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Govt borrowed millions for LifeSport

By Asha Javeed asha.javeed@trinidadexpress.com

The government took loans to finance the now controversial LifeSport programme, which in turn targeted criminal elements for rehabilitation.

The Sunday Express understands that Government did not fund the programme through its recurrent expenditure but actually took loans from the commercial banking sector to finance it since its cost had gone beyond what was originally budgeted.

In the Draft Estimates of Recurrent Expenditure for the Financial Year 2014, LifeSport is listed as a Transfer Programme. In 2012, the programme was given $6.6 million.

 In 2013, the cost multiplied by almost five times to $29 million. 

By 2014, the programme increased in cost by $84.4 million to $113,502,273.

It was the largest increase in the ministry’s transfer.

Ruth Marchan, LifeSport’s deputy director of Physical Education and Sport at the Ministry of Sport, told the Sunday Express that LifeSport was designed to target criminals.

She said when the programme was first launched, its initial target was ten centres but several members of Parliament in Cabinet asked for the programme in their communities.

The programme subsequently expanded to 33 centres.

“This was a programme that targeted criminal elements. These same people, some have court. Who don’t have court, some might make a jail in between for robbery. So when they leave, after you leave, we don’t dismiss you from the programme, you come back. 

This programme is not structured like a fixed programme like a school to have 30 persons in a class and you have to come out everyday. What we do is we weigh your attendance. A next thing we try and not do is cut anybody. Fifteen hundred dollars to survive on for the month is not enough in Trinidad. So some of these guys, most of them, some of them have children. So what we tend to do is average, right, we try to make an average or create a ratio that they must have 80 per cent attendance,” she explained.

“There are no ghosts in the programme. That is totally false. What you would find is that some people make a jail for a two months so you’ll miss them and they might come back. A lot of them in court,” she told the Sunday Express in an interview at her home in Diego Martin last week.

Marchan, who claimed her life was under threat by officials at the Ministry of Sport, had the Sunday Express follow an escort to her home which was locked and later opened from the outside by her security escort. 

Marchan had an armed man identified only as “Tall Man”, sit in the latter half of the interview. 

She said he was the son of an imam, who is a member of the Jamaat al Muslimeen. 

The Sunday Express understands that “Tall Man” is Marchan’s bodyguard.

She said these were her security measures after she went public with a threat on her life and that of two senior officials at the Ministry of Sport.

She claimed that the Express (in an investigative series on the Jamaat and LifeSport), officials at the Ministry of Sport and the Opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) had contrived to bring down the Ministry’s permanent secretary Ashwin Creed, herself, her line Minister Anil Roberts and the Government by exposing the LifeSport programme. 

The funding and recipients of LifeSport were identified in an investigative series by the Express newspapers. Following the stories, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar directed Finance Minister Larry Howai to initiate an audit into the programme and transferred it out of Sport to the Ministry of National Security. National Security Minister Gary Griffith said LifeSport will now be directed by the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force.

Marchan in the Ministry

Marchan produced a series of printed text messages, which she said, point to a deliberate attempt by people to conspire against her.

The Sunday Express has a copy of these texts exchanges.

Marchan, who said her own phone had also gone missing, admitted during the Sunday Express’ taped interview that the texts were obtained from a phone she took from the ministry’s Director of Sport David Bobb. 

Contacted yesterday, Bobb said he reported his phone stolen by the police but declined to comment on any other matters raised by Marchan. 

He said LifeSport never came under his portfolio and distanced himself from Marchan’s narrative.

“I had to prove to senior officials that it wasn’t me. I didn’t do a police report. But I did own up to the police eventually. The director (Bobb), I end up taking his phone. We went to a meeting and I ended up taking his phone. I didn’t just take the phone. I took the phone and stripped some of the information. These were some of the texts I was able to gather. One of the texts actually save my life,” she said.

The text exchange, which the Sunday Express was given, was dated February, March and April 2014.

One text reads: “The Muslims killing the programme. Time has passed for their usefulness, since after the march last year. Need a solution.”

Another reads: “Sending docs for u later. Depending on you and your friends. More to come.”

Another said: “Need help with situation with Ruth and Tall man URGENTLY!!!”

Marchan says these texts point to a conspiracy to leak information from the Ministry.

She described Anil Roberts as “one of the best ministers that came across the ministry” and credits Creed with knowing how to take the ministry forward.

“I would more work with the officials on top. Whether it be the PS or the minister,” she said.

She said she maintained a good relationship with Independent Liberal Party (ILP) leader Jack Warner and became a target of the Opposition because “I making the Government make good”.

“The ministry before was a quiet ministry. We were never before in the media and in the spotlight like that. We came into the spotlight through Buxo Potts.”

“Files went missing when we needed to get key information on the Boxing Board. The LifeSport was a next one where files went missing. We didn’t know where the files were. Sometimes when the file is found in (name called) drawer. Things are being done deliberate to hurt the administration,” she said.


The birth of LifeSport

The idea for LifeSport is usually credited to Creed but Marchan said the idea was that of Roberts.

“This is the brainchild of the minister. He came up with the idea and he was the executing arm of the project. He was always adamant to the fact that he didn’t want a next programme that failed because it was boring,” she said.

She explained that the project started without funding and they had to “make it happen”.

To begin the programme, she said Roberts identified nine people to be “ground people”.

“My job with budget was to keep within Cabinet approval. That is what we rightfully did throughout the programme. It started with ten communities. When the note went to Cabinet, a lot of other MPs were interested in the programme. We decided to extend it to 33 communities,” she said.

She said while there is a standardised budget for each community, “it was extended based on the requests from certain MPs who saw the programme and liked it and thought it would have been fitting for their communities”.

She believes it is the success of the programme that made it and her a target.

“They targeted the LifeSport. To prove that we are recruiting criminals and using State funding, funding these criminals through the LifeSport to buy guns and ammunition,” she said.

“We got tipped off about that. The Sunday Keith Rowley won elections, the very next day, the Monday, these things came out with Muslims and Rajaee in the papers. It was an assault for a week or two against the LifeSport, Rajaee and also the Muslim community.

I did the budget. What really remained in the community is caterers’ money, participants. The coaches. These are the three main elements in terms of money and the coordinators obviously. These are money, when you multiply, it is standardised for all.” she said.

As for the programme being audited, she replied: “The auditors who keep coming to the Ministry of Sport are auditors who seem programmed to only look at certain aspects of the programme.”

Marchan said it is because of this a $34 million contract which was given to a well-known educator to provide mathematics and English lessons to the programme was unidentified as no work was done.


Deliberate attack on Roberts

She said at some point the LifeSport file went missing from the ministry and excerpts emerged through the media.

For this, Marchan blames boxing promoter, Buxo Potts.

“It was a deliberate attack to bring down Anil Roberts. After (LifeSport) came the video. That video was seen on Buxo Potts phone. It was way outdated. That was in the earlies. I saw it,” she said.

Contacted yesterday, Potts responded: “I vehemently and categorically deny making any threat to any official at the Ministry of Sport. Those claims are frivolous, unfounded, baseless and untrue. I would ask Ruth Marchan to desist from calling my name.”

Asked whether he had the video of a man resembling Roberts rolling a cigarette in his cellphone, he neither confirmed nor denied. 

But Marchan said: “Our job is to protect the minister and protect the PS. I do that without fear or favour. I have a very good rapport with Anil Roberts. I have a very good rapport with the PS but I am not bending for no individual,” she said.

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