Red House was vested in the National Trust and could not be leased without the Trust as lessor

Dear Editor,

I thank Mr Ralph Ramkarran for his letter (‘One person’s alleged wrong…’ SN, January 4).  The former Speaker knows the high esteem in which I hold him as the last great intellectual, already precious few as they were, previously attached to the People’s Progressive Party.  His intervention has clarified for me why it is that the PPP has so confidently challenged the claim of the invalidity of the ‘Red House lease’ and why they simultaneously so studiously avoid reference to the National Trust Act.

I can perhaps begin with a parable.  Let us imagine there is a bridegroom of high standing, a king perhaps, who gets married to a beautiful, blushing bride.  After a decade of marriage, he enters a civil union with a well-known, powerful concubine, one which the courtiers denounce as illegitimate.  The king confidently says it is not and when the courtiers eventually produce the original marriage certificate, they find that he is technically right since while there was the pomp and ceremony and while the bride’s signature is clear, they discover that he has conveniently omitted his.

In wake of Red House’s controversial new relationship with Cheddi Jagan Research Centre, Inc, and the rights of the presumptive original legitimate spouse, the National Trust, I rather suspect that a similar omission may be at play.

Let us reexamine Section 15 of the National Trust Act:

“(1) Where it appears to the National Trust that it is in the public interest that any monument should be preserved on account of the historic, architectural or archaeological interest attaching to it or its national importance the Trust may, by notice published simultaneously in the Gazette and one newspaper circulating in Guyana, declare the monument to be a national monument.

“(2) Upon publication of a notice under subsection (1) relating to a monument such monument, without further assurance, becomes the property of, and vests in, the National Trust, and where immovable property has, by virtue of this section, vested in the National Trust the Registrar of Deeds shall take due notice thereof and shall make such annotations on the records as may be necessary.”

Properly executed, Red House and the lands upon which it stands (Lots 65, 66 & 67 High Street, Kingston) should have passed into the ownership of the National Trust and subject to the Section 3 (1) of the Act requiring explicit ministerial consent before lease.

The only scenario in which indefeasible ownership via transport had not been passed to the Trust is if the Registrar of Deeds failed to take due notice, under Section 15 (2), of the vesting of ownership “without further assurance” of immovable property in the Trust and hence failed also to “make such annotations on the records as may be necessary”, or if such annotation cannot be found.  If one were to examine the relevant Deeds Registry documents concerning the gazetting of Red House as a national monument, I suspect that there will either be an omission of requisite annotations or an absence of proof thereof.  Indeed, Mr Ramkarran more than hints as much when he says “It may well be that an Order transferring ownership of the property to the National Trust is required to perfect the National Trust’s title and that until such time, the property remains in the transported owner.”

In that scenario, the status quo remains unchanged for Lots 65, 66 & 67 by virtue of the transport remaining the property of, by procedural omission, the Lands and Surveys Commission (instead of passing to the National Trust) therefore clearing the way for the ‘lease’ under the Commission – in brief, the bridegroom neglected his duty to sign his original marriage contract and hence effectively remained legitimately available until his betrothal to another.

However, there is one critical factor that would impact the validity of the ‘lease of Red House’, and where the central metaphor of my humble parable fails.  Section 15 (1) – once effected – puts Red House, the monument, automatically in the hands of the National Trust “without further assurance”.

The principals of CJRC Inc may have imagined, cleverly, that they could have leased the monument by virtue of leasing the land from under the monument, which would explain why what was originally prepared as a lease application properly involving the National Trust in 2000, became a lease application to the Lands and Surveys Commission in 2006, again in 2010, and then ‘successfully’ in 2012.  This would also explain Anil Nandlall’s insistence that the government as landlord to a faulty lease could not use its own failures of due diligence in securing that lease to invalidate it, merely because of a change of political administration.

However, Red House the monument – which could no longer be considered mere ‘immovable property’ as would a regular building – had already been vested in the Trust and cannot be leased without the Trust as lessor, and without the permission of the Minister.  One might as well claim ownership of the 1763 Monument by obtaining the transport for the Square of the Revolution from Lands and Surveys.  Unless, CJRC Inc constructed a new structure for its supposed educational purposes, as per the terms of the lease, no structure on the three lots can be said to be in its ownership.

Of course, that simply deals with the legal issue.  The ethics still remain.  By gazetting Red House as a national monument in 2000, the PPP ensured that the state remained obligated, ironically under the National Trust Act, to upkeep the operations of the monument, including maintenance, staffing and utilities.  They then authorized the CJRC as a not-for-profit – made up of PPP people including at some point Dr James Rose, then Executive Chairman of the Trust – to run the facility as it saw fit and to earn revenue from both fundraising activities and the rental of the facilities, including to state agencies.  What the PPP had in essence created was a thinly disguised cash cow, without any independent scrutiny, all the overheads of which – and a considerable part of client revenue – was paid for by the state.  And of course, the lawns of Red House were a regular venue for Freedom House soirees.

Further, in March of 2012, the $12,000-a-year  ‘lease of Red House lands’, as it should properly be called, represented a maelstrom of interrelated conflicts of interest, with one person at its epicentre.  Dr James Rose was at the time simultaneously Chairman of the National Trust, Director of Culture under Minister Dr Frank Anthony, and a principal of Cheddi Jagan Research Centre Inc.  As Chair of the National Trust, he was colleague of Mr Doorga Persaud, Commissioner of Lands and Surveys and signatory to the ‘lease’ ostensibly on behalf of the Commission; as principal of CJRC Inc, he was colleague of Mr Ralph Ramkarran, signatory to the ‘lease’ on behalf of CJRC Inc.  And, as Director of Culture, he had overall policy and operational oversight for cultural heritage preservation and protection, including from illicit appropriation.

Yet at no point did the Trust, the membership of which consisted of both Rose and Persaud, object to the ‘lease’ of a gazetted national monument which was its property, a transaction in which it played no part as prescribed by law.  And if there were an omission to execute the Order of transferral, it should have been flagged and corrected by both, Persaud in particular, before the ‘lease’ was executed.

In closing, the ‘lease of Red House’, the gazetted national monument, is not merely invalid or a nullity in law – it simply does not exist and never did.

To quote one of Mr Nandlall’s favourite aphorisms, ‘The Law is not an ass”, no matter how the self-perceived ‘best and brightest’ among us may wish to make it so.

Yours faithfully,

Ruel Johnson

Cultural Policy Advisor

Government of Guyana

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