PM wants proof on all $$ matters

(Trinidad Guardian) – Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is now requesting evidence to substantiate all Cabinet notes for payment, after the hefty $6.8 million paid to retrieve a fire truck that plunged over a precipice in Blanchisseuse last November. Only last week, the T&T Guardian understands, Persad-Bissessar requested from one of her ministers that documented proof be provided to support a note he took to Cabinet for payment of former workers at a state enterprise.

Persad-Bissessar implemented the new measure because Cabinet was duped into believing that it would cost approximately $50-$60 million to replace the fire truck. It was on this basis, two senior government ministers yesterday told the T&T Guardian, that Cabinet took the decision to pay $6.8 million to retrieve the water tender that ran off the road while responding to a road traffic accident.

“We were very concerned about the price and kept on asking how it was possible that it could cost that amount…We were told that it was a high-tech fire truck that was well equipped,” the minister, who did not want to be named, said. “The money was spent and then Cabinet was informed. It is not to say like if Cabinet had a choice in the matter.

“If approval was not granted the money would have had to be sourced from inside the Ministry of National Security and that may have meant cutting back in other areas of spending in the ministry.” Asked if the Finance and General Purposes Committee (F&GP) raised any questions on the claim of the cost of the fire truck, the minister said: “The F&GP committee was involved, that it is why payment was not approved in the first two instances.

“As it stands, Cabinet approved the $6.8 million, whether this figure is reflected at the ministry or not, that is what Cabinet paid, we do know about the difference. “If there is no suspicion that there is anything untoward happening, Cabinet depends on the truthfulness of the minister. The whole premise of the Cabinet note system is that you have to trust the people around you.”  T&T Guardian understands the Cabinet note that requested payment for the job reflected neither the value of the damaged vehicle nor how much a new one would cost. Sammy’s Multilift Service Ltd, a subsidiary of Junior Sammy contractors, was hired to retrieve the water tender. “It was during verbal discussions we were told a new fire truck could cost somewhere around $50 to $60 million. We were shocked when we found out it cost only $2 million for a water tender,” the minister said.

Documents obtained by T&T Guardian showed that the Rosenbauer water tender was purchased in 2006 for $2,236,275.35. A quotation of $10,189,115 to retrieve the vehicle was originally submitted, but Cabinet twice refused to sign off on it after several ministers objected to the whopping price. Cabinet eventually agreed to the revised price of $6.8 million, approximately three times the cost of a new water tender.

Contacted for comment on the matter, Communications Minister Jamal Mohammed said: “As far as I am concerned, Minister of National Security Emmanuel George is awaiting a report from the chief fire officer and when he receives that report a statement would be released on behalf of the govern-ment.” Acting Chief Fire Officer Nayar Rampersad said a report on the matter was submitted by former chief fire officer Carl Williams.

“We have to be guided by the report of the former chief fire officer who would have done a thorough inquiry,” Rampersad said. “He would have collected reports from all the officers and based on the information he would have compiled a report and forwarded it to the permanent secretary Jenniffer Boucaud-Blake. There is very little that I can do at this stage because those reports would have been submitted and an appropriate action would have been taken then.”  But when T&T Guardian contacted Williams for him to shed light on the matter, he referred the matter to Rampersad, saying he was retired. Commenting briefly on the matter, chairman of the Congress of the People Carolyn Seepersad-Bachann said the matter was discussed at a meeting on the financing of political parties. “It was important for the public to know why the decision was made to retrieve the water tender,” she said.

“Discussions were held with political leader Prakash Ramadhar and we agreed at looking at the possibility of lifting the confidentiality on this issue so that all the facts can come out in the public domain.”

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