FORMER national security minister Jack Warner says he received no bribe from Dutch company Damen Shipyards or any of its representatives to ensure it got a billion-dollar contract to supply Coast Guard vessels under the former administration.
Contacted by the Sunday Express on Friday evening, Warner said: “I was involved at the making and accepting of the recommendation and I did advise the Cabinet to sign off on it.”
He said the agreement was signed long after he left the Kamla Persad-Bissessar-led Cabinet of the former People’s Partnership. Warner held the portfolio from June 2012-April 2013.
Asked to comment on a probe currently taking place in the Netherlands regarding allegations of bribery with respect to the contract and Damen, Warner said, “One thing I know, they didn’t bribe me. I was accepting of them based on their reputation and the recommendation of the committee.”
In 2015, the former Partnership government had made a downpayment of US$75 million to ensure the delivery of the naval assets.
The vessels are currently based at Staubles Bay in Chaguaramas and are in use by the Coast Guard.
Damen Shipyards, the company hired by the Persad-Bissessar administration was initially set to supply 12 Coast Guard vessels to T&T.
The investigation in the Netherlands that Damen now finds itself at the centre of, has so far identified officials from T&T, Barbados and the Bahamas as allegedly receiving kickbacks to ensure the contract was granted.
The Sunday Express understands that the multi-million dollar investigation is at a “sensitive” stage and thus far law enforcement officials from Barbados and the Bahamas have been visiting the Netherlands to stay on top of the investigation.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, in an interview with the Express on October 24, confirmed he attended a meeting last year in the Netherlands to discuss the status of this investigation.
The Sunday Express has been told that all communication related to the investigation are being made through the Office of the AG’s Central Authority Unit.
Apart from exchanging information, the Unit also facilitates extradition requests.
In 2017, Dutch investigators raided Damen Shipyards — the Netherlands’ biggest ship builder — as part of a criminal investigation into a foreign bribery case, the country’s finance ministry’s anti-fraud agency at the time had reported. Investigators from Fiscal Information and Investigation Service had then seized documents from the shipbuilder’s head office in Gorinchem.
On April 29, 2015, the Ministry of National Security and Damen Shipyards officially signed the Shipbuilding Contracts and Overall Agreement for the construction of Naval Vessels for the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force’s Coast Guard.
At the time, the Minister was Brigadier Carl Alfonso.
‘He acted with correctness’
Steven Hobson, who chairs his NSG West Indies business based in Barbados in an interview with the Netherlands NRC Handesblad on November 8, recalled that the sale of Damen Shipyards vessels to T&T was his biggest Damen deal.
“The Trinidad and Tobago contract was for more than US$210 million.” He admitted he met with former minister Warner on several occasions.
“First, in his capacity as Minister of...Transport. I was promoting the creation of a regional ferry service covering many of the islands in the East Caribbean.
“In my dealings with Jack Warner he always acted with impeccable correctness. He is a powerful and decisive individual who stood no nonsense from his staff. We never met alone and he never once asked for anything. At the time he was still a VP of FIFA and was trying to launch a Caribbean football league. Sometime later Jack became the Minister of National Security and occupied the office for about one year. In this capacity I met him on four or five occasions. He acted in a very professional manner. I only met him in the company of others (including the Damen chief executive Renee Berkvens) and he never hinted or asked for anything.
“He resigned as Minister for National Security on about 22 April 2013 two years before the contracts between Trinidad and Damen were agreed. Accordingly he was out of politics and Government when the Trinidad contract was signed a few years later. After his resignation I had no more contact with him.”
Hobson was asked by NRC, “Are you a suspect in the bribery investigation in the Netherlands and/or Trinidad and/or Barbados?”
He responded that neither he nor his company were under probe. “No, we are not and never have been. I am not aware of any such investigation into NSG or me. NSG is my life’s work. I would welcome such investigation as I am certain they can find no trace of any corruption. I have always acted with complete professionalism and integrity.
Hobson explained that NSG did not hire any legal representatives in T&T on behalf of Damen but attorney “Nyree Alfonso was introduced to Damen by their local agent Bryan Persad. Nyree was retained by Damen to assist with the Coast Guard project. She helped to draft the contracts for Damen. I had never met Nyree Alfonso before she started working for Damen.”
In an interview with the Express on November 4, Alfonso confirmed that Damen was her client during the negotiations.
“For a period of time, I was the attorney representing Damen in Trinidad, they are one of the world’s largest building shipyards.
“I am aware the Dutch were investigating something that has nothing to do with Trinidad.”
Speaking with the Sunday Express on Friday, defence Analyst Dr Sanjay Badri-Maharaj recalled that a team comprising himself, Commodore Anthony Franklin, acting Coast Guard Commander Darryl Daniel, and naval architect Courtney Lange were appointed by Cabinet to conduct an audit of the Coast Guard fleet.
This report was completed and delivered in May 2013.
Prior to their appointment, attorney Alfonso had delivered a presentation to the National Security Council, which at the time was headed by Persad-Bissessar, clarifying certain issues.
In January 2014, the Naval Assets Acquisition Implementation Team (NAAIT) was established, which comprised Franklin, Captain Hayden Pritchard, Badri-Maharaj and Lange retained as a consultant
“We were mandated by Cabinet to visit shipyards in Korea, China, Colombia and Holland. We were mandated to get 1 LRPV (OPV), 7 CPVs and a number of interceptors by May 2015. We were also to explore floating platforms as bases as we have too few Coast Guard stations.
“We ended up coming back with a list of available designs and vessels and the shipyards provided us with prices. Korea had the best products but delivery times were quite long. Cabinet took quite a while to give a go ahead to start the procurement process,” he said.
Badri-Maharaj said the team wanted a limited tender, “but owing to desperation (the Austal vessels were breaking down with regularity) the decision was made for a sole select tender under the Central Tenders Act. That’s when the Permanent Secretary, the bureaucracy of the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Finance got involved formally.”
He said: “The deal almost collapsed because of the fall in oil prices but some harsh negotiations brought it on track with the intervention of then PS Vishnu Dhanpaul who suggested spreading the purchase over two fiscal years. That actually worked fine.”
Badri-Maharaj said that financing was not in place despite vessels being ready for delivery, “so we paid for vessels as they were delivered-in batches-with the last two being delivered in 2016.”
He added, “If you were to ask me about evidence of wrongdoing, I saw none. However, that’s only my personal knowledge. I did not get the impression that any government minister was pushing this vessel in any special way. As I say, I have no evidence of any wrongdoing, I’ve never seen any...and those of us who are professionals would have spoken out if we saw something wrong. However, what we don’t see or hear, we wouldn’t know.” He added that he never saw any Minister or Permanent Secretary or any official meet any Damen representative or agent alone.
Making reference to the Netherlands NRC media report which was published on Friday, Badri-Maharaj said, “I must say that NRC’s revelations of multiple meetings between Jack (Warner) and Stephen (Hobson) was a surprise to me. I was not involved in the project at the time and have no knowledge of what transpired.”