A letter from Gerald Vincent to the editor.
After 16 years, a shameful Tobago legacy
The old guard has changed at the Tobago House of Assembly, with Orville London finally relinquishing his stranglehold on the island’s governing body.
After 16 years, it is expected that a thorough and dispassionate assessment should be done to examine this gentleman’s tenure; his successes and failures.
A casual conversation (over the recent long-weekend) with any Tobagonian throws up three very clear beliefs:
(i) People liked Orville London;
(ii) People can’t quite identify what he was successful at, and
(iii) People have a shopping list of issues that have been routinely ignored.
In all of the reminiscing from Tobagonians, however, about ‘Good times Orvy’, a few things remain sharply at the front of their minds. Like him as they do, they will never forgive, or forget how future generations were cheated out of the chance of a quantum leap into the future.
But what are the things Tobagonians remember most? Well, the issues have all appeared in the mainstream media, but after a day or two, were taken off the agenda by media executives, cheating Tobago out of justice, and clearing the track for wrongdoers to ‘prevail’ with impunity.
THE $320M MILSHIRV/RAHAEL LAND DEAL
This dastardly executed deal was described as a “PNM family affair” by former Prime Minister, Senior Counsel Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
The tale of self-serving and legal acrobatics started with the PNM Tobago Council’s Denise Tsoi-a-Fatt Angus, who once owned part of the three-acre plot of land at corner Shirvan Road and the Claude Noel Highway where the THA planned to construct a new headquarters for the Division of Agriculture.
The deal was reported as having “a labyrinthine series of legal manoeuvres which she (then PM Persad-Bissessar) suggested could have been designed to shield the details of the transaction from the public eye” by the Newsday on 20 January 2013.
The Newsday stated: “The lands were owned by the PNM’s public relations officer and her family, sold to a company owned by another PNM family and bought by the PNM’s head honcho – Mr Orville London – who then leased and rented it back at the exorbitant price of $310 million. In other words, some $310 million dollars would have simply been shared amongst PNM family and friends.”
The chronology told was one that demonstrated the patience and determination of personal ambitions for enrichment at the expense of taxpayers…
· Tsoi-a-Fatt and family sold the three acres of land on 7th September 1999 to Aquila Ltd, of 11-16 Victoria Avenue, Port-of-Spain. The company’s registered address was the same as Dankett Ltd, affiliated with former PNM minister John Rahael’s family. The value of the sale was not disclosed;
· The London-led THA bought the land from Dankett, for $12 million on November 15, 2011;
· The THA leased the land to Milshirv Limited (also tied to the Rahael family);
· On November 21, 2011, Milshirv Limited rents the land to the THA in a transaction estimated at $310 million.
While one might ask how 12 years could make a difference in land value from $12M to $310M, the fact is that the original cost that Aquila Limited bought the land for was never disclosed.
What is important to note as well is that one of the originators of the deal, Denise Tsoi-a-Fatt Angus, was also employed as an Adviser to the THA Secretary for Health with a salary package worth over $60,000.
In the Central Government, Political Advisors are paid between $20,000 and $35,000 per month, to provide advice and guidance to a governing structure that actually generates revenue, provides all public services, oversees the security services and keeps the economy moving.
In the THA, where an advisor to the Secretary for Health is paid over $60,000, it is safe to say that for 16 years, the THA made statutory visits to the Minister of Finance every year, always demanding money, always crying about the multi-billion dollar allocations, but never remitting a cent in taxes, duties or any form of revenue back to the Treasury.
How could that possible make any sense whatsoever? And how could Orville London could have created such a permanently self-satisfied look his face, knowing he presided over an administration that took, spent, achieved nothing and has left Tobago as barren as when he first took the post as Chief Secretary?
The intrigue doesn’t end there though…the projects undertaken by the Tobago House of Assembly tell of a story of similar budgetary acrobatics, but still all cheating the people of Tobago out of a future, and the Republic out of economic advancement.
