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Devant in AATT confusion

Published: 
Monday, November 14, 2011
Transport Minister Devant Maharaj

Transport Minister Devant Maharaj has landed himself in a dilemma regarding the award of contracts at the Airports Authority of T&T (AATT).  The matter is now engaging the attention of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Correspondence obtained by Sunday Guardian which was sent to the Prime Minister by the AATT chairman Vaman Bajnath details a list of ‘special requests’ Maharaj had instructed him to carry out. Maharaj, the line minister for the AATT, yesterday admitted in a telephone interview with the Sunday Guardian that he did in fact discuss some of the ‘special requests’ with Bajnath. At the centre of the exposé are the award of contracts and the short-listing of people to be hired for employment at the AATT.  The revelation comes on the heels of the minister’s move to have Bajnath’s appointment revoked following a vote of no-confidence against him on October 21. It was in a letter dated October 31 that Maharaj informed Bajnath a copy of the resolution was sent to Attorney General Anand Ramlogan for direction on the matter. But Bajnath, who has taken issue with the handling of the matter, and in attempt to clear his name, responded to the allegations in a tell-it-all style.

Bajnath chastised Maharaj for not affording him the opportunity to respond to the ‘baseless allegations’ before the matter engaged the attention of the Attorney General, claiming the rift between AATT board members was due to political interference and meddling. Bajnath stated: “The present wrangling and disruptive behaviour of members of the board is directly linked to the carrying out of the directions and desires of your office.”  Referring to Section: 12A (2) of the AATT Act which states: “In the performance of its functions and in the exercise of its powers, the Authority shall act in accordance with specific or general written directions given by the line minister,” Bajnath claimed that he facilitated the minister’s “expressed desires” since his appointment.

Chairman claimed he fulfilled minister’s ‘expressed desires’

Dismissing allegations that he failed to carry out instructions of the line minister in a timely manner, Bajnath listed several occasions to the Prime Minister where he allegedly fulfilled the minister’s ‘special requests’.

• Request: Favourable consideration for Bridgcom Ltd with respect to a three-year contract for grass cutting of the airfield, maintenance of the drains and fence line at the Piarco International Airport.
Action: At a July 2011 meeting, the board of the AATT awarded the contract to Bridgecom Ltd in the sum of $2,156,189 plus VAT per annum for three years for the grass cutting of the airfield, maintenance of the drains and fence line at the Piarco International Airport.
                                                                   
• Request: Favourable consideration for attorney Jagdeo Singh of Fortis Chambers to receive AATT Oropune legal portfolio.
Action: At the September 2011 board meeting, the appointment of Jagdeo Singh, Fortis Chambers to provide professional services in settling the legal issues associated with the relocation of the Oropune villagers.
 
• Request: Human Resources consultant to remain on a month-to-month contract.
Action: Members were advised at the August 2011 board meeting that the decision of the board taken to with respect to the renewal of a one-year contract for the human resource consultant will revert to a month-to-month contract on the basis that the potentially new appointee to the position of human resource manager possessed the capabilities and experience to address industrial relations issues.
 
• Request: Favourable consideration be given to three specific attorneys for the vacant positions within the AATT Legal Department. Action: The positions were publicly advertised, and the recommended people were shortlisted in preparation for the interview process.
 
• Request: Removal of board member Diane Hadad as chairman of the Business Development Committee (BDC) and or termination decision and instructing management to halt negotiations with various concessionaries in the absence of board approval. In addition, you advised that negotiations must continue with potential concessionaries.
Action: The BDC was immediately disbanded on the basis that the decisions taken with respect to the halting of negotiations with concessionaries were not in the interest of the authority nor was it approved by the board. Additionally, while the committee was established by the board, no terms of reference were documented and items discussed overlapped with the business of the operations committee. Furthermore, negotiations with the following concessionaries resumed without delay.

According to Bajnath, among the requests to be filled with the concessionaries are:

•T o issue a letter of commitment to open one food kiosk at the International Departure Lounge East and another in the International Departure Lounge West
• To lease 16 square meters of space at the south terminal for an Automated Teller Machine (ATM)
• To issue a licence to place an ATM at the north terminal
• To send a sample lease without rates
• To lease 172.69 square meters of office space at the south terminal
• To complete negotiations with the company when the review of rates and charges has been completed.  
Bajnath also disregarded all grounds for moving the motion stating that the allegations were without fact and a breach of protocol.

Six against Bajnath on the board
The fall-out between Maharaj and Bajnath comes one month after chairman of the Port Authority of T&T Clive Spencer was fired. Spencer had claimed that he was given the boot because he refused to adhere to the minister’s directives. Sunday Guardian has been reliably informed that board members—Gary Kalliecharan, Suresh Ramdial, Emile Baptiste, Dyanand Maharaj, Ian Gomez and Diane Hadad voted in favour of the no-cofidence motion against Bajnath.

Citing grounds for the motion, the board members stated the following reasons for removing Bajnath:
• Has demonstrated total disregard for the AATT Act and procedures governing the authority, pertaining to his authority and decisions taken by the board.
• Failure to call a vote on motions which were proposed and seconded at the board meeting.
• Failure to carry out instructions of the line minister in a timely manner.
•  On several occasions displaying an inability to control and conduct board meetings in an orderly  manner
•Chairman has on occasions disregarded requests by members of the board to have employees of AATT leave the boardroom for private discussion.

