Cabinet has approved the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry to examine the actions of and on behalf of the State in acquiring and taking steps to acquire properties and structures in respect of the construction of the extension of the Solomon Hochoy Highway Extension to Point Fortin.
It will also examine whether the cabinet appointed ministerial oversight committee fulfilled its mandate.
Communications Minister Stuart Young made the announcement at the post-Cabinet media conference yesterday.
He revealed that retired judge Sebastian Ventour, assisted by attorney Gregory Delzin, will chair the commission. Senior Counsel Reginald Amour will also serve on the commission, assisted by attorneys Venessa Gopaul and Rishi Dass.
He explained that the cabinet’s decision to appoint the committee was based on a preliminary report done by the Ministry of Works and Transport dated July 7, 2019, which raised several concerns.
“It is when we studied that report, that report is what provoked Cabinet to say well look, we need to have a Commission of Enquiry to get to the true facts in the public glare as to what it is taking place here for the expenditure of taxpayer funds of over half a billion dollars…and in many instances the properties were not necessary and worse yet, in some instances, great overvalues was paid for these properties that we believe was unjustifiable.”
Young explained that when construction of the extension from San Fernando began in 2011, the then People’s Partnership administration budgeted $800 million for the acquisition of the necessary lands. But $500 million later, only 513 properties were acquired.
And with some 495 properties remaining to be acquired, Young said expenditure is expected to exceed the remaining $300 million budgeted.
He revealed that to date, there are some 291 parcels of land, which was served with land acquisition notices, however, were no longer necessary because of the design change to the highway.
Citing cases from the Ministry of Works and Transport’s report, Young explained that they discovered a public servant was involved in sleight of hand with the valuations and inflated the figures.
“There is a particular public servant who did valuations in his private capacity and then, lo and behold, when the valuations needed to be approved by the Commissioner of Valuations department, that same person came and actually increased in some instances the valuation that he had provided as a private evaluator.”
Also of special concern to the cabinet was whether the ministerial committee appointed to oversee the land acquisition stuck to its mandate. It was headed by then Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and comprised several senior ministers including then Minister of Works and Transport Jack Warner. The commission would also examine this. Guardian Media reached out to the former Works and Transport Minister for comment, however, was unable to reach him.
The ministers who served on the then cabinet appointed oversight committee are as follows:
1. Kamla Persad-Bissessar – Prime Minister (Chairman)
2. Stephen Cadiz – Minister of Trade and Industry
3. Winston Dookeran- Minister of Finance
4. Dr Roodal Moonilal – Minister of Housing and Environment
5. Chandresh Sharma- Minister of Local Government
6. Hon. Jack Warner- Minister of Works and Transport
7. Emmanuel George- Minister of Public Utilities
8. Kevin Ramnarine- Minister of Energy and Energy Affairs
9. Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie – Minister of Planning and Economy
10. Stacy Roopnarine- Minister of State in the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure
The Commission of Enquiry would make findings, observations and recommendations arising out of its deliberations, as may be deemed appropriate, in relation to –
• Whether there has been a breach of duty by any persons or entities
•Whether there are any grounds for any criminal and civil proceedings to be initiated against any persons or entities
• Whether criminal proceedings should be recommended to the Director of Public Prosecutions for his consideration
•Whether civil proceedings should be recommended to the Attorney General for his consideration
•The appropriate best practice to be utilised by the State for the acquisition of land required for public purposes
•Any other recommendations that may be deemed necessary in the circumstances.