Udecott takes centre stage

Since this present session began in December last, two PNM MPs have been occupying seats across the aisle because there was no room on the Government benches. But Rowley’s move immediately set tongues wagging. A Newsday reporter sent him a note asking if anything was wrong. His first reply was one word: “Yes”. That one word would multiply into thousands more including rough references to “wajang” and “hooligan” as the story unfolded.

THE ISSUE of the accountability or lack thereof of the Urban Development Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (Udecott), which manages billions of taxpayers’ monies, took centre stage when Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley was fired as Minister of Trade and Industry by Prime Minister Patrick Manning on Wednesday.

Hours later, addressing constituents and the media at his constituency office, Rowley alleged he had been removed from Cabinet by Manning because, at a meeting of a Cabinet sub-committee on April 14, he had objected to the lack of Cabinet oversight of Udecott’s activities.

“I raised with the Prime Minister the need for Cabinet oversight of Udecott’s activities where billions of dollars are being spent on projects,” Rowley told reporters. “The way things are going it is time for the PNM to take cognisance of the way the country is being governed,” he added.

Rowley continued: “My concern had to do with a demand for Cabinet oversight of Udecott’s activities where...state funds are being expended on projects which are unnecessary...My concern had to do with the procurement processes...And, I raised that and I clearly offended certain people.”

The Cabinet sub-committee meeting was chaired by Senator Lenny Saith who has now replaced Rowley. The public has now been told that at that meeting Rowley misbehaved.

It is not known who, besides Saith and Rowley, the ministers present were. But, representatives of Udecott (Chairman Calder Hart) and the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) (its head Professor Ken Julien) reportedly made presentations with respect to the Academy of the Performing Arts now under construction at the Princess Building Grounds, Port-of-Spain at a cost of TT$200 million.

Rowley took umbrage specifically to a plan presented by Hart, concerning a 60-room hotel on the site. Rowley, like most members of the Cabinet and certainly the public, said he was unaware that the academy project included a hotel.

It was not the first problem Rowley had with Udecott. Rowley told reporters that he had had issues with Udecott since the days when he was the Planning and Development Minister from 2002 to 2003.

“My position (at the April 14 meeting) can be seen as a continuation of my dissatisfaction with Udecott’s existence and presence within the public sector and how it has been allowed to function.”

Rowley revealed that he was summoned by Manning to a meeting at Whitehall at 7.30am last Wednesday and at this meeting, he was accused by Manning of misconduct at the April 14 meeting of the FGP. Rowley said he denied the allegations of misconduct which Manning said had been reported by his Cabinet colleagues.

There was a second meeting around midday at which Manning requested Rowley’s resignation. Rowley refused, telling the Prime Minister: “You know what to do”.

The Prime Minister did, issuing a three-sentence press-release announcing that Rowley had been relieved of his post and that Saith was replacing him.

At his constituency meeting on Wednesday, Rowley flatly and forcefully denied any misconduct.

The public did not have long to wait.

Following the next day’s Cabinet meeting, instead of the usual retinue of Cabinet Ministers, with information Minister Neil Parsanlal as the moderator, only Mr Manning faced the media. Parsanlal was nowhere to be seen, his role made unnecessary by the arrival of the chief himself.

Manning looked the media presence full in the face and stated that Rowley had engaged in misconduct.

Admitting that he did not attend the meeting, Manning nonetheless said: “It is my information that he (Rowley) proceeded in a most atrocious fashion to prosecute a case. It has been described as a tirade and it went on for over five minutes.”

Like a judicial officer, Manning admitted he had conducted an investigation into the incident which had been reported to him. He said he called Rowley in to give his side of the story last Wednesday. But by then, the Prime Minister seemed to have already made up his mind.

Of what Rowley said, the Prime Minister seemed to hear him “prosecuting a case”.

According to Manning, Rowley categorically denied any wrongdoing, arguing that he had (at the FGP meeting) in fact taken issue with some aspects of the matter that was being discussed. Rowley “prosecuted a case vigorously, and at no time did he believe he had crossed the bounds of propriety,” Manning said.

The questioning of Manning by the media started briskly but later degenerated as reporters interrupted each other even before a question could be properly asked allowing Mr Manning to evade crucial questions and side-step those he did not wish to answer. Reporters also interrupted Mr Manning while he was trying to give his explanation.

In reply to one question, Manning said that he was “sure” that the hotel had already been approved by Cabinet, but when pressed further, he did not appear so sure, actually adding: “I’m not too sure, I will have to look (at the Cabinet minutes).” Notwithstanding this, he went on to fire one of his most experienced front-liners on the basis of reports from five of Dr Rowley’s colleagues who remain unnamed, and who are unlikely to repeat these allegations in Rowley’s presence.

Rowley has vehemently denied these allegations of his colleagues.

