Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Shalimar Ali-Hack and the former Chief-of-Staff of the Guyana Defence Force Gary Best were yesterday questioned by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) as part of the ongoing investigation into land sold in the Pradoville 2 housing scheme, which has already seen former President Bharrat Jagdeo arrested and grilled along with a host of former PPP/C government officials.
The questioning of the DPP is seen as posing a serious dilemma for her Chambers. Under Article 187 of the constitution, the DPP has the power to institute and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court and to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings. In the exercise of these powers, the Director shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority.
Any charges stemming from the SOCU probe would have to be articulated through her Chambers. Observers note that even if there was nothing adverse against Ali-Hack from the probe, the mere fact that she has been questioned in connection with it could cast a pall over the DPP’s handling of the results of the SOCU probe.
Ali-Hack and her husband, Moeen ul-Hack, were represented by attorneys Nigel Hughes and attorney Jamela Ali.
Hughes yesterday played down concerns about the questioning of the DPP and her husband. He said that neither of his clients was a suspect in the matter and that a call to have Ali-Hack step down from her substantive position to facilitate the investigation was not necessary. Ali-Hack, he said, was only called to SOCU as she is one of many allottees of land under government housing.
“I can say without fear and contradiction that neither of them is a suspect. The investigators made it very clear that the position is that they are assisting them in the fact-finding mission in relation to a lot they acquired at Pradoville. I have made it pellucid, that they are not suspects, that they are not the target of any investigation and that all they are doing at the present moment is gathering facts in relation to the acquisition of properties at Sparendaam.
“In the light of that statement being made public…I don’t see the basis for you to ask someone to step down. She is not the target of any investigation and they have said she is not a suspect, she or her husband,” he added.
While he feels it is unlikely, he said that should Ali-Hack be a person of criminal interest in the matter, he doubts that the police or Ali-Hack would want her to remain in her post as DPP. “I certainly think that Mrs. (Ali-) Hack, were anything to be sent to her office where in relation to which she is a potential party, would not in any way participate in that process,” he said.
SOCU has not made any statement on any of the people it has questioned in connection with this probe. However, it has been clear for several months that all of the allottees including Jagdeo and former Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon who was also placed under arrest on Tuesday, are on the radar by virtue of having acquired land in the scheme at rates far below the market price.
Ali-Hack and her husband paid $1,488,744 for 0.2767 of an acre and currently reside in a house on the property.
Meanwhile, former Guyana Defence Force (GDF) Chief-of-Staff Rear Admiral (rtd) Best does not believe that owners of land at ‘Pradoville 2’ should pay any more than the price they originally paid for their land since there was no way to determine market value for lands that government allocates.
“The assets in the country belong to everyone. When you pay taxes, you become a beneficiary in …when the government sets a price, whether it is Parfait Harmonie, whether it is for young professionals etcetera …there is no longer market forces,” Best said yesterday.
Best owns 0.3005 of an acre of land in the scheme. He had paid $1.5M for the land. It was registered in his name on September 2nd, 2012, at which point he headed the GDF. Best, who was appointed in July 2015 as a Presidential Adviser on the Environment, retired from the GDF in 2013.
Detailing the acquisition of the property at Pradoville 2, Best said, “There was a process. The [Government of Guyana] offered lands at Sparendaam. There was paperwork, an invoice was generated, a title given and then I constructed.” He also noted that prior to the Pradoville 2 house lot, he had also acquired another property further up the East Coast of Demerara.
He said that he had owned that property for more than ten years, the period stated before which one could sell government lands allocated, and knowing that he was in his legal remit, he sold that property. All this information, he said, was told to SOCU investigators.
He explained to this newspaper that the reason for him selling his first property was because he had heard that lands were available at Sparendaam and that area was closer to the capital, where he worked. “At the time I had a previous house lot but the 10 years had passed so I made it quite clear that my ten years had passed,” he said.
Best maintained that he was not given any preferential treatment in the acquisition of the land and that he became aware that the lands would be available “indirectly.” “I didn’t know it would become the infamous Sparendaam,” he said.
Best reasoned that the logic behind the state potentially asking persons to pay additional amounts for the properties was contrary to government housing policy since, from a historical perspective, no beneficiary through this process ever pays market value for lands given. “So wherever you are living, since in the 60s with South Ruimveldt and so on, my view, once the government enters the market and sets a price, that is the market value …If you look, once government is involved in housing, this government or the other , it has always been subsidized…it must be subsidized,” he stated.
Further, he posited “The whole issue of market value has to be looked at. When I bought my land I had to build the land up. Next to where my house is there is a swamp. There is still a swamp there …and there is no seashore for me …I see mangroves I do not see the sea as people are saying. I prefer the mangroves. I know the market value thing is coming up and whether it will be revalued and so forth, I think, is a very delicate question and if it is done it is done. But generally it is one where there is a big issue.”
‘A poor man’
He told Stabroek News that if asked to pay market value for his land now, he could not afford such. “I am a poor man and if that is case and I can’t afford that. I might have to sell my home to pay,” he lamented.
Best’s attorney, Senior Counsel Bernard De Santos, was adamant that no one should pay. “That was a free contract entered into. Why should he pay more? Because somebody decides it values more? Why should he pay more?” De Santos asked.
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 and 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.
On Tuesday former President Jagdeo was arrested at the Leader of the Opposition’s office on Church Street, Georgetown by SOCU head Sydney James and taken to SOCU headquarters for questioning.
Jagdeo’s arrest followed that of former Cabinet Secretary Dr 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. Five other persons were also questioned on Tuesday. These were former Minister of Natural Resources 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.
On Wednesday, former prime minister Samuel 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 Nanda Gopaul and former Public Service Ministry head Dr Jennifer Westford—were questioned by SOCU.
Thursday saw only two persons being questioned, former Office of the President press officer Kwame McCoy and former head of the Officer for Climate Change Andrew Bishop.
Former Minister Persaud hinted that he would be ready to settle the price difference with the state, if it proves that the land was sold to him at an undervalued price but counsel for the PPP, Jagdeo and other former ministers, said that option has been “ruled out.”
From day one, the former PPP ministers’ legal representative, Anil Nandlall, has maintained that his clients have broken no law, since subsidised housing has been a long part of Guyana’s history. He has emphasized that his party comrades would not relent on this position and thus would not come to any settlement that disputed this theory.