NIDCO goes ahead with ferry lease

The Na­tion­al In­fra­struc­ture De­vel­op­ment Com­pa­ny (NID­CO) has no is­sue in sign­ing a one-year lease for the Jean de la Valette with Vir­tu Fer­ries, whose man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Fran­cis Portel­li, of par­ent com­pa­ny Vit­ru Hold­ings, has been in­volved in a huge oil scan­dal in Mal­ta and has al­le­ga­tions of mon­ey laun­der­ing and bribery still hang­ing over his head.

The was the word yes­ter­day from NID­CO pres­i­dent Es­ther Farmer at a Port-of-Spain press con­fer­ence at­tend­ed by Works and Trans­port Min­is­ter Ro­han Sinanan, NID­CO deputy chair­man Stephen Gar­diner and Port Au­thor­i­ty of T&T (PATT) chair­man Lyle Alexan­der. The group col­lec­tive­ly as­sured the pub­lic that prop­er pro­cure­ment pro­ce­dures were fol­lowed in leas­ing the Mal­tese ves­sel Jean de la Valette (JDLV) from Vir­tu Fer­ries to ease the seabridge fi­as­co.

Sinanan ac­cused the Op­po­si­tion and oth­er op­er­a­tives of work­ing over­time to dis­rupt the seabridge ser­vice which Gov­ern­ment been try­ing to im­prove.

“There is in­for­ma­tion in the pub­lic do­main that this (lease) is a se­cret deal by the Gov­ern­ment. They are try­ing their best to make al­le­ga­tions that there is some un­der­hand deal go­ing on,” Sinanan said.

As a re­sult of the pro­pa­gan­da be­ing spread, Sinanan said the UNC was mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for NID­CO and PATT to at­tract in­vestors, say­ing no for­eign com­pa­ny want­ed to do busi­ness with PATT any­more.

“The Op­po­si­tion is hell-bent on dam­ag­ing the rep­u­ta­tion and name of in­ter­na­tion­al com­pa­nies,” Sinanan said, cit­ing Vir­tu Fer­ries as the lat­est vic­tim.

His com­ments came three days af­ter news sur­faced that Portel­li is cur­rent­ly fac­ing bribery charges in a case con­nect­ed to the 2013 En­e­mal­ta oil scan­dal, which is con­sid­ered Mal­ta’s most promi­nent case.

Asked if NID­CO had done a back­ground check on Vir­tu Hold­ings, Farmer shook her head in the af­fir­ma­tive, adding there is noth­ing to sug­gest NID­CO can­not con­tin­ue with Vir­tu Hold­ings.” She said the is­sue of Portel­li’s court mat­ter was not rel­e­vant to the pro­cure­ment process. (See ed­i­to­r­i­al on Page A16)

“There is noth­ing il­le­gal in the con­tract that NID­CO is about to en­ter in­to. NID­CO deals with the le­gal­i­ty of some­thing not the con­cept,” she in­sist­ed.

Sinanan jumped in, say­ing the Gov­ern­ment was not in a po­si­tion to look at every com­pa­ny di­rec­tor who en­gages in busi­ness with them. He said any­one be­fore the court is in­no­cent un­til proven guilty, al­though adding he was not de­fend­ing Portel­li or any­one.

Sinanan said Gov­ern­ment can­not “take de­ci­sions on how it go look.”

“Right here in this coun­try, we have peo­ple in front of the court with sim­i­lar al­le­ga­tions who have been get­ting hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in con­tracts from the state from 2010 to now,” he said.

Some mat­ters, Sinanan said, go back to 2002, “not on­ly with di­rec­tors who were ques­tioned about things out­side of the com­pa­ny that we were deal­ing with, but with the ac­tu­al com­pa­ny. So this is noth­ing new or unique. Some peo­ple are be­fore the court for pro­cure­ment mat­ters...some have been ex­pelled from cer­tain groups or par­ties in T&T per­tain­ing to pro­cure­ment.”

He in­sist­ed Gov­ern­ment had been in­form­ing the pub­lic about the leas­ing of the ves­sel, not­ing he had this an­nounce­ment dur­ing a Con­ver­sa­tion with the Prime Min­is­ter in To­ba­go last year.

Asked if the min­istry con­sid­ered what would hap­pen to the lease agree­ment if Portel­li lost his case, Sinanan said it would be bro­ken.

“I don’t lose any­thing be­cause I am not pay­ing you in ad­vance for any ser­vice. These are nor­mal trans­ac­tions,” he said, point out there are pro­vi­sions in the lease to deal with such even­tu­al­i­ty.

“We are tak­ing every step that with what­ev­er con­tract is signed by rep­utable and ex­pe­ri­enced com­pa­nies in the mar­itime field.”

Ques­tions were raised as to why Alexan­der and NID­CO chair­man Her­bert George, who are not mar­itime ex­perts, trav­elled to Mal­ta last month to ex­am­ine the ves­sel.

Alexan­der de­fend­ed his trip, say­ing he went to look at the boat’s con­di­tions and op­er­a­tions. Asked how many ves­sels he had in­spect­ed be­fore this trip, Alexan­der replied “None.”

Farmer said George was not re­quired to have ma­rine ex­per­tise “be­cause in the ten­der we asked the boat to have (a) cer­tifi­cate of that ex­per­tise done.”

In or­der for a boat to op­er­ate in T&T, Farmer said it must be class cer­ti­fied, which NID­CO had ob­tained. She in­sist­ed there was no need to send a ma­rine en­gi­neer to look at the boat. NID­CO, Farmer said, had fol­lowed all its ten­der rules, dat­ing back to when ad­ver­tise­ments for the wet leas­ing of a boat were placed in the news­pa­per last Au­gust.

Gar­diner ad­mit­ted there were two is­sues with the Jean de la Valette. In 2015, he said the fast fer­ry hit a pier dam­ag­ing its front and had to be re­paired. He said Vir­tu Fer­ries al­so ex­pressed dis­sat­is­fac­tion with boat­builder Austal over an au­to­mat­ic well that had to be cor­rect­ed over a pe­ri­od of time. He said Vir­tu Fer­ries filed “a loss of prof­it ac­tion against Austal” whose then CEO re­sist­ed pay­ing, which re­sult­ed in ar­bi­tra­tion. But last year, Austal’s new CEO agreed to an out of court set­tle­ment with Vir­tu Fer­ries in the mat­ter.

As for the month­ly rental cost of the ves­sel, Sinanan said that was still be­ing fi­nalised by NID­CO.

- by Shaliza Hassanali

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