The APNU+AFC Govern-ment yesterday faced more embarrassing questions about a controversial bond deal when a parliamentary showdown resulted in an impromptu visit to the Sussex Street site and not a single tablet was seen by the MPs on the mission.
PPP/C MP Anil Nandlall initiated the drama in the National Assembly when he claimed during his budget presentation that the government was paying $14M per month for the Sussex Street bond where “not a tablet is being stored”. Minister of Public Health, Dr George Norton, who had acknowledged lying to Parliament several months ago on the bond deal, then challenged him to withdraw his statement since he said it was not true. An uproar in the House followed and government members chanted “withdraw.”
After the noise died down the Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr Barton Scotland asked Norton if he was saying that medication is stored at the bond to which Norton replied and said : “Yes, Mr. Speaker.”
Norton’s response sent the members of the opposition into a frenzy and they all started to call on him to prove that medication was being stored in the bond.
The Speaker then asked Nandlall if he had any proof that the bond was not being used to store medication. “My Information is that the bond is not yet in use… The people of this country want to know what is being stored there,” Nandlall said, to which a member exclaimed that they should visit the bond. Nandlall, the immediate past attorney general, quickly agreed.
After several minutes of deliberation and argument from both sides of the House, the Speaker decided that the Opposition would select one member from its side, the Government would select one member from their side and along with the Deputy Clerk of Parlia-ment, Hermina Gilgeous and other parliamentary staff would visit the bond to ascertain whether the claims were true.
Both sides agreed and the Opposition side selected Member of Parliament Irfaan Ali while the Government selected Minister of Social Protec-tion, Volda Lawrence. Nandlall then continued his budget presentation.
The two MPs departed from the National Assembly along with most of the press corps. In addition to Ali, PPP/C Member of Parliament Juan Edghill tagged along and the party arrived at the bond at 8PM. When Edghill approached the gates of the bond no one was present, however, after calling, someone emerged from inside. Edghill related that he was there along with Ali to check on the contents of the bond. However the worker declined to open the gates and said he had to “check with his boss.”
Lawrence arrived some 15 minutes after and related that the team had to wait on the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Public Health, Trevor Thomas. Around 8:25PM Norton arrived along with Minister within the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Karen Cummings. Thomas arrived shortly after and the gates were opened and the Parliamentary Staff, Ministers, Opposition Members and members of the media flowed through and entered the bond.
The delegation was taken upstairs first where there were a number of steel shelves that contained boxes of equipment on the bottom sections only. Thomas explained that the top floor stored items such as boxes of umbilical cord clamps, latex condoms, lubricant, and IDU kit insertions. One of the boxes was subsequently opened and revealed a set of umbilical cord clamps.
The group then went downstairs where it was related by Thomas that it was used to store items such as heavy machinery including incubators, a pharmaceutical forklift, and a number of refrigeration units including one sub-zero unit. However, upon exploring the refrigeration and sub-zero unit, no medicines were seen in them.
After carefully observing every nook and cranny of the bond, Ali then stated that so far he had only seen equipment being stored and not tablets. Ali then subsequently requested that since it was related by Norton that medication was stored at the bond that a tablet be shown to confirm such a claim. However, this request was denied and it was subsequently acknowledged by Norton that drugs are not stored at the bond.
The members then departed the bond and returned to parliament where confusion ensued again. While giving his report to the Speaker, Ali related that his colleague Nandlall had stated in his budget address that “not a tablet is being stored” in the bond. However, the government argued that the aim of the exercise was to ascertain whether the bond was being used to store anything at all.
The House went back and forth for over 30 minutes on the issue and the Speaker subsequently asked that the recording be played to ascertain exactly what Nandlall had said and Norton’s reply. However, even after listening to the recording the members continued to dispute whether the visit to the bond was to check for drugs or if anything was stored and as such the House could not come to an agreement.
Minister of Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan then rose and suggested that the matter be suspended until today when a transcript of the conversation between Nandlall and Norton and the other members could be properly finished for analysis. Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo then moved the motion for the matter to be suspended until today.
The deal for the bond with businessman Larry Singh was said to have been initiated by the APNU+AFC government because extra storage capacity for drugs was needed. This was despite that fact that a government bond existed at Diamond on the East Bank where more pharmaceuticals could be stored.
Singh had never run a bond storage operation before and critics said the deal appeared to be a sweetheart arrangement to give business to a PNCR supporter. To this day, no explanation has been given by the APNU+AFC government as to how Singh came to know that the government needed a bond. Questions have also been asked about why there was no public tendering for the bond for which it was disclosed that the government is paying a monthly rent of $12.5m.
Amid unrelenting pressure and condemnation of the deal, a Cabinet subcommittee was convened in September this year and it agreed that the bond deal was “undoubtedly undesirable” and a variety of options should be considered including shortening of the lease. Since September, nothing has been heard about the deal and whether Singh is still collecting the standard monthly fee. There also been no world from the Public Health Ministry on progress in finding an alternative to Singh’s bond.