The million-dollar sale of the official Chief Justice residence more than a decade ago has come back to haunt the State. The decision has left taxpayers digging deep into their pockets forking out more than $54,000 a month to afford the super-grade housing a Chief Justice is entitled to. So, why was the home of the nation's third highest office holder sold and not renovated? This is the burning unanswered question on the lips of many. Comprising 44,943 square feet of land (more than one acre) and located in the affluent neighbourhood of St Clair, the sprawling property was auctioned off for a bid of $7,001,000 just three days before Christmas in 1997. Real estate agent and chartered surveyor Afra Raymond valued the opulent property in today's market at a whopping $31 million.
"A piece of land that size would be sold for a little more than $700 per square foot. In today's market it would worth an estimated $31.5 million. That piece of land in St Clair is a desirable enclave. That size of lot in a millionaire's row. It is really a desirable spot," Raymond told Sunday Guardian when contacted.
The sprawling property was snatched off the market within minutes by the former chairman of the TSTT, Richard Azar, who topped the $7 million bid from Albrosco Meats Packaging boss, Christopher Aleong. Surrounded by lush greenery, the two-storey building comprised four-bedrooms, three bathrooms and a dining and television room. Located on the second floor of the house was a living/sitting room and kitchen. The property also included living quarters for a maid and gardener. The sale created history in T&T becoming one of the highest bids ever offered for a state-owned property. It was then Public Administration Minister Wade Mark, a member of the United National Congress Cabinet who sanctioned the move following a decision to dispose of all government residences with the exception of the homes - President, Prime Minister and the Commissioner of Police. Contacted yesterday Mark, who is now House Speaker, refused to comment on the matter only saying it was a decision made by the then administration.
Shockwaves over the sale of the CJ's house
The move to sell the state-owned mansion sent shockwaves through the political and legal fraternities leading to a failed attempt by the former Chief Justice Michael de la Bastide to block the sale. Thirteen years ago, de la Bastide, who is now President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), expressed shock over the decision after learning of the proposed sale in a newspaper advertisement. The former Chief Justice who opted not to occupy the property, initially had no objection to the sale of the mansion, according to Guardian reports at the time. However, de la Bastide had a change of heart and believed the mansion should have been renovated and kept for his successor. Letters were sent by de la Bastide to the former prime minister Basdeo Panday and the attorney general Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj critical of the sale.vFour days before the mansion was sold, in a letter dated December 18, 1997 to the former prime minister, de la Bastide stated: "As far as I am aware, my efforts have not been successful, and the sale will take place as scheduled despite my own wishes and those of my fellow judges. It is a fact that until quite recently, I did not intend to occupy the official residence because it would require considerable expense to bring the property back to acceptable condition, and in any event, my family and I were quite comfortable in our own home."
Giving reasons for his change of mind, the former Chief Justice further stated: "Firstly I realised that it would be unfair to those who succeed me as Chief Justice to deny them the opportunity to occupy an official residence, conveniently located, suitable for their needs and appropriate to their office. Secondly, I have come to appreciate that it is important for the maintenance of the status of his office that the Chief Justice should occupy a suitable residence." De la Bastide sent an earlier letter, dated November 12, 1997, to the then public administration minister, Wade Mark, whose ministry was responsible for government housing seeking to stop the sale. All his attempts failed, however. Instead, Mark said the Salaries Review Commission had taken a decision to replace government housing with an allowance for the Chief Justice and judges. Effective April 1, 1997, it was agreed that the Chief Justice would be entitled to a housing allowance of $7,500 while judges would receive $5,000. Since its implementation, the allowance has increased over the years with the Chief Justice now receiving a monthly allowance of $15,400. When Sunday Guardian visited de la Bastide's Haleland Park residence yesterday, the CCJ head refrained from commenting, only saying: "I do not wish to get involved in any political foe."
Taxpayers to bear hefty housing allowances
The decision to sell the St Clair mansion in 1997 has placed a burden on the pockets of taxpayers and continues to cause controversy. In his contribution to the budget debate, Minister of Justice Herbert Volney alleged there was a "sweetheart deal" involving the renting of a two-storey home at Sandown Road, Goodwood Park, in which the current Chief Justice Ivor Archie lives. Volney's statements have caused a furore in many circles, with the Minister being roundly condemned. There have been calls for him to apologise or resign from Cabinet being made from as far as Jamaica. The Judiciary issued a statement calling Volney's contribution "scurrilous," "defamatory," "reckless" and "blatant untruths and highly offensive innuendos." Others have questioned what "sweetheart deal" the minister was referring to when he made the comments.