Deputy chairman also under fire
The saga does not end there though, as Maharaj is also reportedly butting heads with the deputy chairman of AATT Felix Hernandez. This, after Maharaj claimed that a no-confidence motion was also moved against Hernandez on October 21. Maharaj also referred Hernandez’s matter to the Attorney General.As to which members moved the motion remains an issue of contention.

Six board members, Maharaj stated, gave the following reasons for their decision:
• Has demonstrated a failure to understand and comply with the AATT Act and procedures governing the AATT
• Unilaterally changing lawful decisions taken by the board
• Has on occasions displayed abusive behaviour towards members of the board and employees
• Allow misinformation to be presented to the board, despite objection from board members.
• On several occasions displaying inability to support chairman in conducting meetings in an orderly manner
• Displaying poor judgement with little regard for fair and natural justice.

Vehemently denying that the majority of members voted in favour of the motion, Hernandez responded to Maharaj stating: “I was present and attended the monthly statutory meeting of AATT on October 21. At that meeting no resolution was tabled or voted upon in terms of the enclosure in your under reference. One of the members of the board moved a motion of no confidence in me as deputy chairman. The motion was seconded. No notice was given of this resolution nor was any details supplied. Some discussion took place on the resolution but it was never put to vote and therefore not passed.” Hernandez who is weighing his legal options has deemed the allegations  as ‘vague’ and ‘malicious’, insisting that he acted in accordance with the provisions of the AATT Act.

Transport Minister responds to allegations

Contacted yesterday, Maharaj attempted to downplay the rift at the AATT insisting that the “board is very much in place” and Bajnath remains the chairman. Pressed further as to why he opted to refer the no-confidence motion against Bajnath and Hernandez to the Attorney General, Maharaj said: “No, no, it is not true I have not referred the matter to the Attorney General,” Maharaj said. However, when told that the Sunday Guardian was in possession of the correspondence dated October 31, that stated the matter was engaging the attention of the Attorney General, Maharaj then replied: “I have to see what you have before you.” On the issue of giving directives to Bajnath for the granting of ‘special requests’ in relation to the maintenance of the grass and fence line at the airport, Maharaj explained: “I have a letter from Bridgecom Ltd stating that they have some concerns with the tendering process. In terms of Mr Bajnath, I spoke to him identifying the concern of this person who tendered and that he should review the tender process if indeed the allegations made by Bridgcom is correct. “Subsequently, the board indicated that they did indeed find out that there were some problems with the evaluation criteria of that particular contract and they deliberated upon it and arised at the lowest bidder.”  

Admitting that attorney Jagdeo Singh of Fortis Chambers has been retained to represent the interest of AATT regarding the relocation of farmers in Orpoune Maharaj said: “There was issue regarding the brief from the previous attorney amounting to $1.8 million or $2 million dollars. It was felt that that price was exceptionally high for the brief. I asked them to look around for other attorneys and my experience with Mr Singh is that he is reasonable; we are ensuring that we get value for money and not exorbitant legal fees.” The minister, however, was oblivious on the issue with the human resource consultant who has been hired on a month-to-month contract. As to whether he requested for three ‘specific’ attorneys to fill the vacancies in the legal department, Maharaj explained: “Since I came into office I have been getting request for jobs and so on. What I do is that I take the resumes and filter them out to the various departments and ask if they can consider them. As far as I know, the AATT has not met in a number of months to fill any positions.”   The minister, however, denied that he requested the removal of the BDC chairman. “Only recently, I was in Tobago with Ms Hadad; we have a good relationship. This issue with the BDC is one that troubled Mr Bajnath because he felt it was impeding some of the work he wanted to do in regard to the concessionaries. He identified that negotiations had halted because of the BDC.
“Those details with the concessionaries I would not know,” Maharaj stated. Attempts to contact managing director of Bridgcom Ltd Narindra Ramsubhag proved futile.

PS sends legal letter to minister

The permanent secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Tobago Development Hermia Tyson-Cuffie is demanding an apology from Transport Minister Devant Maharaj in relation to claims that she played a role in the alleged “slush fund” set up under the Community Development Scholarship Financial Assistance Programme. Through her attorneys Alexander, Jeremie and Company, Tyson-Cuffie, who was recently promoted to the rank of PS, has issued a pre-action protocol letter to Maharaj regarding statements he allegedly hurled at her outside the office of the Equal Opportunity Commission on October 25. Tyson-Cufffie, who has been employed in the public service for the last 36 years, is claiming that the statements identified her as a “player” in the alleged slush fund at the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs.

In her claim for damages, the PS said the statements also imputed that during the period 2003 to 2007, when she held the position of deputy permanent secretary she acted in a racist manner, discriminated against people of East Indian descent, favoured and facilitated members of a political party and managed the Ministry’s funds in such a manner that they were dissipated and could not properly be accounted for. The statements, Tyson-Cuffie said, could be interpreted as she committed a criminal offence in public office under the relevant statutes of the Prevention of Corruption Act and the Integrity and Public Life Act. The permanent secretary further contented that the fund fell under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Community Development and Gender Affairs and was managed by a committee of which she was never a member of as deputy permanent secretary, since the inception of the programme in 2003. All recommendations, Tyson-Cuffie claimed, were approved by the relevant minister and payments were authorised by the then PS for the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs.
Substantiating her claim, Tyson-Cuffie said no where in the alleged Equal Opportunity Commission report makes mention of her name or any responsibility attached to the office of the deputy permanent secretary that she formerly held.