Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries Clarence Rambharat has written to Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith requesting an investigation into a possible “criminal conspiracy” involving two senior public officers in the granting of several tenancies for State lands.
In a letter dated November 3, 2020, Rambharat asked Griffith to have the matters referred to the Fraud Squad.
“These matters require further investigation and urgent action to defeat any interest or expectation created by the tenancy agreements executed by the parties,” the minister wrote.
Rambharat said in the letter that his examination of the documents raised serious concerns regarding his view (held) since 2017 that in relation to several State Land matters, the conduct of a top Government official “was collusive and conspiratorial”.
He said it “points to the strong prospect that conflict of interest rising to the level of a criminal conspiracy between (names of two officials called) for the benefit of close relatives and associates of relatives of one of the officials to abandon the required oversight of the Ministry’s Land Management Division, and the other (a subordinate), in particular, notwithstanding my continuous cautions”.
“What I am about to reveal is an unprecedented, unconscionable and downright criminal-level conspiracy concocted by two senior public officers for personal benefit, at a time when they were supposed to be advising and assisting the minister with the critical State land function,” Rambharat said.
The tenancies at issue involved lands in Matna Drive, Endeavour, which were “allocated” to seven parties, three of whom have the same surname as one of the officials, and one of whom has the same maiden name as a relative of the official.
Rambharat also requested an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the allocation of lands in Sangre Grande to another individual.
Annual rent of $200 for land valued
Rambharat said one of the parties was “believed” to be the daughter of the one of the officials.
He noted certain anomalies in this tenancy:
• that there was no file at the ministry’s Land Management Division in the name of the individual (believed to be the daughter of the official;
• that there was no letter of application to the COSL (Commissioner of State Lands) from the same individual for the parcel of residential land in Matna Drive, Endeavour Village;
• Cabinet approval was never sought for the tenancy agreement.
Rambharat pointed out that this tenancy agreement was dated December 28, 2017, which predated Town and Country Planning approval for the use of these lands.
On January 22, 2018, the office of the COSL requested advice from the director of Town and Country Planning Division (TCPD) on the subdivision of the parcel of land for residential use.
Sixteen days after the request was made, a senior officer in Town and Country Planning, by letter dated February 7, 2018, advised that the matter had been investigated and the TCPD had “no objection” to the subdivision of this parcel to create seven lots for residential use. Two days later, on February 9, 2018, one of the officials prepared letters of approval to be sent to the seven individuals.
Said Rambharat: “From my experience as minister, these requests (to Town and Country Planning) usually take weeks, months and years, as it involves thorough investigation and site visits.
“In my mind, it is incredible that any citizen of this country could move from an unsolicited letter of application to the COSL to the grant of a parcel of land, at a tiny fraction of the value, within four to four and a half months.”
He added that the possible relationship between the senior official and (the names of three of the parties who were granted parcels of land) and the circumstances in which (two of the named parties) have, by their own admission and evidence provided now, received tenancy agreements for an annual rental of $200 in respect of parcels of State lands, each valued approximately $700,000, “require further investigation and action”.
Breach of procedures
The minister wrote in the letter that the TTPS must investigate whether the senior officials “colluded and/or conspired to deprive the State of these parcels of land and/or the benefit of the full value thereof to which I refer, and also whether they conspired and/or colluded to provide a direct benefit to relatives and associates of relatives of the official (and other persons now unknown), in breach of the well-established practice and procedures of the ministry and the wider Public Service”.
Rambharat said while he had not seen the residential tenancy agreements for all the parcels of State land at Matna Drive, each parcel of land allocated to the seven individuals was valued at approximately $700,000.
He said one of the individuals had the same maiden name as a person married to one of the senior official’s close relatives, and he had reason to believe that (three of the people whom he named) are relatives of the senior official.
Rambharat wrote that he had reason to believe that the senior official at the time knew, or ought to have known, that the tenancy agreement between the close relative and the State was a fraud, as the process used to grant the tenancy agreement without Cabinet approval was an act of fraud.
TCPD official implicated
The minister also raised concerns about the role of the TCPD, noting a senior officer at TCPD granted the approval at the same time with respect to subdivision of the State lands at Matna Drive when the office of the COSL granted approval for a tenancy on State lands to someone carrying the same surname as the senior TCPD officer.
Of particular interest in this matter and all residential approvals granted by or handled by (the senior officer at TCPD whom Rambharat named), emanating from the office of the COSL, will be the relationship, if any, between the senior TCPD official and the person of the same surname who was granted a tenancy agreement in January 2018, which coincided with the timing of the tenancies at Matna Drive, Rambharat wrote.
The whole matter was brought to the attention of the minister after there was conflict between private citizen Chris Khanhai and the new tenants at Matna Drive.
Khanhai, who claimed he had engaged in farming on the seven residential parcels for over 30 years, had sought the assistance of Chaguanas West MP Vandana Mohit, who in turn requested copies of the COSL and TCPD documents from the office of the COSL on October 6, 2020.
Following Mohit’s enquiries, acting COSL Bhanmati Seecharan directed the Inspector of State Lands, Tyrone Ramadin, to conduct an investigation into the matter.
The results of that investigation led Rambharat to refer the matter to the Commissioner of Police in November 2020.