Former minister of public works Robeson Benn believes that government’s decision against renewing the lease for pilot Khamraj Lall’s hangar at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) was not justified or fair and is tantamount to the return to the days of the “expropriation of private property.”
In an affidavit in support of the action taken in the High Court by a brother of Lall, Balram Lall, seeking to have government’s decision overturned, Benn stated that he believes because of the level of investment by the plaintiff on the project is substantial, the revocation of the lease is not justified. He added that the PPP/C had honoured all agreements made by the former PNC government with investors.
Late last year, Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson had announced that government had ended the lease which gave Lall and his company permission to operate the hangar from the airport.
“The lease expired on October 15th and we wrote [the company] in accordance with the lease advising them that we have no intention of renewing the lease,” Patterson had told a press conference. He had also said that the company was notified of government’s intentions and told it was free to remove any of its “movable” possessions from the property.
Lall is facing several charges in the United States, including drug trafficking and he also serving a one year sentence after pleading guilty to bulk cash smuggling. He faces the forfeiture of US$7.5 million, several properties and aircraft in the US.
Patterson had said that government’s head legal officer had advised that there was no ground for a renewal because of monies spent, as once the lessee defaulted government was cleared to repossess the property.
“A lease is a lease,” Patterson had said, as he explained that government will speak to the airport authority to decide on a way forward for the use of the hangar.
According to Benn, he had meetings with the plaintiff in the matter to discuss his proposed investment in the aviation sector and the construction of a hangar and other important facilities at CJIA, which involved significant expenditure.
The company sought and was granted concessions and/or exemptions from the government on tax excise duties payable in respect of the project. The proposal was considered by and received consideration from the then minister, the CIJA, the Guyana Revenue Authority and the Guyana Office for Investment, he added.
“The proposal to the government allowed for the safe and secure handling, maintenance and operations of chartered jet aircraft services to facilitate executive, business and government travel directly to non-scheduled destinations, on demand and at favourable rates with great savings in travel time, effort and costs,” Benn said in the affidavit.
He said that the proposal also allowed for the rapid movement of medical evacuation services directly from domestic facility to advanced emergency medical treatment overseas. This, he said, made for a saving of at least four to six hours in the time to get an individual in dire medical distress to life saving treatment and which remains a critical feature of the operations which is still needed in Guyana.
“It was the policy of the then government not to grant investors or potential investors any permanent form of ownership or secured interest in state and/or government owned and/or controlled lands unless and until they fulfill or substantially fulfill their promises made to the government in their project proposals,” the former minister claimed.
He said that was so because the experience of the government was that it became difficult to reverse such decisions or nullify certain forms of ownership if the investors failed to fulfill their obligations. As a result, the government and state agencies were encouraged to grant licences over land for the period necessary for the establishment of the project and, thereafter, to grant a lease or some other permanent form of ownership.
“It was the policy of the government to encourage development and not to expropriate the assets of investors,” he said, while adding that in the case of the plaintiff, he was granted a licence for a period of three years within which to complete the building and other infrastructural works proposed in his project.
The then government, he said, never contemplated that the company would construct the facility and not be allowed to operate same for profit over a reasonable period of time. He also pointed out that certain other domestic aircraft operators were provided with arrangements with licences substantially similar to those provided to the company. He further claimed that Lall’s company is the only operator to have fulfilled his agreement with the CJIA in terms of construction of facility and provision of services.
Further Benn, who said he was integrally involved in the application for and of the grant of the licence, claimed that the Chief Executive Officer and members of the board of the CIJA communicated with him on the project. The CEO wrote him on September 1, 2012 seeking his approval to grant the lease to the plaintiff. During the construction of the facility, he said a number of visits were undertaken by CJIA board members and himself to monitor the facility and to ensure that all legal and operational safeguards were in place to guarantee secure and safe operations.
“I must state that the efforts and quality of construction were very pleasing to all concerned. We were particularly pleased when the facility was completed and began operations,” he claimed.
He also claimed that the hangar facility presented the CJIA with much needed breathing space since the CJIA terminal was maxed out in terms of its passengers and aircraft movement as a consequence of the dramatic increase in passenger movement in and out of Guyana and across its airspace.
While Benn said that the CIJA was integral in the process, an audit of the CJIA, ordered by the current coalition government, found that the proposal for Lall’s hangar at the CJIA was never brought to the attention of the CJIA board but was taken directly to Cabinet by Benn.
In a matter of days of the proposal being seen, Cabinet granted its no-objection to the project. The proposal was prepared by the CJIAC on behalf of Lall’s company, Exec Jet Club LLC.
The audit revealed that the proposal, dated September 1, 2012 and titled ‘Application for Land to Construct Hangar at CJIAC,’ was prepared by the CJIAC on behalf of Exec Jet Club and submitted to Benn. A few days later, on September 11, 2012, Cabinet gave its no objection.
The report had stated that the former Chairman of the CJIAC Board confirmed that the granting of the lease for the Exec Jet Club was never discussed at Board level.
In response to the audit, the CJIAC management had indicated that in relation to the procedure for the granting of a lease, it is the practice for various individual/businesses to submit proposals to operate a service at the airport. “These proposals are usually forwarded to the Board of Directors or the minister for further approval,” according to management. It added that Exec Jet Club submitted a proposal which was taken to Cabinet by Benn and this was subsequently approved by Cabinet.
However, the report asserted that granting of a lease to build a multimillion dollar hangar/executive office/apartment cannot be compared with businesses submitting proposals to operate a service at the airport. It pointed out that the Chief Executive Officer reports to the CJIAC Board but the proposal for the ‘Application for Land to Construct Hangar at CJIAC’ on behalf of Exec Jet Club was not discussed with the former CJIAC Board and instead it was submitted to Benn.
Lall had acquired a Westwind 1 Aircraft, which was a light executive jet that he operated as an international private service from Guyana to destinations in North America, South America and the Caribbean. At the time, he had billed that service as the first of its kind in Guyana. The aircraft is now a subject of forfeiture by the US authorities.
His legal troubles began in November, 2014, when searches of his private aircraft during a refueling stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico uncovered US$620,000 stashed on board. Lall was travelling to Guyana at the time.
His arrest later revealed that Lall flew frequently to Guyana and that he had a private hangar at the CJIA. He had also used his jet to fly former PPP/C president Donald Ramotar to Brazil on an official trip.
Following his arrest in Puerto Rico, the then PPP/C government had been strongly criticized for its connections to Lall and over him being given a private hangar.
In 2007, Lall purchased a gas station, now known as the Kaylee’s Service Station, at Coverden, East Bank Demerara, as part of his investment plans in Guyana. He later expanded his venture when he introduced Quin’s Special Events & Services, a limousine service.