MAJOR PROJECTS DELAYED, OVERBUDGET
The Shaw Park Cultural Complex was one of the Tobago PNM’s most prized projects; they somehow believed that it was the silver-bullet to achieving a modern Tobago.
In the THA’s sing-song for ‘devolution and the right to govern themselves’, Orville London might have forgotten the part about governing in a democracy necessitating accountability to the people.
The Shaw Park Cultural Centre project was initiated by the THA at a cost of $194 million in 2006 and by 2012, rose to $552 million. The project today, in 2016, is now estimated to have risen to over $1B.
This is famously PNM – and quite similar to the Rowley PNM’s Tarouba Stadium, which started at $275M in 2006 and by 2010, carried a price tag of over $1.1B, and it was not yet complete.
So apart from the PNM’s mathematics putting a cultural complex and a stadium within the same cost-neighbourhood, it seems no PNM project is properly done without a cost overrun that puts it at over $1B…EACH!
The joke ends, however, when these costs are added to 2016’s budget, as money that could have been factored into allaying the impact of VAT on thousands more food items, two increases in the price of fuel and a sneaky withdrawal of $2.5B…by the same Rowley version of the PNM.
So here’s the maths – Shaw Park on time and within budget would have saved the Treasury $806M; Tarouba on time and within budget would have saved the Treasury over $750M, and the costs don’t stop there.
The Scarborough library project was originally budgeted at $28M in 2004, and by 2013 was incomplete at $300M.
The Victor E Bruce Financial Complex in Scarborough, named after the late Victor Bruce, Central Bank Governor from 1969 to 1984, one of the most corrupt periods in history, has also been beset by the usual PNM cost-inflation, moving from $30M in 2002 to $120M in 2012.
There are others, but these are the projects that stand out, within the 16-year stranglehold on power by Orville London, and each of these projects were hard-sold to the Tobago people as being critical to the advance of the island.
In just these three projects, the Treasury of Trinidad and Tobago has been cheated out of almost $1.5B, and the Tobago people and young people have been cheated out of a future that could have worked, if public service came before Orville’s delights.
Add Tarouba, and it would be safe to say that the Rowley PNM cost this country combined losses of $2.8B on just four projects, all of which are incomplete over a decade after their starting dates.
When Rowley said he has his PNM have been consistent, clearly we should have been looking for the forked tongue in his cheek.
Putting aside, without forgetting the cold hard facts of the figures, a cursory glance at Tobago, and listen to the voices talking tell of a Tobago trapped in a time-warp; citizens and foreign friends with great ideas who are tired of telling them over and over again.
From Hotel and Guest House operators, to craft and food aficionados, to tour operators, to realtors and property traders, not a person in Tobago can speak without a deep sigh born of regret that some opportunities may have been lost for good.
Each conversation tends to either begin, or substantially reference the turning point Tobago stood at when the year 2000 came; those conversations tend to taper off into a struggle to hold on to a perception of hope that ‘maybe one day, it’ll happen’.
This by no means at all is the full review of Orville’s Tobago, but it scratches the very dark surface of a 16-year reign that saw over billions come, redirected and mysteriously misplaced.
Given variations made in the annual budgetary allocations, let’s estimate the allocation to be $2.5B annually, NOT including the fact that the public health, ports of entry and major infrastructure maintenance was paid for by the Central Government.
So in 16 years, having presided over the expenditure of $40B, and the loss of $1.5B in just four of the many projects he instigated and had oversight for, one must ask whether the fanfare over his departure was celebration for finally leaving, or simply enjoying the happy moments while they last, as Tobago takes another wrong turn, under another PNM Chief Secretary.
And all of this happened while London’s praises were being sung by a Prime Minister who conveniently reminds us of his Tobagoness.
Ultimately Keith Rowley and his PNM are all culpable and answerable to all of us, and that does not mean spreading really bad jokes about one day referring to this man as “His Excellency Orville London”. How much more must the PNM shame us before we put an end to this madness?