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'No conflict of interest with Nicholas Tower'

Caribbean Airlines chairman responds to family leasing office to State carrier...

By Anna Ramdass anna.ramdass@trinidadexpress.com

Caribbean Airlines (CAL) chairman George Nicholas III has dismissed suggestions he could be at the centre of a conflict of interest because his family rents prime office space in Port of Spain to the State carrier.

A question was raised by a senior Government official on Thursday regarding Nicholas' chairing of the airline while it rents offices at Nicholas Tower on Independence Square.

Nicholas's father, hotelier Issa Nicholas, owns the multi-storey Nicholas Tower and operates Crowne Plaza Hotel on Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. CAL has offices in Nicholas Tower.

Contacted for a response about the possibility of a conflict of interest involving Caribbean Airlines, Nicholas said he was not connected to his father's business.

"It's part of my family's business I am not at all involved in," he said in an e-mailed response to the Express.

CAL rents parts of two floors of the Nicholas Tower building.

The Express understands close to $80,000 in rent is paid every month for the space occupied by CAL. Some $5,750 is paid for car park fees; $55,609 for the rental of the reservations area; and $18,595 for part of another floor.

CAL occupied offices at Nicholas Tower prior to Nicholas being appointed chairman.

However, the Government official, who did not want to be identified, raised concern as to why Nicholas was still appointed chairman given this public knowledge. He added objections had been raised early with respect to Nicholas' appointment, but he was given the green light.

There is now concern surrounding the newly installed CAL board, led by Nicholas, after it objected to a Cabinet-approved decision to purchase nine aircraft from European aircraft manufacturer ATR.

Works and Transport Minister Jack Warner had a falling out with Nicholas over what Warner said was a lack of respect for him over the issue, as well as the firing of former CAL chief executive officer Capt Ian Brunton last month.

Warner and the Nicholas-led board were engaged in a war of words through the media before Attorney General Anand Ramlogan requested them to refrain from further statements and await the report of a London-based aviation expert, John Dunne, who will determine if the board was right to object to the ATR deal over concerns about safety of the turboprop planes CAL agreed to buy from ATR.

The Express understands Warner is upset over the entire imbroglio and the position taken by Persad-Bissessar, who recently told the media boards can review decisions taken by Cabinet.

The Government source said the Prime Minister is in a challenging position having placed Nicholas as chairman of the CAL board.

Also contacted on the matter, former chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute Reginald Dumas said yesterday there could be the perception of a conflict of interest.

"On the face of it, there is nothing illegal with it, and the lease arrangement (for the office space) was entered into before (Nicholas) became chairman," Dumas, a former head of the Public Service, told the Express by phone.

"But there could be the perception that someone in the Government, in the Cabinet, has been favouring the Nicholas family. So there could be the perception that there could be a conflict of interest and, therefore, unethical."

—with additional reporting by Curtis Rampersad

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