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Karamath comes out swinging
In his first ever one-on-one interview Yashmid Ellis Karamath, executive chairman of one of the largest construction companies in Trinidad and Tobago—Hafeez Karamath Ltd—comes out swinging against critics of the controversial Tarouba Stadium, which has been the subject of what he terms unfair criticisms.
His “coming out” was prompted by the recent stance of Dana Seetahal, SC, who agreed that the project was a national disgrace. In a strong rebuttal, Karamath is asking Seetahal to fully explain why she was forced to resign last year as president of the Law Association in the wake of a financial issue in the legal body. He is also asking what has become of an unaccounted $500 million allegedly spent on the Tarouba project.
Q: Mr Karamath, this issue has been in the public domain for about six years. Why is it only at this time you have decided to speak out, especially since you have never done any interviews with the news media?
A: (Smiling at his office at the Desalination Company of Trinidad and Tobago at Point Lisas on Tuesday morning) Exactly. I have been trying to keep a very low profile quietly doing what we do best. However, there are elements in this country who always try to put us in the limelight in a very negative manner and one of those was an article written by Dana Seetahal, who came out of the blue last week, launching a bitter attack on our company which we have worked so hard to build over the years.
She has repeated some of the unfounded allegations about the work we have done on the Tarouba Stadium. I have chosen the Guardian because I have the utmost confidence that you will faithfully reproduce what I am about to say.
Unfounded Mr Karamath?
Yes. I say unfounded because in spite of what is contained in the Uff Report I sent Udecott documented information to justify every aspect of the variation work on that project. And as a matter of fact, I have all the correspondence (shuffling through a file of documents in several file folders) here. And in 2011, I was requested by Udecott to submit the cost of completing the facility.
Did you comply?
Of course I did. After I met them they wrote asking questions about the quality of the work done on the stadium which I responded to, especially with respect to the structural integrity of the facility, because some people were alleging that the structure was unsafe. I supported my report with a document prepared by an independent firm, a well-respected testing agency, which certified the stadium 100 per cent safe.
One hundred per cent safe?
Yes. All the wells, all the connections, all the…
So where this talk about the structure being unsafe emanate from?
(A perplexed expression) Well, this is what is puzzling to me…that surfaced in the Uff Report. I don’t know where this gentleman, Mr McCarthy came from, I don’t know who he is, he never asked us to get our side of the story. Allegations have been made against the company and we were never asked to respond to these allegations by these so-called independent experts.
And a report was made on us based on information that they received from only God alone knows who, and we have provided Udecott with documented information which contradicts these allegations.
Before going further can you give an idea of some of the major projects undertaken by your company over the years?
Yes. We have done industrial and residential projects including the Grand Bazaar; the Savannah (Aranguez) Villas; the Atlantic LNG plant Trains One and Four; the Industrial Court headquarters in Port-of-Spain; the Tobago Hilton and we received no complaints on any one of them.
So what went wrong with the stadium...and didn’t the report say you refused to comply with some 300 stop orders?
(Slightly adjusting his red, black, white and grey tie) Yes, we were issued these orders and we were rushing to complete the project by a certain deadline, right? The consultants at the time did not have a resident engineer on site and we told Udecott, “Look, we will take design responsibility for the project in order to complete it within the time frame.” We couldn’t wait on a consultant to come in from the United States to go through issues with them…it just wasn’t practical.
So I wouldn’t say we ignored the stop orders; we ensured to the best of our ability and knowledge that the project was done without compromising the integrity of the structure, and we felt that because we did not design the project the stop orders were at times done in a very arbitrary manner which would delay such a high profile project.
So you did your own thing as it were…?
(Half smiling) Not really. Because the consultants and designers were all foreigners we thought they would not have a proper appreciation of local conditions and standards so we proceeded to do what we know was acceptable in our local industry.
How does Ms Seetahal agreeing with the Uff people that the project was a national disgrace grab you?
Listen, I do not know Dana Seetahal except that she is an attorney and last week she endorsed the Uff report which stated that the stadium was a national disgrace. I take issue with that because there is this good old maxim which admonishes that people who live in glass house should not throw stones...
Why do you say that?
As a journalist I am sure you will recall that it is this same Dana Seetahal who was forced to resign last year as president of the Law Association of Trinidad and Tobago over the issue of a financial nature. I am not casting aspersions against the good lady but the nation is still waiting for a proper account of that matter which occurred under her watch.
