Cabinet has appointed retired Justice Rolston Nelson to investigate just how the Airports Authority (AATT) awarded a seven-year contract to Novo Technology Ltd for the passport processing kiosks at the Piarco International Airport that could potentially cost the country US$42.8 million – nearly TT$300 million.
Speaking at the post-Cabinet media briefing today at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann's, Communications Minister Stuart Young said the contract, awarded in December 2017, with a supplemental contract in March 2018, did not appear to follow the usual tendering process but rather went through a selective tender. Young said the circumstances under which the contracts were granted were strange and merited urgent investigation. The chairman of the AATT at the time was Nigel Ferguson, appointed by the PNM.
The terms of the contract were also queried. While during negotiations the initial agreement was a payment of US$5.10 per passenger who used the kiosk, the final contract apparently stipulated that each month, the AATT would have to pay Novo for a minimum of 100,000 passengers – or US$510,000 every month for seven years. Novo would also own the kiosks so even at the end of the seven years, the AATT would get nothing. Young called the contract and the process "unacceptable."
He said while the Ministry of National Security, which oversees the Immigration Division, was initially involved, the Ministry of Works was not. Neither the actual contract nor the supplemental ever came before Cabinet.
Young said, "Cabinet had no idea that this was being discussed or being entered into."
The deal was only discovered when AATT, unable to pay its bills, requested funds from the Ministry of Works and Transport, its line ministry. When that ministry forwarded the request to the Ministry of Finance who queried the payment, "that's when the whole thing started to unravel."
Cabinet then appointed a sub-committee comprising Young, Works Minister Rohan Sinanan and Finance Minister Colm Imbert to look deeper into the matter.
The committee reported to Cabinet that the Works Ministry should seek legal advice on if and how the contract could be terminated. Young said the ministry is currently seeking such counsel.
He said, "Having looked at both contracts, one of the concerns is the terms and conditions of termination. It was amended to make it more onerous on the people of TT.
"If it is terminated we would have to pay the amount they would have made for seven years plus some uplift. Cabinet believes there is a lot wrong with the contract (and we) don't agree taxpayers should pay for it."
The second recommendation is Nelson's appointment to investigate the process of how the contract was granted.
Young said Government had the information and names of people involved already but was not going to be the investigator, judge and jury. Instead, he said, Government chose someone with "gravitas" who could independently investigate. Nelson should receive his letter of appointment next week, and Young said he expected the investigation to take at least two months.
Young did assure that Novo, a private company, did not have access to kiosk users' personal information, because the machines weren't actually linked to the Immigration database. It appears then, that the machines had no real purpose or impact beyond allowing those who used it to join a shorter immigration line, because travellers still had to check in with an immigration officer.
"Which I thought was ridiculous," Young said.
Asked if TT still had to pay for the kiosks while the investigation took place, or if they would still be used, he said those were questions they were trying to figure out via legal advice. He added that Novo was claiming that the Government owed it outstanding payments.
The 12 kiosks were officially unveiled last July by then National Security Minister Edumund Dillon, with Sinanan in attendance. Dillon did not respond to calls to his mobile.
In a brief telephone interview, chairman of the Novo Group of Companies, Glen Ramdhanie, said the company's lawyer, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, was reviewing the recording of the media briefing and would advise accordingly. He added that the minister's statement was a "misrepresentation" of the situation and people should "take it with a barrel of salt."
Novo is 40 per cent owned by One Caribbean Media (OCM), parent company of the Trinidad Express newspaper and TV6. OCM is in turn 23 per cent owned by the State through the liquidation settlement from the Clico Investment Bank last year.