A Sunday Guardian investigation revealed that a Cabinet Note dated September 30, 2008, disclosed that the State agreed to pay one Ruthven Smith a rental rate of US$8,500 per month ($54,400) for a mansion in Goodwood Park for the maximum term of three years.
The Cabinet Note stated: "Cabinet by Minute No 2667 of September, 2008, agreed inter alia:
(1) In principle, to the lease by the Judiciary of the private residence situated at No 40 Sandown Road, Goodwood Park, for use by the Honourable Chief Justice as rent-free, super-grade housing and
(2) That the Minister of Public Administration submit for the consideration of Cabinet details of the lease of the property referred to at (I) above. Cabinet had also, vide the said Minute, accepted the recommendation of The Honourable Chief Justice that the rental of the said premises be for a period of two years with an option to renew for an additional period of one year during which time alternative premises owned by the State shall be identified and put into super-grade condition in order to serve as accommodation for the Chief Justice."
The five-bedroom, semi-furnished house includes en-suites bathrooms and walk-in closets, kitchen, dinning room, formal living room, two sitting rooms, pantry, powder room, maid quarters, utility room and two car garages. The premises also include a gazebo with built in bar, an open storage room and a swimming pool.
Ministry queries ten per cent increase in CJ rental
However, the lease dated May 13, 2009 between Smith, owner of the property, and His Excellency George Maxwell Richards and executed by attorney Andrew Johnson refers to an agreement of $54,400 a month for two years ($1.3 million) with a ten per cent increase for the third year if the lease was renewed, which would take the monthly rent to $59,840. The lease, which was obtained by the Sunday Guardian, states: "In consideration of the rent reserved and of the covenants on the part of the tenant hereinafter reserved and contained and on the part of the tenant to be paid observed and performed the landlord hereby demises unto the tenant the demised premises landlord tenant to hold the demised premises unto the tenant from 1st day of November 2008 from the term of two years with the option to renew for a further one-year period on the same terms and conditions as stated herein but an increased monthly rent of ten per cent of the existing rental (determinable as hereinafter provided) effective November 1, 2008 yielding and paying therefore during the said term the monthly rent of $54,400 such rent to be paid in advance on the first day of each and every month during the said term and proportionately for any fraction of a month."
The two-year lease for the Goodwood Park house expires on November 1, 2010 and the clause in the lease about the ten per cent increase only comes into force if the Judiciary renews it. Documents obtained by Sunday Guardian revealed that the discrepancy between the Cabinet Note and the lease over the increase in the third year was raised by the Ministry of Public Administration's legal department in October 2008. The ministry's legal officer, Natasha Moonilal, in a letter dated October 22 to the Property & Real Estate Services Division Coordinator, Dawne Wynter questioned various parts of the lease.
Citing various irregularities, Moonilal questioned under what authority the following were agreed to:
(a) An increased monthly rent of ten per cent of the existing rental upon the State's renewal of the lease?
(b) The Lessee is to pay the rent into the Lessor's US account at Republic Bank, Promenade Centre Branch, Port-of-Spain.
(c) The Lessee is to at his own cost and expense to preserve all ornamental and fruit trees shrubs and plants on the premises, as well as to maintain the grounds in present condition.
(d) The Lessee is to carry out all minor repairs not exceeding $US200, to pay for maintenance of the swimming pool on the premises, to pay for garden maintenance and to pay for pest control services every four months.
(e) Payment of a security deposit of $US8,500.
Contacted yesterday for clarity on the situation former Public Administration Minister Kennedy Swaratsingh said he was unable to comment on the matter.
It was a err in judgment
Openly commenting on the issue, former Chief Justice Satnarine Sharma said the official residence should have never been sold. Pointing out that the area where the house was located is prime property, Sharma said: "The house on Prada Street should not have been sold in the first place but that was surrounded by controversy. The only way to remove all this controversy is to have an official residence for the Chief Justice. When I was the Chief Justice, I lived in my own house but it had no entertainment space so I had to rent halls in hotels for cocktail events. The CJs house should not have been sold; it should have been rebuilt. The CJ deserves an official residence but it has to be specifically built in accordance to the lifestyle of his office."
CJ to get official residence
However, further probing also revealed that Government is moving to purchase a property at Hayes Street, St Clair mere metres away from where the former Chief Justice residence once stood. When the Sunday Guardian visited the proposed earmarked site high bushes covered the parcel of land that is fenced with blue galvanize. One resident, who requested anonymity, told Sunday Guardian: "We heard the Chief Justice is coming to live here. We do not know; we are waiting to see."