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'POWER PLAY'

AG defends 'PM's contractor' against envious competitors

By Asha Javeed asha.javeed@trinidadexpress.com

Attorney General Anand Ramlogan has defended contracts awarded by the Government to companies affiliated with the People's Partnership.

The AG was responding to a Sunday Express story in which a $232.5 million contract for a Motor Vehicle Authority (MVA) was awarded to Super Industrial Services (SIS), the contractor linked to the completion of construction of the homes of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and former minority leader of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Ashworth Jack.

SIS was the contractor behind the $45 million Siparia Market and the $70 million Couva/Preysal Interchange. SIS has also benefitted from Programme for Upgrading Roads Efficiency (PURE) contracts awarded by Nipdec on behalf of the Ministry of Works.

"The large majority of contracts awarded has not necessarily changed hands, whether it is prisoner transport, construction, or financial consulting. But the issue of who contracts are awarded to must be seen as a power play by desperate commercial interests that are seeking to protect and preserve their monopoly on lucrative work in the State sector. This group is seeking to shut out small players and newcomers to protect their turf. You hear no complaint when they get a contract but you hear a cacophony when anyone outside their circle gets anything," Ramlogan told the Express in a telephone interview yesterday.

When the question was posed to the AG about the extent of SIS owner Krishna Lalla's power and influence in the People's Partnership, he admitted that "that talk has been around".

"But the talk has also been around that a group of Port of Spain businessmen from a certain community financed the People's National Movement (PNM) campaign in Tobago and in the last general election. No one expressed concern when they received contracts from the PNM and continue to receive contracts from this Government," Ramlogan said.

The Attorney General added: "The Constitution gives each citizen and corporate citizen the right to freedom of association and freedom of political affiliation and expression. So companies are free to support political parties, but that is not a ground for discrimination because that will expose the State to litigation. The focus must be on the process and the process must be fair and transparent, that you cannot discriminate based on political bias and perception."

But while the Lalla-owned SIS has become a preferred contractor of the People's Partnership Government, the administration is aware of issues with the company which have impacted on delivery and construction management.

These issues were raised in a report as part of the audit conducted by the Attorney General's office into Evolving Technologies and Enterprise Development Company (eTeck). SIS was one of four companies identified by Akbar Ali, the AG's attorney in the audit, for investigation to determine whether the State could pursue civil proceedings to regain money for uncompleted work.

Under the PNM administration, SIS had won a $150 million contract for roads and drainage works at the Tamana Intech Park in June 2006. It was supposed to be completed in 18 months.

However, the company was fired after an audit conducted by Trintoplan Consultants determined that it failed to meet its contractual obligations. Some of the issues identified with SIS's work was the poor performance of its sub-contractors, delays due to rainfall, malfunction of SIS's asphalt plant, poor construction management and the inability to replace sub-contractors on a timely basis.

SIS was fired after 40 per cent of the work was completed. The audit determined that another contractor would have to be hired to conduct remedial measures on the work completed because of "poor quality construction".

The then eTeck board, chaired by Prof Ken Julien, agreed to pay SIS about $100 million for the work.

However, while the Attorney General has pursued civil proceedings against directors of the company for decisions they made, no action will be taken to recover money from SIS.

"The matter was the subject of review together with other contracts awarded by the PNM-appointed board. However, there was no evidence of corruption on the part of SIS or the PNM board. The legal advice I received was that there was no basis for pursuing a claim against the former board over the award of this multi-million contract to SIS as the tender procedure was transparent and award justified."

Questioned on whether he's not concerned about the allegations made against the People's Partnership Government with regard to tendering practices, Ramlogan responded: "No. I understand in the political context that it is made. When large contracts were awarded by the PNM, no one batted an eyelid, but suddenly there is an endless list of so-called allegations because of vested commercial interests in a major control for economic power."

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