Sunday, February 18, 2018

‘DPP should decide on Piarco report’

After almost 11 years, a report detailing an alleged plot to defraud the Treasury and involving government officials of the Basdeo Panday-led United National Congress (UNC) Cabinet at the time is yet to be tabled in the Parliament.

Some ten people are before the court charged with offences linked to the scandal-ridden project, and now one of the commissioners from the commission of enquiry into the controversial Piarco Airport Development project has written an open letter to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar on the matter, calling for the report to be published.

Former commissioner Victor Hart’s concern comes in the wake of the tabling in the House of Representatives of the report on the attempted coup.

He commended Persad-Bissessar, saying 24 hours after it was submitted to her, she laid the commission of enquiry’s report into the 1990 attempted coup in the Parliament last week.

But Hart questioned why, after more than a decade, the commission of enquiry’s report into the controversial Piarco development project has still not been laid in the House.

Yesterday, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan said the best person to determine whether the report should be published or not is the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). 

He was responding to a question about why the People’s Partnership Government has not tabled the report.

Ramlogan said, “I have not seen that report. I do not think it is with my office.” 

He said: “The original reasons given by the PNM (People’s National Movement) for not tabling the report was that it would be prejudicial to the police investigation and subsequent prosecutions. So those prosecutions are still ongoing and I cannot say if the prejudicial weight is still relevant, as I have neither seen a copy and I’m not involved in the criminal process.

“It would seem that the report should be read by the Office of the DPP so that they can determine whether it is safe to publish,” he added.

Unless such a decision is taken, the four-volumes-long report will not be given the legiti­macy of Parliament, which would clear the way for taxpayers to get an understanding of the transactions into the $1.6 billion airport project.

Three former government ministers have since been charged and are currently before the courts.

The Sunday Express obtained a copy of the report, which details the extensive development project, dogged by hefty cost overruns to the tune of $800 million, even as there were numerous deficiencies relating to the quality of design, quality of the materials used in the construction and the quality of workmanship.

The investigation, chaired by retired justice Clinton Bernard, was initiated by the then-PNM government, amid allegations of rampant corruption and graft against all the key players, including parliamentarians.

Hart, one of five commissioners appointed by former president Arthur NR Robinson on April 22, 2002, expressed his concern over the silence of the report, telling Persad-Bissessar, in an open letter published in the Express last Monday: “It is not too late to correct this omission and I urge you to take immediate steps to lay the Piarco Report since there is nothing to hide.”

In fact, Hart pointed out he has been campaigning unsuccessfully for over ten years for the publication of the report.

“He said the people had a right to know the outcome of the enquiry held in their name and at their cost. The report cost taxpayers $10 million.

Hart is convinced that had the recommendations in the report been implemented, they would have saved the country millions of dollars and probably avoided the expensive Prof John Uff commission of enquiry into the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago and the construction sector.

According to the airport report, cost overruns pushed the original cost from $662 million to a whopping $1.6 billion. This figure did not include 15 per cent VAT. 

Had the document been laid in the House, the country would have learnt about the carefully orchestrated “plot to defraud” the Trea­sury of millions of dollars, according to the report.

It described the airport project as a “run­away train”, and questioned the silence of government ministers who may not have been involved in the plot.

“In any event, they knew that objection could mean their demise,” the report stated. It added, “Three such members who raised the issue of corruption lost their portfolios.”

Despite the high cost overruns, the commission identified numerous inefficiencies, including:

• Planning imbalances;

• Inadequacy of the ticketing area, which appears chaotic at peak times;

• Inadequacy of vertical circulation, that is, staircases and elevators;

• Inadequacy of the Domestic (Tobago) Departure Lounge;

• Absence of toilet facilities in the Domestic Departure Lounge

• Absence of toilet facilities for staff at the Terminal Facility, requiring them to use public toilets;

• Mixing of incoming and outgoing passengers;

• Glass domes which attract high heat gain and therefore are energy-insensitive;

• Inadequate provisions for security personnel;

• Inadequate signage;

• Inadequate car park;

• Flooding in the vicinity of the high-speed turn-off for landing aircraft;

• Numerous omissions in the concessionaires area;

• An apron-control tower accessible only through a tortuous spiral staircase and without any provisions for services necessary for human occupancy.

To add insult to injury, the commission found a number of construction errors were absorbed as “variations”. These included “a drainage ditch that was constructed too close to the runway and had to be relocated”.

The report also found the materials used were of low quality, and noted as well the use of “very costly granite tiles, which show vast colour variations and can be dangerous when wet”.

The investigation lasted 16 months. It noted that given the evidence, the commission was of the opinion the selection process of contractors was “manipulated to achieve an outcome which was not in the best interest of the client, the Ministry of Works and Transport”.

As a result, the report stated the Ministry of Works did not achieve the Cabinet mandate to maximise the use of local contractors by a more equitable sharing of the contracts among local contractors and had spent many more millions due to inflated prices negotiated by Birk Hillman Consultants Incorporated.

The report warned the airport project, due to exorbitant cost overruns, would have incurred costs of $3.5 billion over the next 20 years.

The commissioners questioned the role of senior public servants in the airport debacle and pointed to a “number of these persons stating in evidence that they carried out instructions of the ministers, as they feared for their jobs”.

It concluded that while the public service regulations lean heavily on penalising public servants for misdemeanours committed in the performance of their duties and even off duty, “on the other hand, there are few provisions which seek to address the issue of the public servants being a hapless victim of the dubious actions of their political masters without seriously disadvantaging their positions of job security”.

On August 30, 2003, then president George Maxwell Richards received a copy of the report, as well as former prime minister Patrick Manning and then attorney general John Jere­mie.