At least two of the beneficiaries of controversial land sales at `Pradoville 2’ recently met with State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) officials after it was proposed that they pay the difference between the price they purchased at and the market rate at that point.
Stabroek News today confirmed that former Natural Resources Minister Robert Persaud visited the agency’s Main Street office while private sector executive Ramesh Dookhoo visited the said location last week.
When contacted, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Major (rtd) Aubrey Heath-Retemyer declined to comment on the matter let alone confirm that settlement talks have commenced.
“I am not commenting. The position I am taking is the decision agreed to by the senior management of this agency. There will be no comments”, he said, later adding that this applies to all ongoing matters being investigated by the agency.
This newspaper was reliably informed that the agency’s Director, Professor Clive Thomas wrote to Persaud and Dookhoo proposing that they visit the office to discuss settling the matter through the payment of the price difference for their land.
This matter which was the subject of a forensic audit is still being investigated by the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU). The argument was that former president Bharrat Jagdeo, members of his cabinet and close associates benefited from the sale of undervalued lands.
The information provided to Stabroek News suggests that during the meeting with the SARA officials, the proposal was again put to the two men and they were advised to discuss same with their attorney before furnishing the agency with a decision.
A source with knowledge of the matter indicated that SARA has not clearly indicated whether it is authorised to receive payments, whether in return for payment of the differential no criminal charges will be filed and whether the duo will be absolved of any further investigation into the land sales.
SARA’s role is to pursue civil recovery but there is nothing stopping the pursuit of a criminal case. It would also suggest that any deal struck with any of the individuals would create a precedent that would be applicable to other persons being investigated including Jagdeo.
A special investigation of the Sparendaam Housing Project popularly known as `Pradoville 2’, which was part of a larger probe of the financial operations of the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA), was conducted by accounting firm Ram & McRae.
The investigation revealed that the allocation of the land was a clandestine arrangement that was handled personally by former PPP/C Housing Minister Irfaan Ali and it was concluded that a criminal case for misfeasance could be made against the PPP/C Cabinet members who benefited.
The report added that the awardees made payments to the CH&PA but these were significantly lower than the market value. “No files were maintained by CH&PA for any of the plots allocated by a process that can be described as lacking transparency at best,” it further said.
It was stated that of the 28 lots, totalling 12.1187 acres, only 3.9693 acres remain unallocated. It was explained that lots were allocated to six Cabinet members—Jagdeo, Persaud, cabinet secretary Dr Roger Luncheon and ministers Priya Manickchand, Dr Jennifer Westford and Clement Rohee—along with other persons with connections to the government, including former army head Gary Best.
The forensic audit found that the 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.
“Our examination leads to the conclusion that the project was done outside of the established procedures and that Minister (Ali) piloted every aspect of the transaction without recourse to the Authority. 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 final report said.
The report added that the awardees made payments to the CH&PA but these were significantly lower than the market value.
The beneficiaries were all hauled in by SOCU and almost a year after, no public pronouncement on the final outcome of the investigation has been made. Concerns have been raised about the Chambers of the DPP’s involvement in the matter given that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Shalimar Ali-Hack is herself a subject of the investigation as she was the recipient of one of the house lots.
From the inception, Persaud had said that he was willing to pay the difference if it is proved that the purchase was made below market value. “He still stands by that”, a source said while explaining that it was for this reason that he did not hesitate to meet with the SARA officials.
The former minister had bought the 0.3030 acre of land located at Sparendaam, East Coast of Demerara in 2007 for $1.5M. Five years later he sold the property, which was incomplete at the time, for $90M.
“My legal advisor has indicated that should the State prove that the price paid for the plot of land was below market value, discussions can be entered into for a mutually acceptable resolution of the matter,” Persaud had said in a Facebook post days after being questioned.
“What are the facts: Sometime in 2007-2008, I applied for a government house lot as at the time I was occupying a government residence and not the owner of any house lot issued by the State or one privately acquired…I paid the full asking price for a plot of land in the Sparendaam-Goedverwagting area referred to as ‘Pradoville 2’. This was the first time I ever purchased directly from the State a house lot. Due to a number of factors, including financial constraints, after the building was erected on the said plot it was sold. I never occupied the residence at Pradoville 2,” he had stated.
Persaud had noted that “all the necessary permissions were sought from the Ministry of Housing (and) a financial penalty was paid for the early disposal of the plot and building.”
None of the other beneficiaries have publicly offered to settle. Stabroek News made checks with some of the other beneficiaries and they said that no settlement proposal was made to them. It is unclear why Persaud and Dookoo were singled out.