IT IS to the credit of the T&T media—and one patriot—that scrutiny of the SNC Lavalin/T&T Government arrangement involving the design and construction of a $1 billion hospital in Penal has been unrelenting and a positive outcome appears probable.
The SNC Lavalin/T&T media story began one day in June this year with an ill-timed telephone call. I was at Vitas House, a hospice for the terminally ill where I had, moments before, witnessed the transition of a close relative. The night before had been spent pacing the corridors of the compassionate place, forcing myself to rest—sleep was a distant wish—while sitting in a chair at her bedside, listening to laboured breaths and mopping sweat from a fever the likes of which I hope never to witness again.
She had only just passed on; nurses recorded the hour and minute, and her daughters, granddaughter and I were politely asked to wait outside while staff “prepared” her.
My phone rang.
In the extraordinary shock borne of overwhelming grief for the loved one who was no more and the loved ones left to find their way, I answered with dank fingers. The patriot on the other end quickly communicated some information; my brain retained keywords: SNC Lavalin, corruption investigations, Penal hospital, Canadian newspapers, Algeria.
I was at the time at the St Vincent Street paper; I conveyed news of my relative’s death and SNC Lavalin in one brief conversation, the ten-year-old granddaughter attached to my right side. To communicate efficiently so I could return to the bedside, I remember saying: S as in sick, N as in national and C as in country.
The investigation started.
The first story—“Fraud Scandal Over Penal Hospital’’—detailed that SNC Lavalin had been contracted via UDeCOTT to design and build the state-of-the-art facility, that SNC Lavalin was slapped with a ten-year ban from the World Bank in April this year, that SNC Lavalin’s former boss, Pierre Duhaime, had been charged with fraud arising out of the construction of Canada’s McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).
In a bizarre twist to the story, MUHC former CEO, Dr Arthur Porter, and his wife Pamela were arrested in Panama in May en route to—guess where—T&T. The charges were fraud, conspiracy, breach of trust, taking secret commissions and money laundering.
Porter is today in a Panama jail resisting extradition to Canada. He has diagnosed himself with stage four lung cancer.
That first story contained a quote from line minister Dr Roodal Moonilal that, in hindsight, peaks curiosity: “Moonilal said he was unaware that the Canadian firm had been hired to build the hospital. Asked who would be building the hospital, Moonilal responded, ‘UDeCOTT’. Asked whether UDeCOTT had subcontracted the project to SNC-Lavalin, Moonilal wrote: ‘Ask Kurt Ramlal (UDeCOTT’s CEO)’.”
By June 19, then, the line minister was either dumb to the goings-on or playing dumb; either is alarming.
Five days later, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan’s comment on the SNC Lavalin arrangement was even more curious: “I have absolutely no comment on that. The Prime Minister wants a hospital. I promised she would get a hospital and that’s where it ends with me.”
The hospital site is Clarke Road, Penal, in the Prime Minister’s Siparia constituency.
A due diligence report on SNC Lavalin was presented to Dr Moonilal and UDeCOTT only three days ago. The report, however, covers the $2.2 million contract to design the hospital which had already been awarded to SNC Lavalin. In other words, the contract was awarded before the due diligence report was received by UDeCOTT.
Is it believable that UDeCOTT, the line minister, Foreign Affairs Minister, Finance Minister and Prime Minister had no knowledge that the World Bank in April banned this firm for ten years or that SNC Lavalin, proposed by the Canadian government, was the subject of investigative stories published and broadcast by Canada’s most prominent media houses since February 2012?
Add to this the fact that T&T’s high commissioner to Canada, Philip Buxo, held the position of director of the Caricom Region Energy and Infrastructure Division of SNC-Lavalin prior to his political appointment to represent this country in Canada. And that Suvarn Sharma, son of now Tourism Minister Chandresh Sharma, worked for SNC Lavalin at least until last month.
If it is reported in today’s newspapers that Cabinet yesterday agreed to repudiate SNC Lavalin, it would make good political sense in this season of political survivalism. But the reason this has become an issue to be addressed at all is because the media, for all its flaws, continues to serve the public as a watchdog.
Opposition MP Colm Imbert raised the matter in Parliament but only after the newspaper stories. UDeCOTT and Dr Moonilal have hastened to meet with the Canadians but only after months of stories in the newspapers. Dr Moonilal has taken a brave decision to halt the contract. He was to take to Cabinet yesterday an equally brave recommendation to cut ties with SNC Lavalin on the basis that: “We must also respect the importance of integrity and confidence, not only of government institutions, but also that of the public. I feel that there is public concern and lack of confidence in the contractor and the position of T&T’s reputation.”
But this comes only after persistent media disclosures.
It is in the realm of hypothesis—or is it—whether the SNC Lavalin arrangement would have gone unnoticed without these disclosures. So while the Canadian public seeks accountability from its government, there are outstanding queries that the T&T Government still needs to answer for the public here.