A secret contract millhouse was discovered at the Education Facilities Company Ltd (EFCL) in Maraval, and armed guards have been called in to secure a mountain of potentially damning evidence which points to the illegal manufacturing of backdated tender documents worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The discovery was made one day after the new board of the state-owned company suspended its Chief Executive Officer Kiran Shah and Chief Operating Officer Sharma Maharaj over claims of impropriety.
Informed sources told the T&T Guardian that a member of the board found the "secret room" on the first floor of the Maraval building, which is opposite the Country Club and also houses the main branch of FirstCaribbean International Bank (Trinidad and Tobago) Ltd. EFCL occupies the second floor of the building and, unknown to staff, another room was rented on the first floor.
Sources said a new board member was stunned after finding three people busy at work in the "secret room" and called in security after realising they were working on EFCL business. The three people in the room, and another who was subsequently found to be part of the same operation, were sent home and their access to information technology at the company was suspended, sources said.
Accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers has been called in to conduct a forensic audit of the company and has already taken a snapshot of the systems used in the 'millhouse.'
Sources said they have already discovered that the four select employees were hired to create contracts and tender documents for several existing projects which were already paid for in full. This was being done, according to company insiders, to validate the tendering processes to make them appear transparent and legal.
A preliminary report has revealed that contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars were given out to select contractors in the run-up to the September 7 general election and they were paid in full without any work being done. Two contractors, who are financiers of the United National Congress, have been identified as the major beneficiaries of the scheme, sources said.
Sources said the forensic audit and a criminal investigation by the Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau, which began in April, triggered this week's suspension of the two executive officers.
A whistleblower initially went to the police with a 108-page dossier detailing several instances of fraud and mismanagement. This sparked a police investigation centering around the award of several contracts over the last five years.
Sources said efforts had been made to axe the whistleblower but she stood up against her employers.
The T&T Guardian also learned that the execs' suspensions come mere months after the dismissal of a female civil engineer who clashed with the seniors over the contract with a preferred EFCL contractor.
Contacted yesterday, recently installed EFCL chairman Arnold Piggott confirmed the suspensions and audit.
"The forensic audit has commenced immediately and the two were suspended with full pay pending the outcome of the investigation," he said.
An internal memo, penned by EFCL corporate secretary Verity Bynoe and dated November 13, informed the staff about the suspensions. That memo also informed the staff that international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers had been retained to conduct the forensic investigation and urged compliance by all staff members.
Piggott noted that the EFCL's line minister, Education Minister Anthony Garcia, in his budget presentation, had called for a forensic audit into the spending and award of construction contracts by the former board.
He said while he did not know how long the audit would take, he was hoping it would be completed in a timely manner "so we can move forward." He said the future of the two suspended officers depended on the outcome of the investigation.
"Yes the suspensions are pending the outcome of the investigation," he said.
While Piggott did not say whether the forensic audit and criminal probe were two separate investigations, the T&T Guardian learned that the two would be running parallel and should be completed within the same timeframe. The forensic audit and the probe will focus on the EFCL's use of two preferred contractors.
The newly installed board of directors, chaired by the former People's National Movement (PNM) agriculture minister, met for the second time on Wednesday and immediately suspended the two executives as the investigations began.
About the EFCL
The EFCL is a special state enterprise formed to build, deliver and maintain modern building facilities utilising best practices in project management.
Its mandate is to ensure the development of modern and efficient physical infrastructure for the Ministry of Education, and support the strategic goals of the ministry.
The company has been criticised frequently over its inadequate facilities for several schools which remain incomplete, or fail, leaving hundreds of children without accommodation since the new term opened in September.
This is not the first time the EFCL has faced public scrutiny.
Contacted yesterday, former line minister Dr Tim Gopeesingh would only detail the line of approvals and payment structure between EFCL and the ministry, saying that everything went through the ministry's permanent secretary and that it was all done above board.
Back in 2012, then opposition member, now Finance Minister Colm Imbert, described the operations at EFCL as enabling a "feeding frenzy." Gopeesingh had said then that an audit into EFCL was already in progress and a team from the Finance Ministry was examining operations at EFCL.
Imbert had raised suspicions of "irregularities" in the award of contracts by EFCL and had called for a forensic audit into several scopes of works, including electrical upgrades at Tranquillity Government School and Lakshmi Girls' Hindu College. Imbert also claimed then that former minister in the Ministry of Education, Clifton De Coteau, used his position to help a friend benefit from EFCL contracts.