FORMER UNC Transport Minister with responsibility for the Piarco airport project, Jearlean John, yesterday said after her first site visit to the project she got the impression it was "treacherous". She said she didn't trust anyone, because she felt there was no fixed budget and structured plan and found the whole situation "chaotic". She said it appeared decisions were being made on the spot, and she decided never to return to the site.
However John's revelations were abruptly cut short because of repeated interruptions in the live telecast of the inquiry into the Piarco project. In fact the Commission's attorney, Theodore Guerra, SC suggested that the breakdowns were deliberate.
The telecast is carried on The Information Channel (TIC).
John's appearance at the inquiry was delayed by a week so that she could have independent legal counsel.
Yesterday John was led by her attorney Ruth van Lare. She gave evidence for just over an hour, before the 11.30 am break in transmission.
She said in January 2001 she became Transport Minister, under which the project fell. She assumed the position when the Ministry of Works and Transport was taken away from Sadiq Baksh and made two separate ministries, that of Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Works and Infrastructure.
John began active work on the project from the end of January until May 25, 2001, a day after the airport was completed.
John said she recalled "quite vividly" the first site meeting she attended at the end of January, 2001, to which she was invited by then Planning Minister John Humphrey, who was chairman of the inter-ministerial team on the project. Others present at the meeting according to John were Humphrey, former Works and Transport Minister Sadiq Baksh, Finance Minister Gerald Yetming, the client representative Peter Cateau and representatives of NIPDEC and the 13 contractors.
She said it appeared as though everyone was friendly with the other and she got the impression that "things were approved there on the spot".
She added, "There was a lot of looseness, no real structure and it appeared anyone could have jumped up and changed things."
John disclosed that she also got the impression there "was no fixed budget; it was like a moving target; there was no fixed plan, and it felt chaotic". She said she didn't know if that was because she herself had a structured way of doing things, but she felt it was not the way things should be done.
Asked who were the ones changing things on the project, John said it was so chaotic, any and everyone could have spoken about changes.
Asked if she arrived at a decision as a result of her impressions, John said because she was aware the project was embroiled in the "worst type of controversy and scandal" she had "reservations". She said she decided when she left the site, never to return. She said she later spoke to then Chairman of the Airports Authority (AA), Tryone Gopee and informed him of her decision never to return to the site. She said she requested all the minutes of all site meetings. She said she also spoke to Yetming, and he too said he was never returning to the site.
She stressed that because of the allegations of wrongdoing which surrounded the project, she "did not want to be tainted by anyone's baggage".
She said she had her eyes wide open and whether the allegations were proven or not, even as her government set up an inquiry (Deyalsingh Inquiry), "I was mindful of public opinion".
John went on to say she began getting correspondence on the project and she saw that a billion dollars had already been spent with a proposal for a further $1.6 billion to be spent.
Asked if her predecessor Baksh ever formally handed over the project to her, she said no and was not aware that it wasn't. She pointed out that she never held discussions with Baksh about the project because she felt she would have gotten a status report on it. She said she never asked Baksh for a status report because of the allegations surrounding the project.
John added, "I did not want to be associated with people on the project, I felt I wanted to stay far".
Asked if she was aware of other site meetings, John said there were many others, "whether legitimate or illegitimate. I got the feeling the project was a treacherous one and I did not trust anyone." She said people were just having meetings.
John's evidence was disrupted at that time because of the break in the telecast transmission. It was the second interruption during the sitting which prompted Guerra to comment, "it is strange, all of a sudden that there are breaks in transmission and it's becoming ridiculous". Guerra said he was particularly worried that the breaks were so consistent", and suggested that the inquiry be adjourned since everyone wanted to hear and see John give her evidence.
He told the Commissioners that TIC be allowed time to fix the problem properly and to guarantee that it does not re-occur.
Guerra stressed, "the nation expects it, we want the truth to be told to Trinidad and Tobago, it's too important to have these breakdowns".
Guerra added that the full impact of John's evidence was lost with the constant interruptions. John agreed saying that her thought processes were being interrupted.