Saturday, February 24, 2018

Aripo hideout

Juliana Pena booked into private UTT-leased guest house for 10 months


nice life: The guesthouse in Heights of Aripo in which Rev Juliana Pena stayed.

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the inside of the guest house. —Photos: Jermaine Cruickshank

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Mark Fraser

Fresh from the People's National Movement (PNM) victory at the polls in 2007, Rev Juliana Pena, spiritual adviser to former prime minister Patrick Manning, was booked into a secluded University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) guest house tucked away up a narrow country lane in the Heights of Aripo for ten months.

Expense reports obtained by the Sunday Express reveal that the self-described prophetess was booked into the private UTT-leased guest house acquired for visiting professors and other university staff on December 13, 2007—weeks after the Manning-led PNM was returned to power.

Pena and her young companion, Anastacia Mendes, stayed at the quiet Aripo guest house, with panoramic views of the mountains, until October 31, 2008, according to UTT documents seen by this newspaper. The name of the university's former chairman of Board of Governors and President, Prof Kenneth S Julien, appears on a March 2008 catering invoice as the "client" for Rev Pena and Mendes.

Another invoice, dated November 4, 2008 describes the two non-university residents as guests of the "Office of the President".

Julien, a close friend of the former prime minister, was said to be out of the country and unavailable for comment.

There are conflicting reports about who paid for the reverend's stay at the sprawling Aripo getaway, which is not open to the public.

Pena's ten-month stay at what is reported to be a heavily-subsidised staff rate, according to UTT documents, was $119,627.36. The invoices were settled via three payments, the first via a banker's draft for $37,942.36 in July of 2008, the second via a US cash payment of US$13,000 and the third via a US cash payment of US$175.

The last two US cash payments were made in May and June of this year following media enquiries about the Rev Pena's stay at the private university-leased facility. The US$13,000 cash payment was made shortly before the May 24 election—on May 17, 2010—and the US$175 was paid in June of this year, after the PNM lost to the People's Partnership Government.

One university source insisted that Pena picked up her tab but other UTT insiders said it was paid by unknown third parties. No receipt was issued for the two US cash payments made this year and there is also no explanation as to why UTT executives used an exchange rate of TT$6.20 as opposed to the market rate of $6.30.

There is also no explanation for why Pena was given the sharply discounted staff rate given the fact that she was not an employee of the State-funded Julien-run university or a visiting professor.

The Sunday Express was told Prof Julien personally approved the hospitality arrangements for the former prime minister's spiritual adviser who is said to have been partial to wild meat.

The sweetheart discount rate arrangement is said to have cost UTT in excess of $100,000. The UTT-leased resort facility, according to university sources, remained empty for all of 2007 because of security issues related to its remote location and was only opened up and fully staffed in December of that year to accommodate Rev Pena and her companion, Mendes.

University insiders report that there were other questionable transactions relating to the Aripo guest house other than Pena's stay there at taxpayers' expense. Questions have been raised about the five-year lease arrangement signed with Consolidated Services Ltd, the private company of attorney Bruce Procope. The Queen's Counsel Happy Valley Lodge, set amid idyllic and scenic Aripo surroundings, was leased by UTT in February 2006 at a total cost of $8,420,000 at $50,000 per month.

The Sunday Express was told that the university failed to conduct a due diligence on the Aripo property prior to signing its lease agreement with the Temple Chambers' QC Procope.

Sources said the university discovered in November 2006 that Consolidated Services 25-year lease with the State had expired in May 1994. Consolidated had continued to occupy the property, paying the original 1969 rent and in 2006 sub-leased a small portion of the 115-acre property to UTT in breach of its lease agreement with the State, according to sources.

Procope was not immediately available for comment.

Recent reports suggest that Pena has spirited away amid controversy and an Integrity Commission probe as to whether there were improper links between the construction of her $30 million Heights of Guanapo church project and former prime minister Manning.

Questions remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding the four-acre land grant to Pena by the Manning cabinet; the involvement of Shanghai Construction, a Chinese company that had previously worked exclusively for the government, and just who was footing the $30 million construction tab for the Guanapo Church of the Lighthouse of Our Lord Jesus Christ.