There seems to be a lot more awry about the national street-lighting programme than the Government is prepared to admit.
Led by Public Utilities Minister Mustapha Abdul-Hamid, the powers-that-be appear to be engaged intently in pussyfooting around the lights. Let's go down memory lane. Back on July 22, Abdul-Hamid was boxed into a corner by Princes Town North MP Subhas Panday, who brought the burgeoning street-lighting scandal into sharp focus during a Lower House sitting. In responding to the allegations aired by Panday, who said he had got his information from an Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) report, Abdul-Hamid went so far as to name Roopnarine Hardware and Kamus Mufflers as two of the companies being probed by the Ministry of Finance's Central Audit Unit.
Each company, Abdul-Hamid tacitly admitted that day, had benefited to the tune of millions of dollars through the street-lighting programme. Panday had not called names, but he said a hardware had profited through the programme by providing warehouse space at a rental of $83,500 a month, to store electricity poles, and Abdul-Hamid provided the link to Roopnarine's Hardware. Panday also brought a muffler firm into the picture, indicating that for the street-lighting programme, the normal one-and-a-half-inch pipe used to connect the street light to the pole was shelved, and a two-inch muffler that was imported for use on foreign-used vehicles pressed into use. All this was in the cause of giving friends and family members the opportunity to benefit from the programme, Panday accused. Again, Abdul-Hamid, when he responded, made a connection with Kamus Mufflers. Some $5 million was the cost to the taxpayer for the warehouse storage and muffler package, according to Panday.
All this took place during debate on a bill to remove responsibility for street lighting from the regional corporations and place it within the realm of T&TEC. From Panday's point of view, the move was calculated to entrench corruption within the commission. He quoted the OWTU as reporting how a street-lighting contract was broken into seven parts, to avoid scrutiny of T&TEC's board of directors. In another deal, a bid $23 million higher than the next was accepted. "Mr Minister, clear up this mess. T&TEC is smelling to high heavens," Panday urged Abdul-Hamid. Panday referred to 21 invoices which were questionable, to say the least, and declared it was not as if the PNMites involved were prepared to "make a little thief and run." Instead, they intended "to thief boldface..." Panday then turned his guns on a "political appointee" whose business transactions involving the street-lighting programme had made the OWTU see red. The man had been thick with Local Government Minister Hazel Manning, and both had been at the forefront of the PNM campaign team lined up against him in Princes Town North for the November 5, 2007, general election, Panday recalled.
During the election campaign, street lights were installed "la vash" throughout the constituency; some poles had four street lamps on them. "Like they had light in their heads," Panday quipped. Abdul-Hamid said the central audit unit, which he pointed out was set up in 2001 by the UNC, had been asked to investigate the advanced metering system, purchase of poles and the purchase of the metal arms from the muffler firm. The UNC was only crying for a forensic audit to be done, and for the Fraud Squad to be called in to convey a sense of drama, Abdul-Hamid declared. His government had no intention of hiding anything; in fact, integrity was his government's watchword, Abdul-Hamid boasted. Now, fast-foward to the post-Cabinet news conference last Thursday, when Abdul-Hamid said he had received the central audit unit's report since May, but that Cabinet had decided to give T&TEC an opportunity to respond to the allegations that had been investigated by the central audit unit. The OWTU has been observing darkly that a senior Cabinet minister's son was involved in the street-lighting programme, and the union's president, Ancil Roget, said he feared Government was moving to sink the report while doing damage control at the same time.
On Thursday, Abdul-Hamid said carefully no minister's son was involved in the Street Lighting Implementation Unit (SLIU). UNC Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Harry Partap, who is the shadow Public Utilities Minister, took that assurance with a big pinch of salt. On Friday, Partap insisted that a minister's son was involved in the programme; not directly in the unit, but as an importer of street lamps on behalf of T&TEC. "We can't understand why T&TEC had to respond to the findings of the central audit unit; we think that the Government is trying to hide something," said Partap. From his perspective, when an organisation is asked to conduct an investigation and the results are handed in, if allegations of wrongdoing are made in the report, then the next logical step is to ask the Fraud Squad to step in. Partap said Government would not be allowed to sanitise the report, and from the start of the next Parliament session early next month the Opposition would be on Abdul-Hamid's case. "We're certain that T&TEC has decided to increase its rates and further penalise the poor people of T&T because of corruption in the commission," declared Partap.