More charges likely in Pradoville 2 probe – source

Although former PPP/C Minister of Housing, Mohammed Irfaan Ali was recently charged in connection with the sale of lands at Pradoville 2, sources say that the case is still open as the Special Oganised Crime Unit (SOCU) is actively pursuing matters against the other former cabinet members.

“They are doing an investigation in relation to charging the cabinet,” a source said while noting that investigators are working on gathering the necessary evidence.

A special investigation of the Sparendaam Housing Project, referred to 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 in the latter part of 2015. The investigation revealed that the allocation of the land was a clandestine arrangement that was handled personally by Ali and it was concluded that a criminal case for misfeasance could be made against the PPP/C Cabinet members who benefited.

Lots were allocated to six Cabinet members—former president Bharrat Jagdeo, cabinet secretary Dr Roger Luncheon and ministers Priya Manickchand, Dr Jennifer Westford, Robert Persaud and Clement Rohee—along with other persons with connections to the then government.

The forensic audit, 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.

The findings of the investigation were later referred to SOCU for a criminal probe to be launched.

During the first quarter of last year the case attracted widespread attention after Jagdeo and others were taken in for questioning at SOCU headquarters on Camp Street and several beneficiaries of land were arrested.

In September this year Jagdeo, Manickchand who was the Human Services Minister, former Transport Minister Robeson Benn, former Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, former Housing Minister Irfaan Ali, former Labour Minister Manzoor Nadir, former Minister of Amerindian Affairs Pauline Sukhai; former Local Government Minister Kellawan Lall and former Health Minister Dr.Bheri Ramsaran were all hauled in for questioning about a 2010 Cabinet meeting, where the allocations of parcels of land and other matters concerning the housing scheme were discussed.

Reporters were told that the former ministers were accused of conspiring with each other to have the lands in question transferred to CH&PA.

Some of the former ministers were shown a document which has a similar format to cabinet documents and asked several questions. The document shown was unsigned and their lawyer had argued that all cabinet documents and decisions are confidential.

Jagdeo who was the last of the group to visit SOCU declined to respond to questions from investigators, invoking his presidential immunity from prosecution. He later declared his readiness to defend himself in court if charges are brought against him.

Illegal sale?

Sources have indicated too that investigators are trying to determine the legality of the sales.

“What has not yet come out in the investigation is the land maybe still belongs to NCN. They (CH&PA) [may have] sold something that was not their property,” a source.

During a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) into African ancestral lands, conducted last year, SOCU Head Sydney James had stated that NCN is still the legal owner of the 12 acres of land that the housing scheme sits on.

The land it was explained was transferred in 1920 by way of transport to the predecessor of NCN, the British Guiana Broadcasting Company (BGBC). The CoI also heard that the lots in the controversial ‘Pradoville 2’ Housing Scheme were never “sold or legally” exchanged by the NCN.

James further explained that based on their investigations, a transport dated November 4th, 1920 indicated that 15.25 acres was transferred to the British Guiana Broadcasting Company (BGBC). “Based on our investigations, it was transferred from the BGBC to NCN. There was a vesting order…made by President Bharrat Jagdeo on the 5th February, 2004 dissolving BGBC and transferring their assets to NCN and NICIL”. He went on to state that the Pradoville 2 area was among the assets transferred by the former President to NCN.’

Further, one source said that the removal of the NCN transmission tower from that location is also part of the ongoing investigation as it is include in the cost associated with the scheme. The source said that aside from the price variation in the cost of the land which is said to be about $274M, there were a “whole set of other associated costs…moving of the tower, etc.”

According to NICIL’s audited financial statements for 2009, amounts totalling $166.241 million were shown as having been expended on the cost of removal and relocation of the transmission tower from Sparendaam to La Parfaite Harmonie, West Bank Demerara.

The then Cabinet also approved the award of a contract to Atlantic Construction in the sum of $13.797 million for Phase I of the laying of road infrastructure work at the location.

With regards to the issue of beneficiaries paying the difference between the assessed value of the land and what they actually paid, Stabroek News was told that this is not a decision for SOCU but rather the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) or the court.

Former Chief of Staff of the Guyana Defence Force Gary Best who owns 0.3005 of an acre of land in the scheme had previously said that land owners should not be made to pay anything more since there was no way to determine market value for lands that government allocates. Best who paid $1.5M for his land, was questioned by SOCU investigators in March last year.

Former People’s Progressive Party/Civic Minister Robert Persaud who was also allocated land in the scheme had 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.

The former Minister of Natural Resources had bought 0.3030 of an acre of land in 2007 for $1.5M. Five years later he sold the property, which was incomplete at the time, for $90M.

The party’s legal representative Anil Nandlall has however said that Jagdeo and other former ministers have “ruled out” this option.

No vanload

Following his arrest on Wednesday, it was claimed that Ali was detained at his home at 4:30am.

“What on earth made it necessary to swoop down on somebody’s residence at 4 o clock in the morning?” Manickchand had questioned.

Later, Nandlall referenced the same time and added that a “jeep load of policemen” turned up at Ali’s home.

Sources have since disputed these versions saying that four SOCU ranks and a plain clothes policeman from Brickdam Police Station executed the arrest of Ali at a house on Quamina Street. The ranks, travelling in several vehicles executed the arrest around 6 am, according to sources who stressed that no policeman in uniform was on the scene.

This newspaper was told it is “unbelievable” that the truth is being twisted.

Ali was slapped with nineteen charges of conspiracy to defraud by common law and was later released on his own recognizance.

The charges detail offences alleged to have occurred between the period of September, 2010 to March 30, 2015.

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