Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) investigations continued yesterday into the sale of lands in the controversial ‘Pradoville 2’ housing scheme with former Prime Minister Samuel Hinds facing questions on his role in the removing of a transmitting mast from the community to clear the way for houses to be built.
Hinds denied that the state television station mast’s removal was part of a calculated plan by the then PPP to clear way for the development of the lands at Sparendaam to be used for housing purposes and argued that it was to pave the way for the Ogle Airport Expansion.
“What they showed me there were documentations addressed to me since 2004 as I recall where formal discussions began to arrange for the removal of the tower,” Hinds told the media shortly after exiting the SOCU headquarters on Camp Road, where he was ordered by SOCU to report. He explained also that he was not arrested.
Going back in time to around 1994/1995, Hinds recalled challenges between Ogle Airport operators and the then Cheddi Jagan government on the operators’ call for expansion of the aviation sector which from then included the tower’s removal because of interference.
“I’ve always remarked about our development particularly about the aircraft industry. None of flights flying in all hours of the night would’ve been possible with the Sparendaam tower still in that location,” the former Prime Minister, who was responsible for telecommunications and energy sector, reasoned.
The SOCU probe is based on an investigation of the Sparendaam Housing Project, known as ‘Pradoville 2,’ which was part of a larger probe of the financial operations of the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CHPA) that was conducted by accounting firm Ram & McRae, which concluded that a criminal case for malfeasance could be made against the PPP/C Cabinet members who benefited.
The firm found that awardees grossly underpaid for the lots by a total of nearly $250 million, while the state-owned National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL), National Communications Network (NCN) and Guyana Power and Light Inc. (GPL) were never reimbursed for millions spent to execute preparatory works.
Day two of questioning into the matter saw Hinds and six other persons: former Minister of Housing and Water Irfaan Ali, former Minister of Home Affairs and former People’s Progressive Party General Secretary Clement Rohee, former Minister of Education Priya Manickchand, former Chief Executive Officer of the Guyana Water Authority Shaik Baksh, former Minister of Labour Nandakishore Gopaul and former Public Service Ministry head Dr Jennifer Westford, turning up as requested by SOCU to its office.
On Tuesday former President Bharrat Jagdeo was arrested at the Leader of the Opposition’s office on Church Street, Georgetown by SOCU head Sydney James who was accompanied by United Kingdom (UK) Financial Investigation expert attached to SOCU, Dr Sam Sittlington and taken to SOCU headquarters for questioning.
Jagdeo’s arrest followed that of former Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon who was served his arrest notice in front of the local media corps at a press conference the PPP had called to talk about the pending matter. At the time of Luncheon’s arrest Jagdeo was unsure if he would have also been arrested but said that he believed he would be given that he was “the ultimate target.”
However, he invoked his presidential immunity powers under Article 182 (1) of the Constitution and was free to go. Article 182 (1) states that “…the holder of the office of President shall not be personally answerable to any court for the performance of the functions of his office or for any act done in the performance of those functions and no proceedings, whether criminal or civil, shall be instituted against him in his personal capacity in respect thereof either during his term of office or thereafter.”
He had told reporters that the questioning was “a general thing,” and was based on audit reports on NICIL and NCN and Pradoville 2. “Those were the three things they talked about,” he said.
Five other persons were also arrested on Tuesday and comprise former PPP/C minister Robert Persaud, Lisaveta Ramotar, who is the General Manager of the Guyana Gold Board and daughter of former president Donald Ramotar, Ramesh Dookhoo, former Chairman of the Private Sector Commission and Dr Ghansham Singh. They were also beneficiaries of house lots in the scheme. Marcia Nadir-Sharma, former Deputy Director of state holding company NICIL was also questioned. They were all released without charge.
Ramotar was detained for the longest period on Tuesday as she was first to arrive at SOCU, sometime after 10am, and was last to leave, after 6pm.
Yesterday, Ali arrived first and was questioned for about 90 minutes before he was released. He told the media to refer all questions to his attorney, Davendra Kissoon, but Kissoon said that the matter was sub judice and as such he could not comment.
The Pradoville 2 report had listed Ali as piloting every aspect of the transaction without recourse to the CHPA. “While the minister has considerable powers under the Housing Act, his role in the issue of titles was well outside of his functions and powers,” the report said.
Shaik Baksh and Dr. Jennifer Westford also did not entertain questions from the press.
