The name of the contractor awarded 58 contracts worth $900 million has been withheld. The chairman of the State enterprise that gave out these contracts, the Education Facilities Company Limited (EFCL), cannot answer questions about them. The auditor appointed to sift through the EFCL’s affairs is itself now subject to a probe. And the former EFCL chairman, Arnold Piggott, does not wish to attend the Parliament committee that is seeking to understand all of it. In sum: this is a $900 million secret.
To be clear: the issue is not the identity of the contractor in question.
The issue is the complete breakdown of the public’s ability to scrutinise the affairs of a State enterprise. And a powerful State enterprise too, if it can do things like spend $900 million.
It may well be that all procurement rules have been complied with; that all policies designed to minimise risk and widen public participation in State business have been adhered to; that the contractor in question is unquestionably qualified to do the work.
But the lack of transparency on a matter that has cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion puts a pall over the EFCL as well as similar State enterprises that award contracts.
It does a disservice to the private firms that have responded to the Government’s call for greater private/public partnership; undermines confidence in the State’s ability to be fair and impartial; and raises suspicion where suspicion may not be merited. Who would not come away from Monday’s JSC hearing without a feeling that something has gone wrong?
What worsens this is the EFCL’s sad history of controversy. From the days of the Patrick Manning regime, the company was helmed by a PNM party treasurer who eventually resigned over concerns about his inter-locking positions at State entities.
Under Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s administration, EFCL staff were reportedly made to sign confidentiality agreements which blocked the firm from scrutiny; reports of a “contract mill” later emerged. The firm has been and continues to be bad news for the good citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.
It behoves Piggott to attend the proceedings of the Parliament committee. Even if he is correct in his belief that he has no legal obligation to comply with an invitation to attend, he has an ethical responsibility to do so.
It is simply in the public interest. That is something a former government minister, of all people, should be able to appreciate.
The public has a right to know what State enterprises are doing. Furthermore, it has a right to know whether systems and procedures at State enterprises are working.
It is a sign of serious dysfunction within EFCL that the current chairman is unable to shed light on the activities of the previous board. That speaks to a lack of proper documentation and poor systems of transition. Officials should not be able to avoid scrutiny by playing musical chairs.
Up until now, the Parliament committee system has been effective at shedding light on State enterprises. If they are to continue to do so, current and former officials must comply with their requests. If those officials have concerns about the proceedings of committees, they must raise them before those committees.
This is too important an issue for evasion. The country needs to have an explanation of this $900 million affair. Somebody has to answer.