Rowley, who holds a PhD in Geology and Geo-Chemistry, had served as Minister of Trade for just over four months. Prior to this he had served as Housing Minister and was credited with revolutionising the Ministry of Housing. He had enjoyed considerable success in that Ministry, seeing the start of the construction of 26,000 housing units under his tenure. It was a feat no other housing minister, including Rowley’s predecessor Martin Joseph, had been able to accomplish. It was a feat that went virtually unacknowledged by Manning last week.

The public knowledge of the bad blood between Manning and Rowley (Rowley challenged Manning for leadership of the PNM in 1996) threatened to eclipse what was, for Rowley, the true bone of contention: Udecott, and the accountability.

Udecott was launched on December 28, 1994 as a limited liability company registered under the Companies Ordinance, specialising in project management. The corporation falls under the Ministry of Planning, Housing and the Environment.

Udecott’s Chairman is Canadian banker Calder Hart, of De Lima Road, Cascade. Other members of the Board of Directors are: property developer Dr Krishna Bahadoorsingh, of Fairways, Maraval; Independent Senator and President General of the SWWTU, Michael Annisette, of Suffolk Road, Belmont, attorney Anthony Cherry, of La Horquette, Glencoe, Unit Trust Corporation manager Wendell Dottin, of Olton Road Arima, businessman Devanand Ramlal, of Chan Ramlal Avenue, Chaguanas, and accountant Madan Ramnarine, of Esmeralda Road, Cunupia.

Hart is also at the helm of the Home Mortgage Bank, the National Insurance Board and the National Insurance Property Development Company (NIPDEC).

Udecott has become synonymous with Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s Vision 2020 programme. “Udecott is developing the structures that form part of Vision 2020,” reads the corporations’s website which also contains the slogan, “Developing the Vision...making it real.”

The corporation handles more than 50 projects, estimated to be worth more than $10billion.

These include: the $2billion Port-of-Spain International Waterfront Centre, the $200million Academy of Performing Arts, the $900million National Carnival and Entertainment Centre, the $850million Tarouba project and a planned $350million Sangre Grande hospital.

The corporation recently delivered a $148million Prime Ministerial residence at La Fantasie, of which Mr Manning is profoundly proud. This mansion, however has been described as wasteful, as a good building was knocked down to build it while President’s House, which is under Udecott management, is falling down and the President entertains under tents on the grounds.

Other projects being managed by Udecott include: the demolition of the Salvatori Building, the Diego Martin Administrative Headquarters, Government Campus Plaza, Invader’s Bay Development, the People’s Mall, Port-of-Spain, refurbishment of Stollmeyer’s Castle, restoration of the Red House and Mille Fleurs. Buildings for the Ministries of Agriculture and Marine Resources, Education, Energy and Energy Industries, Local Government and Public Administration are also listed under Udecott’s portfolio of projects.

Yet, while it handles billions worth of projects, local watchers say the organisation is difficult to bring to account and the public perception of Calder Hart is that he is monarch of all he surveys. The Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute has called on Udecott to follow procurement procedures set out in a 2004 Parliamentary White Paper, but Udecott has refused to do so, noting that the White Paper is not yet law and is charged with peculiar development projects.

The Joint Consultative Council of the local construction industry has called for Hart’s removal from the corporation and for the company’s finances to be made subject to a forensic audit, something it has to date not done.

Former attorney general Karl Hudson-Phillips has noted the difficulties private individuals face in challenging the tendering procedures of bodies like Udecott. At a lecture on March 19, he noted that the creation of “special purpose companies” like UDECOTT is now a trend in this jurisdiction.

“The Executive chooses to create (them) to conduct its major procurement activities ostensibly with the goal of achieving greater commercial expediency.”

“(For example) the purchase of an executive jet aircraft to facilitate the movement of members of the executive is presumably not state action because it is done through a wholly owned state company (that is Caribbean Airlines).”

“In so doing it is important not to ignore the potential loss of public law accountability which may result even though these entities are undertaking a public function or pursuing the Government’s development goals,” the Queen’s Counsel warned. Even members of the Colonial Club, a private tennis club which for years operated at the Princes Building site, have complained that Udecott seems to be extending its reaches without accountability.

According to Shirley Kelsick, 77, a former president of the club, which adjoined the site of the Academy for the Performing Arts, Chinese workers moved in since March 13 fencing it in. This, despite the fact that the club’s clay courts were never intended for the Udecott project, being part of the National Museum.

After the club protested that their courts were not part of the academy’s site, the fencing was removed. Udecott officials told club members that an error had occurred. It was an empty declaration.

“Three weeks later they started to board-up the site again,” she said. The members were not given an opportunity to salvage anything at the site including a club house with drinks, trophies, files, gardening equipment, water tanks and lighting equipments.

“Nobody has said one word to us, not Calder Hart (Udecott chairman), nobody.

We wrote Udecott complaining and suggesting that they compensate us and asking that they please negotiate with us. They have never replied. They have never set up any meeting, we have not been given a chance to take our belongings,” she said. But the Colonial Club is small-fry in the greater vision that Udecott is now painting across the landscape with the full approval of Mr Manning. In this scenario, Dr Rowley is only the latest “obstructionist”.


"Udecott takes centre stage"

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