On the other hand, Rohee and Manickchand had much to say. And like their party leader the day before, they laid the blame for their arrests on the APNU+AFC coalition saying that it was a politically motivated act aimed to distract the populace from the issues affecting the nation while wanting to silence PPP members and followers through humiliation and intimidation.
“SOCU, under pressure appears, to be operating under different instructions from different persons in executive authority. At one time they are instructed to arrest, another time not to arrest. At the end of the day, this is essentially a directed dirty war disguised as a fight against corruption and aimed at political opponents of the APNU+AFC Coalition. Pradoville 2 is the cause for the dirty war. The PPP and its leaders are the principal targets for this dirty war initiated by the APNUAFC coalition”, Rohee said. He had earlier in the day declared he would not be going to the SOCU HQ but apparently relented.
Asked about the questioning at SOCU, he informed that it concerned the Pradoville 2 Housing Scheme. “How I acquired the land and how much I paid for it and to whom I paid the money and things like that,” he said before pointing out that he was not told to return by SOCU officers.
He said he feels that the arrests of former PPP ministers of government and others was done to negatively impact the party’s support base but instead it has done the opposite since PPP’s supporters are more mobilized.
“I think it’s affecting them [PPP support base] in a positive way in the sense that it is making them become more mobilized. They are becoming much more ready and as the former president said, to take to the streets and they are watching and waiting very patiently to take to the streets and to mount protests. I think the issues are clear, we have sugar, we have rice, we have the parking meter issue, we have the SARA issue, we have these investigations, we have a whole gamut of issues, and we have the cost of living.
Further he added, “We have so many things affecting the poor people in this country; we have the tax on education, the heavy taxes they put on people. All these things are creating tremendous psychological discomfort among the people. I have no doubt that sooner rather than later, in the same way the people have taken to the streets with respect to the parking
meters, it’s only a matter of time for them to take to the streets in connection with all these matters.”
Like Jagdeo, he also does not rule out charges being laid against persons but isn’t bothered or shaken. He explained, “If that happens it would not be the first. It has happened many times before in my lifetime so whether charges are brought or not, it doesn’t really affect my publicity. I am still able to read a nice book, I am still able to write and I am still able to meet with my family.”
For her part, Manickchand, who is also an attorney and represented Sam Hinds yesterday, said that she answered questions to the best of their abilities, as it pertained to the Pradoville investigation.
“How did you acquire the land at Pradoville? Along those lines. How did you get the land at Pradoville? I answered to the best of my ability. I applied for a house lot under the national housing programme and I was allocated one behind Sparendaam Police Station,” she said.
“I did not apply for a land at Pradoville, I applied under the National Housing Programme for a government house lot in Region 4 as a result of which whatever housing usually does they did… I said to SOCU just now, I cannot recall the exact price (for the land) but that’s public knowledge. Whatever was the price that was asked of us,” she said.
“It is true that I bought the property. It is also true that I built on the property. It is also true, information that has been publically available since the moment it happened, that I took mortgages to do that and that is public knowledge in all the reports in the audits and what’s not, which in my view was an attempt to embarrass… I built a house and developed the land and I sold the property. When I did that, to be able to sell the property I had to get something called compliance which means I would’ve had to comply with all the legal procedures so yes I would’ve paid,” she added.
The former minister, known for her fiery criticisms, did not hold her tongue as she laid into the David Granger-led administration. “Now I’d like to say this to the Granger government; bringing in a Priya Manickchand for questioning or arresting a Roger Luncheon, bringing in the former cabinet members here and parading them in and out of SOCU…will not distract the parents who have to pay 14% VAT on their children’s education. It will not distract the ordinary public servants who have sacrificed and got themselves a car who are paying a mortgage for that car and are now being asked to pay parking meter fees, on a very opaque contract that the majority of the country is calling to be recalled. So this distraction may work for a minute, but the truth is this is a distraction and its funny and it looks great on the internet and might make for a one or two good headlines but every person will pay attention to what’s affecting their lives,” she asserted.
“Frankly, Priya Manickchand being questioned at SOCU isn’t affecting anybody’s life; the mother who has to find 14% VAT on her school fees, the father who can no longer afford to send his child to extracurricular activities, the empty stores in Georgetown, those things will matter to people. So it might be a better use of the government’s time to try to move our economy forward, along the way so that money is circulating. And you know, recycling an envelope or two is not going to help us in that regard,” she added in reference to a recent statement by Minister of State, Joseph Harmon. (Additional reporting by Dhanash Ramroop)