A COMMISSION of Enquiry has been launched into land acquisition for the Point Fortin Highway project after reported over valuations and more than half a billion spent, reported Communications Minister Stuart Young.
"How over half a billion dollars, $500 million, could have spent...in the acquisition of land and they are not even near to being nearly completed with the amount of land that needs to be acquired?"
He made the announcement yesterday at the post-Cabinet media briefing held at the Diplomatic Centre, Port of Spain.
He said the acquisition of land in the project, which Brazilian contractor OAS abandoned and Government had to recover a billion dollars, has come under scrutiny Ministry of Works of Transport did a preliminary investigation and came to Cabinet a few months ago with a report "which concerned us very greatly."
He reported $800 million was set aside for the acquisition of land and more than $500 million of that figure was expended on the acquisition of parcels of land "and some of the parcels of land it turned out were not even necessary for the construction of the highway extension.
"So after the expenditure of over half a billion dollars there is just under $300 million left to be expended. When the Ministry of Works and NIDCO did an analysis they found that with the re-routing of the highway, lands that were acquired and paid for in some instances, lands that was not yet and paid for in other instances, fell to the wayside and then there was also land to be acquired...had to potential to exceed the $300 million left."
He said since the ministry conducted the exercise a number of instances of concern came to Cabinet's attention.
"For example we found that where there were valuations of land for certain lower amounts a valuation was then done for much higher amounts, and when it came to the acquisition of the land yet again there was an even further increase for the value being paid for those parcels of land. We then found some persons were paid significant sums of money, tens of millions of dollars, for the acquisition of lands that were no longer necessary and they now made claims against the State for a further what we deem to be 'overvaluation' of the land."
He said the ministry was tasked to do an in-depth study into the land acquisition and that has been completed and today Cabinet decided to set up the Commission of Enquiry.
He reported the Commission of Enquiry will be chaired by former Justice Sebastian Ventour and he will be assisted by commissioner Gregory Delzin and counsel to the commission is Reginald Armour SC who will be assisted by junior counsel Vanessa Gopaul and Rishi Dass.
He said in 2011 the then cabinet established a ministerial oversight committee for the construction of the extension chaired by the then prime minister and included a number of senior ministers. He noted one of the responsibilities of the committee was to establish guidelines for the relocation of affected people and would review recommendations of private valuers before submitting to NIDCO tender committee.
"And they (the committee) would decide themselves whether the right values or value for money, according to their mandate for taxpayers, was actually being implemented in the acquisition of land."
Young reported more than 513 properties were acquired and paid for by the state for the half a billion dollars and there was still 495 properties required to be acquired and 291 properties served with land acquisition notices which are no longer required due to design changes in the highway.
He also said a public servant did valuations in his private capacity and then increased valuations at the Commissioner of Valuations; he reported the individual recently resigned. Other instances of concern included where in one household four people received compensation for land acquisition or relocation when one person should have been compensated, and one individual who received more than $50 million for land that was no longer necessary and was now claiming more than $30 million. Young said the committee had also recommended a number of private entities, law firms and lawyers to negotiate costs and the amounts paid appeared to be "excessive."
He said the commission would look at whether criminal proceedings should be recommended to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) or civil proceedings to the Attorney General.
He said the Works Ministry had been asked to report on what parcels needed to be acquired and at what cost and then financing would be looked at.
Asked by the media if the commission of enquiry was necessary with all the information already received Young said taxpayers needed to know what happened and the commission allowed accused people to defend themselves.
"I don't think it should be just brushed aside as another commission of enquiry."
On the Clico commission of enquiry he said the DPP had instructed there were ongoing criminal investigations and it should not be made public and, as far as he was aware, the Las Alturas commission remained before the courts following a legal challenge.
The Cabinet appointed Ministerial Oversight Committee comprised:
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. Jack Warner – Minister of Works and Transport;
7. Senator Emmanuel George – Minister of Public Utilities;
8. Senator Kevin Ramnarine – Minister Energy and Energy Affairs;
9. Senator Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie – Minister of Planning and Economy; and
10. Stacy Roopnarine – Minister of State in the Ministry if Works and Infrastructure,