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Government is expected to continue paying rent for the controversial building at 1 Alexandra Street, Port-of-Spain, at least until November. The building remains unoccupied. In a telephone interview yesterday Local Government Minister Marlene Coudray said she could not say when it might be occupied. When pressed for an expected date she only said: “I cannot say at this time.” She added that the lease was due to expire next November but said she needed to do some research as to why the building had not been occupied.
The issue was brought to the fore in Parliament last week when Coudray was responding to a question from Arouca/Maloney MP Alicia Hospedales. Coudray said the supplier of the service product was one N J Nahous and that the rental agreement on the building had been in place since 2009 under the previous administration. Since 2010, Government has been paying $8.2 million annually in rent, at $690,000 a month, for the empty building in addition to $927,360 a year for security.
If the lease is honoured to its end, Government will have to pay approximately $6.2 million for the period up to November. Asked who were the owners of the property Coudray said: “Nahous.” On whether if she could specify a name Coudray said: “It is Faris Al-Rawi’s (Opposition senator and PNM public relations officer) father-in-law.”
The T&T Guardian also e-mailed questions about the building to Shelley Sultanti-Maharaj, co-ordinator at the property and real estate services division of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. The issue of outfitting and occupation, Sultanti-Maharaj said, should be redirected to the Ministry of Local Government since the contract with the service provider was executed by that ministry.
Asked how many other empty buildings the government was paying rent for and at what cost, the response was: “Your last question is leading and assumes that there are other empty buildings for which government is paying rent.” The Alexandra Street building was originally earmarked for the Ministry of Local Government at the time when Hazel Manning was a minister and the rental contract was signed under the PNM government, which lost the 2010 election shortly afterward.
Asked why the building was not occupied under his tenure, former Local Government Minister Surujrattan Rambachan said it was “being outfitted,” adding that part of it was already completed. “There was a contract and the building was rented for the PNM by the PNM. If the Guardian wants to know the truth they would write that,” he said.
Al-Rawi distances himself
Checks at the Companies Registry revealed there was no company called “NJ Nahous” but a NJ Nahous Investments Ltd, whose principal shareholder is Nazem Nahous. Directors listed include Nazem Nahous (businessman), Jinan Nahous (businesswoman), Michael Nahous (businessman), Gina Nahous-Hajdar (businesswoman) and Mona Nahous-Al Rawi, whose husband is PNM Senator Faris Al-Rawi. Al-Rawi, however, has made it clear that he has no financial interest in the building.
“I personally have no interest in that entity. I am aware that the Government rented that building on or around 2010 and that it pays a market rental below the rate paid by the government to many entities,” Al-Rawi said. NJ Nahous Investment Ltd, he added, was a limited-liability company which had been a landlord to successive governments, including the UNC, PNM, NAR and UNC, since the early 1970s. Al-Rawi also knocked Coudray for her comments.
“If Ms Coudray’s words are intended to be speculative of some lack of transparency, then let her come out and say so,” Al-Rawi added. He said the owner of the building “certainly cannot” be called upon to speak to government issues as it is “only a landlord.” He added: “Any attempt to draw salacious references to me are futile. Any of my personal business can certainly stand up to full scrutiny.
“I am aware that there are many properties rented under this regime which are owned by family members of the UNC.” He said he came from a family and community which have significant investments in T&T.