He called on the committee not to pull its punches and “to put an end to this (corruption)”.
As he spoke of the possible demise of the Port in the face of competition from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, he referred to the $26 million cleaning contract for the Galicia as well as the purchase of 25 trucks at the expense of the maintenance of the cranes (which takes merchandise from ship to shore) at a cost of $1 million a truck without approval.