Uff reports to Max today

Uff flew in from London yesterday and will this morning hand over his report to President George Maxwell Richards. He will address reporters at a press conference scheduled to be held at the Winsure Building, Richmond Street, Port-of-Spain, at 11.30 am.

Surprised by the presence of reporters on his arrival at Hilton Trinidad, St Ann’s, at about 6.25 pm, escorted by police and special army reserve personnel, Uff remarked,“Wow! It is nice for you all to come and greet me.”

When asked what he would disclose in the report, Uff replied, “Well, there is going to be a press conference at 11.30 am, so come along for that. The report will be delivered and you will get the necessary information.”

The submission of Uff’s report comes amidst an ongoing police probe into former Udecott chairman Calder Hart who fled the country on March 6 the same day he resigned. He left for Florida the same week that documents linking him to Malaysian firm Sunway Construction Caribbean Limited, emerged, after being obtained by the Congress of the People (COP).

The submission of the report is also the culmination of a process which began in April 2008 when Diego Martin West MP Dr Keith Rowley was sacked as Trade and Industry Minister after he raised questions over Udecott. Rowley — and others — called for a commission of inquiry, but this was resisted by Prime Minister Patrick Manning.

Manning appointed a Joint Select Committee (JSC) before capitulating to calls for a commission in the face of allegations made by Tabaquite MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj in Parliament in May, 2008, that Hart was linked to Sunway via his wife Sherrine.

Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar last week called on the Government to make Uff’s report public. With Prime Minister Patrick Manning this weekend hinting at a general election, there have been concerns about the report being sidelined if the Parliament is dissolved.

However, while inquiry reports are normally tabled in Parliament, there is no stipulation that this is the only way in which they are to be made public, lawyers said yesterday. The Commission of Inquiry Act is silent on what is to happen to a report after it is handed in to the President, leaving the manner of dissemination of the report open to the State.

The inquiry, which had a budgeted cost of about $20 million according to Budget documents tabled last year, had a first procedural sitting in November 2008, and full hearings began in January 2009. The hearings saw unprecedented levels of public interest and were broadcast live on television and covered extensively by the media.

For the first time in Trinidad and Tobago, an internet website was set up for members of the public to access information in relation to the proceedings.

From day one the inquiry was dogged by concerns over the failure of Udecott lawyers to disclose documents and to meet deadlines set out by the commissions. Hearings saw constant wrangling between lawyers representing parties to the inquiry, wrangling which often took crucial inquiry time away from the hearing of evidence.

Udecott lawyers, led by British QC Andrew Goddard, launched lawsuits against the proceedings during hearings.

The first was aimed at quashing a decision of the commission to issue a letter of charges (also known as a Salmon letter) detailing the case against Udecott on the basis of the evidence that had been adduced in the proceedings. In the same proceedings, the lawyers also asked the court to determine the issue of whether lawyers at the inquiry would be shielded from court action by legal professional privilege in the course of hearings. The court later ruled that the lawyers were covered by privilege and delayed treatment of the Salmon letter issue until the determination of a second suit that was later launched by Udecott.

The second suit challenged the proceedings on the basis of apparent bias of the commissioners. It was thrown out this month by Justice Mira Dean-Armorer who also ruled that she had no basis to stay the commission from submitting a final report to Richards.

The almost two-year-old proceedings also saw the original panel of commissioners whittled down. Originally Uff led Senior Counsel Israel Khan, engineer Kenneth Sirju and Desmond Thornhill. However, Khan last year stepped down on the basis of apparent bias, after penning a letter which severely criticised Udecott and Hart. Sirju quietly stepped down after a conflict of interest emerged in the wake of the Cabinet expanding the terms of reference of the commission to include the Cleaver Heights housing project on which his family firm KS&P Limited worked.

That project saw no less than two separate phases of hearings over a contractual discrepancy which was first raised by Prime Minister Patrick Manning in September 2008 as he launched an attack on Rowley in Parliament.

While the inquiry’s independent construction expert Scotsman Gerry Mc Caffrey had, in an initial report presented in February 2009, found that the discrepancy was “smoke” unlikely to be “masking mischief”, the Cabinet pressed forward in asking the commissioners, already under pressure because of a lack of resources and a tight timeline for the completion of their report, to exhaustively probe the project. Payment of McCaffrey was also reviewed by Cabinet subsequent to his initial findings.

The inquiry’s timeline has been so expansive that even key witnesses have come and gone. Notably Hafeez Karamath, the founder of Hafeez Karamath Limited, the firm with several contracts at the heavily criticised Brian Lara Cricket Stadium project at Tarouba, who died months after testifying in the proceedings.

At the hearings, questions about the practices at the Housing Development Corporation (HDC), which is administering the project, emerged, with some arguing that the State seemed to be pushing the idea that the HDC was just as bad as Udecott when it came to regulating projects. Key staff at the HDC quit during the proceedings, most notably its chairman Andrew Macintosh and former acting managing director Margaret Chow, who had penned a report which more of less coincided with Mc Caffrey’s and effectively cleared Rowley of wrongdoing.

In the end, it was the evidence about the projects themselves and in particular the testimony of Calder Hart, which generated most concerns.

In open testimony, Hart admitted to selling a yacht to Ali Ettehadieh, president of a firm that was in line for and which subsequently received several Udecott projects. Hart also admitted that his personal fax number was used by a company that later became Sunway Construction (Caribbean) Limited, a Malaysian firm awarded the $368 million construction contract for the Ministry of Legal Affairs Tower.

Dramatically, Carl Khan, the ex-husband of Hart’s Malaysian-born wife Sherrine, last May also deposed in sworn statutory declarations that Sherrine’s brother and brother-in-law were Lee Hup Ming and Ng Chin Poh. Both had been listed on Sunway documents as directors.

While Khan testified and made himself available for cross-examination by Hart’s lawyers, they declined to do so. perhaps the most bizarre development in the inquiry was the emergence that it had not been gazetted under the terms of the Commission of Inquiry Act. Uff insisted that notwithstanding the error, the inquiry was valid under the common-law, but the Government then tabled legislation to cure the defect, with Leader of Government Colm Imbert later boasting in Parliament that the Government could have used the defect to derail the inquiry.


"Uff reports to Max today"

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