Friday, January 19, 2018

Procurement test for the Govt

Express editorial logo389

Mark Fraser

The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration’s handling of procurement legislation will be the litmus test of how committed the ruling coalition is to eradicating corruption and cronyism. 

This issue is even more important than party financing, since it is largely in the award of State contracts that financiers get obscene returns on their political investments. The Government should therefore pay serious attention to criticisms voiced by two key stakeholders – the Joint Consultative Committee and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.

Speaking on the Chamber’s radio programme earlier this week, Chamber spokesperson Catherine Kumar called for the legislation to be revisited and raised concerns about the billion-dollar Beetham Wastewater Recycling project. Head of the JCC, Afra Raymond, has continually expressed scepticism about the Bill’s effectiveness, especially in respect of its exclusion of government-to-government contracts from legislative scrutiny.

This, to put it mildly, is a glaring omission. After all, public procurement is now a hot topic largely because of the questionable practices of the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (UDeCOTT) during the last PNM administration when several major construction projects were undertaken.

Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie has justified this approach on the basis that “international arrangements” make it difficult to include such a provision in the proposed Act. This, however, seems a disingenuous defence. The fact is, many developed nations now have their own laws which prohibit their nationals, even in the private sector, from bribery and other corrupt acts when engaging foreign governments. It was such a law in the United States, for example, which allowed the prosecution of two American businessmen in the Piarco Airport project under the Basdeo Panday administration, even as that same case continues to drag its clay feet through local courts.

In this regard, it may be seen as significant that successive administrations now prefer to deal with countries which do not have such laws. While the Bill does have measures which would rein in a runway horse like UDeCOTT, the government-to-government loophole could make such clauses moot. The definition of “public money” and “public procurement” seems to ensure that Special Purpose Companies can no longer escape scrutiny as they have in the past. Nonetheless, if public projects are carried out under the ambit of loans from a foreign government, these clauses may not apply. This is why it might be necessary to include government-to-government contracts in the Bill to avoid bids being rigged, kickbacks being paid, and other such corrupt practices.

Unless, therefore, the Government provides a convincing explanation or amends the Bill, public perception must be that all the talk about proper procurement is a public relations exercise with little, if any, substance.