Preliminary findings in the much-anticipated audit report into the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) tell a story of fraud, corruption and nepotism valued at over $100 million, Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said on Thursday.
As he stood in the Assembly, Augustine explained that the report, compiled by the independent auditor Caribbean Institute of Forensic Auditing (CIFA), was 90 pages long.
The investigations looked at development programmes undertaken by the then-People’s National Movement (PNM) THA Executive between October 1, 2019 and November 30, 2021.
Road restoration, road resurfacing, emergency restoration works, emergency infrastructure rehabilitation and agriculture access road programmes were scrutinised.
The Road Resurfacing Programme will be the first one to be highlighted, as the others are still ongoing and should be completed by December, Augustine said.
Based on the forensic examination, the works were valued at $206,468,925 for 80 roads to be resurfaced. It identified only three contractors approved by the Executive Council.
But Augustine said the report started to identify problems.
“The findings seem to suggest that there was no competitive tendering process for 80 road projects valued at 206 million dollars. It also suggests that contractors were hand-picked and the 206 million in road resurfacing works were shared among them on the approval of the last Executive Council,” he explained.
Another issue that arose was the inflation of estimates to complete the work. The investigator commissioned the services of an independent cost expert and it was found that the Division of Infrastructure, Quarries and the Environment’s (DIQE) internal engineer’s estimate was $148.14 more than the going rate per square metre.
Augustine said when everything was totalled, “that results in a difference or a reduction of the estimated total costs of approximately 32.1 million dollars.”
The auditors then looked at the engineer’s estimate for materials, ”and found that inflation in the amount of materials required comes up to 79.8 million dollars.”
Augustine said the auditors also randomly selected 21 out of the 80 roads to be examined.
“There was no evidence of any work at all being commenced or having begun or started, or in progress or in train on 11 of the 21 roads projects selected for measurement,” he said.
He said notwithstanding this, those 11 roads have certification of completion or form part of claims made by contractors, even in the courts. He said four of the 11 road projects have been paid for in full, amounting to $15.5 million.
“Fifteen point five million dollars paid out and the road en (sic) do yet,” he added.
Augustine said this is why his administration will only pay a small part of what is owed to contractors and wait on the audit reports to determine how much more will be paid.
“How much of this overage in payment went back to fund PNM failed political campaign?... Madam Presiding Officer, it is unbelievable, unbelievable that not only have the THA paid for works not done, the THA paid for works that were underdone, the THA signed contracts that were super inflated,” he said.
Augustine said there were three unnamed steps to be taken and when they are completed, the evidence will be provided to law enforcement agencies to investigate.
“Number two, madam Presiding Officer, I will be naming and shaming all of the contractors involved in this thing.”
He also committed to setting up a Tobago’s whistle-blower system run by a core council with the relevant expertise.
“I wish to also take this opportunity to invite the Minority Leader, at some time of his choosing, to join me in building out this proposal for the THA’s very own whistle-blower legislation,” he added.
He said it is important that whistle-blowers are protected. He pointed to the fact that several attempts were made to prevent him from bringing the report to the house.
He said up to Wednesday night, a pre-action protocol letter was sent to him from one of the three contractors in the road resurfacing programme.
“Well, I cast it into the legal dustbin because that pre-action protocol letter did not worth the email it was sent on,” Augustine said.
He also went on to reveal details of a WhatsApp conversation in August he had with someone purporting to be a colleague of Progressive Democratic Patriots leader Watson Duke.
He said the woman sent him a screenshot of a conversation she had with one of the contractors in question seeking to find out about payments owed. Augustine said he assured her some payments will be made.
“The response, which was a strange one, came and it says thank God because he has business set up in my constituency in Trinidad and he has influence over some community leaders and it is at that juncture I stopped talking,” he said.
He said it appeared the request for the payment of the money for the contractor was meant for political gain in Trinidad.
“Madam Presiding Officer, this Chief Secretary is not part of that,” he assured.
He said one day ago, an individual reported to him that one of the contractors offered him $7 million to use his influence so that he (the contractor) could get paid.
“It would appear madam Presiding Officer, as if with inflation and time, 30 pieces of silver now stands at $7 million TT dollars,” he said.
He said this information will be sent to the police.
Augustine said despite all the threats made and accusations labelled against him, he is standing strong.
Augustine ended his statement with a message for former deputy Duke.
“Brother Duke, I know there will come a day when I would have to rescue you because Port-of-Spain does not love you as much as Tobago loves you,” Augustine said.