Commission of Enquiry into $500M paid to acquire land for highway

Cabinet will initiate a commission of enquiry to examine the circumstances in which over $500 million was paid to homeowners to acquire land for the extension of the highway from San Fernando to Point Fortin.

The announcement was made by Minister of Communications, National Security and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, Stuart Youg at Thursday's post-Cabinet news conference.

The commission will be asked to determine whether criminal or civil proceedings should be brought against those involved, including a Cabinet committee headed by former prime minister Kama Persad-Bissessar.

Young told the media that a report was requested by the Ministry of Works following a study it conducted into compensation for the highway extension project and found that while $800 million was allocated for land acquisition, over $500 million had already been spent.

Yet, he said, the process of land acquisition is not near completion.

Over 520 properties were acquired and paid for by state and there are still 459 properties to be acquired

The commission is to be chaired by retired judge Sebastian Ventour assisted by attorney-at-law Gregory Delzin.

Senior Counsel Reginald Amour will also serve on the commission, assisted by attorneys Venessa Gopaul and Rishi Dass.

Young said Cabinet was concerned about the functions of a ministerial oversight committee appointed in 2011, chaired by the then prime minister.

It was to, among other things, oversee the project's funding and time-delivery and to ensure that proper monitoring and evaluation were undertaken for the country to receive value for money.

He said the study found that the committee hired private entities, including lawyers, to do the negotiations for compensation.

According to Young, they too seemed to have been paid excessively.

With regard to the compensation to landowners, he said the report found that some people were paid for land that was no longer needed for the construction of the highway.

In one case, one person received $50 million and then made a claim for an additional $30 million.

In another case, he said four persons in a household were compensated of the same property.

He said one of the persons doing the valuation of land, later "unjustifiably" increased the value of land that he had already submitted.

He said the government put a pause on any further monies for the acquisition of land and asked for the technical team at the Works Ministry to do a report.

The terms of the Commission of Enquiry are extensive and among them is to inquire whether the ministerial committee fulfilled its mandate, to look at the circumstances in which the state acquire or has taken steps to acquire properties that are no longer required and the process by which the state and or the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco) approved the acquisitions and compensation.

He said the commission will look for any breach of duties and whether any criminal, civil proceedings should be initiated.

It will also recommend a process to be utilised as the standard going forward so that taxpayers would not be subjected to any abuse of office.

- by Sampson Nanton