While some may say the general election is over and some may even try to allege politicking ahead of the July 26 local government polls, we say that the new Government is fully entitled to a full accounting of any dubious expenditure done by their predecessors.
Karim told the Senate that the former Government had paid $62 million in rent over a five year period since 2005 — which works out to be a million dollars a month — and allegedly also paid $30 million towards repairs of that building.
“Mr President, the present monthly rent is $857,577 together with a monthly maintenance fee of $184,283 giving a total monthly rent of close to $1.04 million,” he said, adding that the landlord had shown “absolute disinterest” towards the Government’s strenuous attempts to now appeal for a rental reduction.
Karim also revealed the former regime had rented the St James premises housing his own Ministry at a cost of $41 million over the past nine years.
We note that Karim’s revelations come on the heels of similar allegations recently made by Minister of Works Jack Warner at a UNC rally at Emerald Plaza, St Augustine.
Several questions arise. Regarding the actual specifics of the Melville Lane property, we ask whether it is the usual practice for a tenant — in this case the former regime — to pay a private landlord the cost of doing repairs to his own premises, which in this case we are told amounted to a hefty $30 million.
More broadly, we ask the basic question as to what was the policy of the former regime regarding renting versus buying/building of its own premises? Our concern is that we are now finding out that after billions of dollars were spent to build the State’s own accommodations which at the moment are largely looking like white elephants — such as the International Financial Centre and Government Campus — we are now hearing of what appears to be more squandermania of taxpayers’ money by the rental of office space. As we look at the tall empty buildings littering downtown Port-of-Spain and we learn of millions of dollars being paid to rent offices housing Government Ministries, we wonder when exactly was the former regime planning to switch from renting from private landlords to occupying State premises?
Further, for each property rented, the question must be asked as to whether it was a fair market rent that was charged and whether the premises to be rented was chosen in an above-board manner, such as by an invitation to tender.
It may well be an opportune time for the entire matter to be referred to the Integrity Commission and/or the Auditor-General for a full accounting.
At a PNM rally in Arima on Monday, new Leader of the Opposition Dr Keith Rowley defended the right of a supporter of the PNM to have rented out a premises to the State under the former PNM regime. We say that well, yes, any citizen of Trinidad and Tobago may well have certain constitutional rights to the use of their property etcetera including renting it out, but our concern is whether it was above board, even as we note that the Integrity in Public Life Act bans the use of public office for private gain. If it were ever found that the State was paying excessively above a fair market rent for a premises to a private landlord who in turn was found to be a financier of a party in power, then that would certainly raise red flags of a possible quid pro quo (“something for something”) that would need to be investigated.
Meanwhile we urged the People’s Partnership Government to consider including the issue of rentals in its promised new legislation on procurement which could be expanded from merely regulating purchases by the State.