In an interview with Newsday, Narine said he was at the time unaware of any links between the church project and Manning and insisted what he did was legal and in accordance with Ministry of Agriculture practice.
“It came and because it was my portfolio, I took it to the Cabinet,” Narine said. “During my tenure I dealt with about 800 such applications for approval.”
He denied any knowledge of links between the Prime Minister and the project and said he was confident the transaction was legal, notwithstanding concerns over the use of State resources for private gain.
“I have nothing to say about what I did now,” he said. “What I did there was above the law and above board.”
The project, being constructed by the Chinese firm Shanghai Construction Group, has been linked to a woman known as Juliana Pena who is said to be a spiritual advisor of Manning. Narine said he remembered the application was made for a transfer to a woman with the surname “Pena” but denied knowledge of Pena acting as an advisor to Manning at the time.
Asked if he was aware the applicant, Pena, was linked to Manning at the time of the application, Narine said, “I don’t know. I have my spiritual advisor in Cumuto.” Asked if he felt he had done wrong by bringing the application to Cabinet, he said, “Not at all. It was a normal process which occurs in the ministry. At any period we carry these notes to Cabinet to have new lands given, lands transferred, or to have change of use for lands.”
Asked if he remembers who lodged the application, Narine said he could not recall the details.
“I did recall that one application. I knew the area, it is just because it was close to Arima that I can recall it,” he said. “It was for a church. The owner at the time was a very old gentleman and he was seeking to transfer the land to the lady there. I remember her name was (Juliana) Pena. I never met her and I never met the gentleman who transferred the land.”
He outlined the process by which applications for the transfer of agricultural State lands to private owners occurred during his tenure as Agriculture Minister between November 2003 to September 2007.
“They would have applied to the Commissioner of State Lands for the parcel transfer, and then they (the ministry) would have officers going out into the field,” he said. “There would have been a file for that parcel of land and it would have been investigated thoroughly. The Commissioner of State Lands would have signed off on it and sent it to the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and the permanent secretary would have reviewed it and then sent it on to me.”
Narine said he could not recall the date on which the application went to Cabinet or whether or not objections were raised at Cabinet.
Asked if he took the application as part of a batch, he said, “I can’t recall but I would not take an application by itself.” But once approved by Cabinet, he said the process would involve other Government ministries.
“When it is approved by Cabinet then it goes back to the Commissioner of State Lands who then sends it back to the Attorney General’s department to prepare the transfer. That is the process. I met that there and I had to continue that process for all land.” He continued, “There were a number of churches on State land — including Hindu and all the other small churches — that were dealt with.”
Asked what criteria would have been used to process an application for the transfer of public land into private hands, Narine said, “You have to have a lease on the land. You are simply asking in this case to transfer the lease to another person or persons.” Of the lands at Guanapo, he said, “It would have gone back to the State if the owner had no next of kin to apply for it. What I recall in this instance is that there was a church on the property; a small church and that the church was handed over.”
Narine’s account of the procedure for the transfer of State lands was confirmed by legal sources yesterday.
However checks done by Newsday at the Lands Registry did not reveal a single property with title vested in anyone by the name of Juliana Pena.
Further checks at the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) also revealed that work on the project, which is continuing daily at Cemetery Street, Heights of Guanapo, Arima, is continuing even in the absence of an application for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC). CECs are required for certain classes of activity, including the construction of institutional facilities such as churches. The project’s contractor Shanghai Construction Group has a history of being criticised for starting projects without approval from the EMA.
In a statement on Wednesday, Manning said the project was approved by Cabinet in 2006, even though a cornerstone at the site bears the date 2005. Yesterday, former members of the Cabinet who were contemporaries of Narine, could not shed light on the project. “That was a Cabinet matter and those are confidential,” said former Trade and Industry Minister Ken Valley. Former Housing Minister Dr Keith Rowley said, “I have no recollection of that project. I can’t say it came to Cabinet or it didn’t”.