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Raffique Shah


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On today, Uff tomorrow

By Raffique Shah
October 11, 2009

Someone determined many moons ago that there are three sides to every story-yours, mine, and the truth. Maybe that person lived in Norway, a country long seen as heaven-on-earth, which has consistently ranked at the top of the world in human development. He (or she) obviously knew nothing of faraway Trinidad where there are 100 sides to every rumour, and maybe more to every truth, if the latter at all exists in this country.

I think of this as I watch the saga of the Uff Commission unfold with more plots and sub-plots than a Ludlum thriller. Reading Prof John Uff's profile, I wonder why this obviously very bright person-extensive qualifications and experience in construction and engineering, and a distinguished attorney-would have accepted the brief from the Patrick Manning Government? His descent into the living hell that is life and politics in this country defies logic.

But then the good professor probably never heard the Trini-slang, "like he going off?" Obviously Prof John went off. He and his team were asked to probe the activities of UDeCoTT, that hydra-like state behemoth that straddles umpteen billion-dollar projects, at a time when allegations aplenty were made against the company's head, Calder Hart.

Hart is himself like an octopus. He is chairman or director of five huge state-owned entities, among them NEL, TTMF, NIB and NIPDEC. These companies, along with UDeCoTT, control-I don't know for sure, but I'd guess-possibly TT$60 billion. That sum is bigger than the country's annual budget, and close to 40 per cent of the country's 2008 GDP. Other than the sheiks and kings of oil-rich countries, I can think of no other mortal anywhere on earth who controls that kind of public loot ‘er, capital.

How does a commission probe a company like UDeCoTT that simultaneously undertakes 20 or so major building projects costing taxpayers billions of dollars? Worse, while the probe is underway, the Prime Minister sings hosannas to Hart, all but naming him as the country's greatest human import since India's Uthara Rao (whatever happened to him?). Hart must be the Sun-God or some similar deity: we know the PM is a pious man who bows only to gods, but who has little regard for the commoners whose collective wealth he is custodian of.

Worse for Uff and his fellow commissioners, how must they feel when, in the midst of the Commission's on-and-off sittings, they see the PM cavorting with the main man they are probing? I am not suggesting that Mr. Manning should stop talking with, or be seen in the company of Hart. After all, the man is guilty of no crime-not yet, anyway.

But what if Chief Justice Ivor Archie or any of his fellow-judges were seen fraternising with, say, Silas Mack, the man accused of multiple kidnappings and murders?

Not only is Mack presumed innocent until a jury finds otherwise. But the prisoner's claims that he was beaten to pulp by prisons officers warrant intervention by someone on the Bench. Still, the CJ and his colleagues are mindful of the signals any such display would send to a people under siege by heartless criminals. One would think that the PM would stay aloof of main personae involved in the probe until the issue is closed.

Having written all of the above, I am not about to pass judgement on Hart. Oh, I surely would like to ask him how he straddles the many companies he does. When does he sleep? Or sail? He must hold a doctorate in time-management, not to add a professorship in money-management. A simpleton like me who can hardly count past one thousand would be lost trying to imagine one billion. How does he monitor the billions in the NIB's coffers, more billions that NIPDEC invests or expends, or the huge loans-portfolio of the TTMF? I would relish some valuable tutorship under this "little magician". Only I'd hope he achieves far better results with our money than our other wizard, Russel Latapy, achieves by way of goals!

I started this column by outlining the three versions of the truth one has to sift through to get to the fourth truth. Having listened to most of the testimonies that came before the Commission, I am more confused than ever. Maybe that's why, while I'm not Uff, I seem to be going off. The JCC and its team gave their version of why local contractors were excluded from most of UDeCOTT's projects. Dr. Keith Rowley had his take on several aspects of the company's operations, including a hotel that seemed to materialise from nowhere.

Amidst all the bacchanal and confusion, up comes a fella named Khan who swears he is Hart's man-in-law, and he has proof of some suspect dealings by his ex-wife's husband. UDeCOTT immediately moved to shut him out by calling judicial halt to the enquiry. Then my trade union comrade, senator and UDeCOTT board member, Michael Annisette, plunged head-first into the fray with the fire and brimstone of a latter-day Butler.

This enquiry gets "curiouser and curiouser", as Alice in Wonderland said, every hour, every day. On today, Uff tomorrow. Where else but in sweet Trinidad?

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