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Port board led astray

Published: 
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Galicia initially deemed unsuitable
Super Fast Galicia.

The People’s Partnership Cabinet approved $56 million ($56, 343,000) to lease the Super Fast Galicia in 2014, nine days before it received board approval by the Port Authority of Trinidad & Tobago.

However, the multi-million-dollar approval was green-lighted despite a report that pointed to a number of deficiencies that likely made the Super Fast Galicia unsuitable to service the Tobago sea bridge.

This is just one of several issues Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi will be asked to investigate following Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley’s statement last Thursday that there was possible “criminal conduct” in the handling of the contract for the Galicia.

Documents obtained by Guardian Media point to possible conflict of interest and dereliction of duty by parties involved in the contract.

The AG may also be asked to examine the involvement of ND Alfonso & Co Ltd, the law firm of former First Citizens chairman Nyree Alfonso, in the deal.

According to documents obtained by GML, the Port Authority board approved the selection of the boat on April 12, 2014. Two days later, on April 14, the Port Authority received a cheque in the amount of $23,933,722 representing “the cost of mobilisation & infrastructure,” with instructions to hold the money in escrow until the contracts were executed. Two weeks earlier, on March 28, a draft minute was taken to cabinet for the funding of the Galicia and on April 3, via cabinet minute No 972, the funding of the vessel was approved, which was some nine days before the port board sat and ratified its selection.

But in his contribution to the debate in the Parliament on Wednesday, Works and Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan, in outlining why Government felt the Galicia was no longer a good option, noted several reasons why the vessel was unsuitable for the sea bridge.

Those deficiencies were in fact outlined in an internal memorandum dated March 24, 2014, which was compiled by then acting CEO of the Trinidad & Tobago Inter-Island Transport Corporation, Leon Grant, who had visited Gibraltar in early March 2014 to conduct “sea trials” and “inspection” of the vessel.

In the memorandum on the issue, Grant stated that the approved charter of the MV Super Fast Galicia was subject to the assessment of the vessel. A technical, commercial and statutory assessment was done during his trip to Gibraltar and he concluded that the vessel only satisfied two of the six areas deemed critical for its suitability to service the sea bridge.

According to Grant’s memo, the vessel did not satisfy passenger capacity, operational costs, utilisation and configuration for the route.

However, in a detailed breakdown of her bill to the Port Authority on July 18, 2014, attorney Nyree Alfonso, in a note on the vessel’s suitability, stated the “Super Fast Galicia was deemed most suitable by Mr Leon Grant.”

Contacted yesterday, Grant refused to answer any questions about the apparent conflict between his first report and the final recommendation, only saying: “I am not allowed to speak on this issue relative to the ferry at this point in time.”

Told that he had pointed to several weaknesses in the vessel in his 2014 report, he directed questions to the newly-appointed chairman of the board Allison Lewis.

There are also questions about the management of the Galicia’s contract over the last three years and why at least four tenders put out by the Port Authority were eventually scrapped, including under the former People’s National Movement board led by Christine Sahadeo.

The vessel was brought into this country in June 2014 on a temporary basis, but was subsequently granted several contract extensions.

According to Works & Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan, there was an agreement for an 18-month contract extension on April 8, 2016. It is unclear whether all parties involved in the 2016 lease negotiations were ever made aware of the findings of the 2014 report when renegotiating that deal. However, in January 2017, Sinanan claimed Intercontinental Shipping managing director John Powell was no longer interested in a short-term deal and demanded a three-year contract with the option to renew for another two years or he would pull the vessel. A well-placed source told Guardian Media the PNM Government felt “strong-armed and bullied” by this tactic.

ND Alfonso & Co paid $840,750

In responding to a motion brought by Tabaquite MP Dr Suruj Rambachan in Parliament last week, Works Minister Rohan Sinanan alluded to the alleged involvement of Nyree Alfonso’s law firm, ND Alfonso & Co.

According to a timeline of events seen by Guardian Media, Alfonso was retained by the Port Authority for six months, beginning December 2013. She was hired to terminate the charter of the Warrior Spirit vessel.

Alfonso confirmed to GML she was subsequently asked by the port to assist in locating vessels to help replace the Warrior Spirit because of her expertise as a maritime lawyer. She was able to find six vessels.

In an interview with Guardian Media on Friday, Alfonso denied submitting any tender during the process. She provided an excerpt of a letter sent to the Port Authority where she indicated she had “terminated her efforts” on the basis that she would be unable to meet the normal industry required criteria, and informed the European brokers to work with a local agent.

In a February 19, 2014 tender that was eventually scrapped, Intercontinental Shipping was listed as the preferred tenderer, although it was not on the list of nine companies invited to submit a bid for the provision of services. After tenders were evaluated however, Intercontinental, which is the local agent for the Super Fast Galicia, was listed as one of the three preferred bidders.

Although Alfonso was employed by the port at the time, she was invited to tender for the provision of a vessel, where two of the three vessels she found were short-listed.

In a 12-page breakdown of her bill, she charged for a number of services, including locating temporary vessels, contacting the Super Fast team to tell them of the selection and arbitration proceedings, among others.

There were no dates provided for the last section of her bill. This dealt with confirmation that the Galicia had been accepted by the Port Authority, assistance in putting in place a payment facility and letter of credit, as requested by the owners of the Galicia.

It also addressed the preparation of the charter party agreement and multiple in-person meetings with Intercontinental general manager John Powell and the permanent secretary. On October 2, 2014, the Port Authority approved the payment of $840, 750 to the law firm for its services.

Alfonso—No conflict of interest

Attorney Nyree Alfonso says Government can “do all the investigations” it wants into the Super Fast Galicia deal, as she believes it is nothing but “smoke and mirrors.”

She said the probe by the Attorney General will not change the fact that Government was aware the vessel was pulling out and there appeared to be inaction by the Government.

Alfonso reiterated that she declared her interests to the Port Authority, informing that John Powell of Intercontinental Shipping and his other companies were her client. She noted, however, that many people in the shipping industry are her clients.

“I am an attorney for more than 20 years, I know what conflict of interest is,” she told Guardian Media.

While she assisted in locating the vessels, Alfonso said she never selected Powell to be the local agent for the Galicia.

“The choice of Intercontinental was not my choice, but Intercontinental is my client,” she said, adding that she extricated herself from the process.

She said she is not this “Machiavellian” person that she was being made out to be.

Powell—No ‘strong-arming’

Intercontinental Shipping managing director John Powell is denying any strong-arming of the Government in securing a contract extension for the Super Fast Galicia.

Contacted in Gibraltar yesterday, Powell said Intercontinental could not threaten to pull the ship from service because it always operated on instructions from the owners and international broker of the vessel. He explained that his company was nominated by the European Broker Astral Shipping.

Asked to explain how Intercontinental was listed as one of three preferred tenderers, he said Intercontinental could not have been on the initial tender in February 2014.

“It’s not like Intercontinental walked in and suddenly appeared on the list, we couldn’t have done that,” he added, saying they are an agent that works through a broker or a principal.

Last Wednesday, Works Minister Rohan Sinanan described as “economic blackmail” a situation in which Intercontinental sought a change to the existing 18-month contract in January 2017.

However, Powell said yesterday that he would be “disappointed” if Minister Sinanan said that.

“At no time did we strong-arm the Port Authority, the Ministry of Transport or the Government,” he stated.

According to Powell, the owners wanted to sell the vessel or attain a long-term contract and he questioned why the Government would offer a month-to-month contract knowing there was the possibility the owners could pull out.