That matter to my mind had the potential of bringing the association into disrepute and which to many was the real national disgrace. At one stage the media even reported that the Fraud Squad should be brought in to investigate the matter. Let her deal with that before trying to speak about matters which she deems to be of national disgrace. That is all I have to say on this matter at this time.
She attacked our company without first checking the facts which I find inexplicable for an attorney. We were not even asked to respond to these allegations and we first saw them in the report...
In the context of natural justice are you claiming that a deliberate effort was made not to have your company explain its position?
I wouldn’t say so because Prof Uff is supposed to be this independent expert, right? What would have swayed him or his experts to come here and deny me my natural justice is anybody’s guess. The fact is that the allegations made in that report are untrue. Apart from providing documented information to Udecott we took out full page advertisements in all the dailies refuting those allegations...
If my memory serves me right that ad also responded to allegations made by Sports Minister Anil Roberts’ statements on the stadium?
Correct. And up to this day he has not denied what we described as his erroneous allegations, including one that we were paid millions of dollars without one shovel being dug in the project. Nobody responded to our advertisement, which must suggest that we were correct all the time. And that is why we are wondering how come these false allegations are resurfacing today.
Yes and this myth about this alleged one billion dollar facility. Hafeez Karamath Ltd collected just under $500 million for works done on that project.
In total. And I will produce for you a draft final accounts that was prepared by an independent quantity surveyor hired by Udecott to reconcile the contract. So the question remains: where did the other $500 million go? Somebody has to explain that.
Do you have any idea...?
(A sharp response) No!
All I see is this billion dollars being alluded that HKL collected for that project. (Raised voice) Utter bull crap!! We did not collect one billion dollars and Udecott knows the truth…this is what we collected on the facility (pulling out another set of documents with figures itemising every cent he said HKL collected, which he promised to have published in the newspapers very soon).
Mr Karamath, is all this adverse publicity affecting your company’s operations?
Definitely it has. We have not gotten a single job as a result of these allegations and because of these attacks on our credibility on the stadium; we have not been able to land a single job in our country since that time. And to touch a bit on Seetahal’s disgusting attack on HKL where she asked if we really expect to get another contract as a result of the Tarouba Stadium, the answer is an unequivocal and bold YES!! (Raised voice again)…
Including the proposed construction of new court houses?
Why in the face of the negative publicity which HKL has been undergoing within recent times?
Because, Clevon, as a result of the damage done to our reputation I wrote to Nipdec prior to the submission of tenders asking them to reconfirm that HKL has prequalified and is registered to bid on projects with Nipdec. They responded in the affirmative and we did bid on Carlsen Field and Trincity. So if a state procurement agency is telling me that I am okay to bid on their projects, who is Dana Seetahal to publicly ask if I feel I should get more State contracts?
We followed the process and for HKL to be denied the right to be considered for a contract or contracts—because of perceptions over the Toruba contract—is highly offensive and prejudicial. I sent in a proposal for the completion of the stadium but for one year I have not heard from Udecott, and that is where we are today. And may I remind you that we still have security guards and dogs on that site, Clevon. We have not abandoned the project and in fact the contract is still alive.
Why did you seek the assistance of fired Justice minister Herbert Volney in this particular matter?
Well, Clevon, he is my Member of Parliament and before approaching him I wrote Nipdec on two occasions.
I wrote asking them: Can you tell me the status of these two projects because I have put up a bid bond, spent money, resources and I am not hearing anything? But I got no response. You see, Clevon, contractors spend a lot of money bidding on these projects and the process very often is arbitrarily aborted and we are told nothing. This non-productive habit must stop. However, my sources told me that the third ranked bidder was being favourably considered and in fact was interviewed for the project.
We were ranked number one and our bid was $50 million less than the contractor who was being considered. I am not saying the contract must be given to HKL. All I am saying is that Nipdec advertised for bids in a very transparent manner but this was not carried throughout the entire process. We want transparency and the playing field must be levelled so that we all can compete in a very fair manner.
What is the bottom line?
Not hearing from Nipdec I wrote the line minister, the current Minister of Justice and Mr Volney, who is my voice in the Parliament...whoever that MP may be. Our esteemed Prime Minister always reminds us that the MPs are to serve the people, so I copied the letter to Mr Volney. There isn’t anything sinister about that. The bottom line is that no contract has been awarded and we are eagerly looking on to see what eventually transpires.
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