Senior public officials are calling on Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal to clear the air on his recent statement in Parliament that the luxurious Federation Park Villas "are not assigned to ministers of Government", in light of the fact that at least two ministers have been occupying the houses on a long-term basis.
Moonilal assured the Lower House on January 22 that the 16 units which were built at a cost of $27,774,994.91, while not assigned to Government ministers, were in fact allocated "for use by ministries of Government for specific short-term purposes, particularly to host foreign consultants and advisers".
But the Sunday Express has since learnt that at least two Government ministers have been living there for an extended period of time, even while they receive their $10,300-per-month housing allowance from the State.
The two ministers are Tobago East MP Vernella Alleyne-Toppin and Tobago West MP Delmon Baker, who replaced Alleyne-Toppin as Minister for Tobago Development in June last year.
And even though Moonilal told the House that three units were assigned from July 2010 to the "Ministry of Tobago Development for Members of Parliament who on occasion and on a needs basis may need to overnight in Trinidad", the permanent secretary at that Ministry seemed to be in the dark about the arrangement.
Last Friday, Permanent Secretary Bernadette Solomon-Koroma told the Sunday Express she was not aware of whether or not the minister had assigned any units to her ministry.
"I don't know anything about that... the assigning of housing to ministers is not handled by my ministry," she said, adding that she was also unaware of the Housing Minister's statement in Parliament.
"I would not like to comment further until I can verify those facts that you have stated," she said.
While Baker could not be reached for comment and did not respond to text messages last week, Alleyne-Toppin made a strong case in her defence.
She initially did not respond to a direct question put to her about if she was occupying one of the villas even as she was being paid a housing allowance, but proceeded to explain the hazards of returning to Tobago on the ferry, which leaves Trinidad at 5 p.m. daily.
"I really have not tried sleeping in the (Woodford) Square. You know, I really wish that I could sleep with my husband every night and wake up beside him every morning," she said. "I also wish that somebody would write something about special provisions being made for persons who live in Tobago and are assigned to Trinidad to work."
Alleyne-Toppin said she stood by the statements of the Housing Minister and Finance Minister Larry Howai, relative to her living accommodation in Trinidad and the $120,000-plus yearly housing allowance she continues to receive.
The Sunday Express was also informed that former Tobago House of Assembly minority leader Ashworth Jack also occupies one of the multi-million-dollar villas, even though he is not a minister of government.
Questioned about it, Jack, whose party—the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP)—lost 12-0 to the People's National Movement (PNM) in last month's THA elections, has denied he occupies a luxury home at Federation Park Villas.
"I have no house in Federation Villas," he said, adding: "I have an apartment in Valsayn where I stay when I am in Trinidad," before hanging up.
The issue of the occupancy of the villas by Government ministers and whether they were benefitting from their housing allowance even while living in Government quarters came to the fore in the House of Representatives on January 2.
The questions posed by Port of Spain South MP Marlene McDonald on behalf of PNM political leader Dr Keith Rowley identified the period June 1, 2010, to October 31, 2012, asking Moonilal to identify all the ministers and/or public officials who had been allocated or who had used these units, and the period during which they occupied those units.
Moonilal was also asked to give details about the terms of occupancy as they related to each minister or official who has had use of the premises.
Moonilal stated in the House that currently, three units had been assigned to the Office of the Attorney General to accommodate legal counsel and advisers who live overseas, while another three were allocated to the Office of the Prime Minister for use by local and foreign advisers, on a needs basis.
The Ministry of Public Administration was also assigned three units to accommodate consultants working on their ICT programme, on a three-month basis.
The Housing Minister stated clearly that the villas were rent-free and short-term occupiers had to maintain them.
He explained that the policy was adopted from the previous PNM administration which had allowed Singaporean consultants to stay at the villas as a result of negotiated arrangements.
Howai, who was also questioned about if people who were living free of charge in the Villas were still receiving their housing allowances, pointed to Moonilal's statement, and added that since no ministers or officials were living at Federation Villas on a permanent basis, then they were still receiving their allowances in accordance with existing contracts.