THA Chief Sec: $2.5m paid to ghost firm for zipline

Chief Secretary Farley Augustine at Friday's press conference at Shaw Park in Tobago.  - THA
Chief Secretary Farley Augustine at Friday's press conference at Shaw Park in Tobago. - THA

CHIEF Secretary Farley Augustine has claimed that Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd, which earned a THA contract in 2015 to build a 1.5km zipline in the Main Ride Forest Reserve in Tobago, is not a legitimate company.

Augustine made the revelation on Friday during a media conference at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex.

The former PNM-led THA sued the company last year, on the cusp of the December election, for US$416,900 for alleged breach of contract. The Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) had criticised the PNM and its former leader Tracy Davidson-Celestine for its handling of the project. The zipline project never materialised despite THA funds being spent.

Friday's media briefing came hours after the THA received two freezing orders against the directors of Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd – one in Trinidad and Tobago and another in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where the firm is based.

One order was granted against Richard Graham and Darren Hreniuk, of Original Canopy Tours by Justice Kevin Ramcharan on November 5. The other was granted on Thursday by Justice Gerhard Wallbank in the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court’s commercial division for the High Court of the BVI.

The THA’s claim, which was filed in the High Court in November 2021, sought loss and damages for breach of contract "as a result of the defendant's failure to deliver all materials and equipment to the claimant" as well as failure to comply with the services agreement between the parties.

The zipline project began in 2015 during the tenure of former tourism secretary Davidson-Celestine but was never completed, despite the THA's spending some $2.5 million on it.

Augustine said on Friday, “After commencing civil proceedings against Original Canopy Tours Ltd for the receiver of millions of dollars spent on the project, it was discovered that the company was not in fact a legitimate entity.”

He said the THA’s attorney’s, led by John Jeremie, SC, did the necessary search in the BVI, where Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd was said to be registered, based on the company registration documents presented to the THA, but "I just found that the company just does not exist there at all.”

Augustine said the THA’s attorneys then moved against the promoters of the company and the High Court issued a freezing injunction against the assets of these individuals in Trinidad and Tobago.

“As the company was said to be a British island company, attorneys in the BVI were retained and the High Court there recognised the injunction from Trinidad and Tobago ordered against the promoters.”

Additionally, he said the THA was granted discovery orders by the High Court against the promoters of the company.

“When we are talking about discovery orders, we are talking about the fact that the court is allowing us to serve papers on the banks in the country that do the accounts and all the financial transactions through our banking system here and in the BVI that dealt with this matter. The history of the financial transactions will be brought to play by the court and brought into the court in this matter.”

Augustine said apart from the civil proceedings, the THA has now placed the matter in the hands of the police.

“In fact, all the evidence that we have found thus far, have been reported to the fraud squad.”

He said he could not comment further on the issue but referred all queries to Jeremie.

Former tourism secretary Nadine Stewart-Phillips, who succeeded Davidson-Celestine, previously revealed that the project comprised 12-14 platforms and 11-13 lines, including a special observation platform for birdwatchers and photographers. She said the Executive Council approved $4 million for the project, which was expected to be completed within seven weeks of the materials arriving on site.

A service agreement, she had said, was signed in June 2015 between the THA and Original Canopy Tours Enterprises Ltd to design, develop and construct a high-angle canopy tour course.

Stewart-Phillips had said representatives of the company visited Tobago in September 2015 to map out the course and the division paid two of the four payments under the signed agreement.

In the campaigning ahead of the THA election, now THA chief secretary Farley Augustine raised the issue, saying Davidson-Celestine had to answer to taxpayers on the failed project.

Augustine had claimed that a 2016 auditor general's statement expressed concern over the project, noting a visit to the stores section of the tourism division revealed only some ropes on hand.

Former chief secretary Ancil Dennis, although saying Davidson-Celestine was not guilty of any wrongdoing, decided to take action against the company.

"We are going to pursue this to the very end to ensure that the truth is revealed and to ensure that we are able to recover damages for failure to deliver this project on behalf of the people of Tobago,” he had said.

Attorneys John Jeremie, SC, Timothy Alfonso and instructing attorney Shivana Lalla were retained.

Augustine said on Friday that he was initially sceptical about the THA's legal action under the PNM. He said the PDP administration did not change anything and allowed the matter to run its course.


"THA Chief Sec: $2.5m paid to ghost firm for zipline"

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