Several things about the now-cancelled $485 million contract between the Housing Development Corporation and the China Gezhouba Group (CGGC) simply don’t add up. One is the attempt by both the Minister of Finance and the Attorney General to distance themselves and the Cabinet from the contract. Another is the HDC’s quite nonsensical statement attempting to spin the contract cancellation as the Government’s decision to “revisit some basic elements such as unit size and room numbers” and its pointless insistence that the contract was done legally—as if the contract’s legality and not its outrageous terms were the issue. Yet another is the Prime Minister’s refusal, so far, to hold anyone accountable for a fiasco that will delay the Government’s housing programme and affect thousands of prospective homeowners with the additional risk of costing taxpayers hefty penalties unless the Government somehow manages to strike a deal with China Gezhouba.
Apart from announcing the contract cancellation, Dr Rowley, who is given to grand bouts of self-righteous outrage over the contract scandals of the People’s Partnership government, has been silent. This is particularly noteworthy since the timeline of the negotiations between the HDC and China Gezhouba suggests that discussions began shortly after Dr Rowley assumed the Housing portfolio following the cabinet reshuffle of April 2018. He later relinquished it to Edmund Dillon in August that year.
In fending off Opposition criticism in Parliament on Friday, the Attorney General and the Minister of Finance both distanced themselves and the Cabinet from the shocking contract. From Minister Colm Imbert the public heard that HDC has its own rules according to statute and “the authority to determine its own contractual affairs”.
That may be so, but so, too, did state enterprises Trinidad Petroleum Holdings Ltd and Heritage Petroleum whose boards had decision-making authority under the Companies Act but were still summarily dismissed when they ran afoul of Minister Imbert by insisting on retaining the services of its ailing CEO. In any case, the HDC is not an independent body. It can be directed by the Minister of Housing and requires the approval of the Minister of Finance to borrow money from non-government sources.
The Attorney General’s attempt to write himself out of the picture is even more curious, especially given his presence at the contract-signing ceremony. Further, it is hard to believe that an Attorney General who attempted to legislate unto himself the responsibility for approving every decision of any public authority intending to refuse requests under the Freedom of Information Act would not be required to vet multi-million dollar State contracts. Let’s remember that the AG’s rationale then was to save taxpayers money by reducing the legal fees incurred by the state in defending itself against FOIA appeals. And yet, in the case of the HDC, the public is being asked to believe that the Cabinet saw no need to have the AG review a $485 million contract between a Government agency and a foreign company. If this is indeed so, then the PM as head of the cabinet owes the country an explanation. It is inconceivable that no one will be held accountable for this fiasco.