Two and a half million dollars. That is how much the Tobago House of Asembly’s Division of Tourism, led by Tracy Davidson-Celestine, spent on a High Angle Canopy Course project for Main Ridge. However, all the Auditor General’s Department could subsequently find for the money spent on the project was some rope in a store room.
The findings are contained in the Auditor General’s Report on the operations of the THA for the financial year ended September 30, 2016, which is riddled with questions about the operation of the Assembly.
On November 12 last year, the Auditor General’s Department wrote a letter addressed to the THA’s Chief Administrator to inform of the findings of the audit. That letter was signed by acting Audit Director Alicia Bailey-Job.
On page 15 of the letter, the issues surrounding the proposed course at the Main Ridge in Tobago were highlighted.
“A service agreement dated 12 June 2015 showed that the Division of Tourism and Transportation contracted with a British Virgin Island corporation located at Tortola to design, develop and construct a “High Angle” Canopy Tour Course in the Main Ridge at an initial cost of US$ 531,610,” the letter stated.
The Auditor General noted, however, that no approval was presented from the THA’s Executive Council for the establishment of the facility.
A total of $2,511,210.20 was paid to the THA for “materials and equipment; however the existence of these assets was not verified” the Auditor General’s report stated.
“A visit to the Stores section of the Division revealed only some ropes on hand,” the Auditor General stated.
On June 23, 2015, the THA paid $1,765,469.10 for “70 per cent of materials and equipment for Canopy project,” the Auditor General’s letter stated. And just over four months later, on October 27, 2015, a further $745,741.10 was paid for the remaining 30 per cent of materials and equipment for the project.
At the time, Davidson-Cenestine was the Tourism Secretary with direct responsibility for the project.
This issue has become one of the talking points in the build-up to the THA election carded for January 25.
Speaking during a meeting over the weekend, Progressive Democratic Patriots’ (PDP) deputy political leader Farley Augustine, the candidate for Parlatuvier/L’Anse Fourmi/Speyside, said he had investigated the Tortola company and discovered it went bankrupt.
“I discovered they (Tourism Division) were taking the material and storing them in a company in Miami…the storage company went bankrupt … It means our equipment are racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in storage fees and will now be subject to auction. We might be looking for a zip line in our rainforest, but we will never get as much as a piece of a nylon string,” Augustine stated.
However, the People’s National Movement’s (PNM) Tobago Council has responded, saying that the 1.5 kilometre zip line project is still in the works.
In a press release on January 11 the PNM’s Tobago Council said although the project was commissioned when its current political leader (Davidson-Celestine) was Secretary for Tourism and Transportation, the work had “barely started when she left office.”
The Division of Tourism had been saddled with several projects approved by Davidson-Celestine and her team which remain incomplete although tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars have been spent on them, including the purchase of hotels, the Main Ridge project and repairs to several sites and attractions.
Davidson-Celestine is the PNM’s candidate for the Lambeau/Signal Hill in the upcoming THA election.
Respnding to Augustine’s claims during a subsequent PNM meeting, Davidson-Celestine said, “I am very results-oriented … and my administration will ensure that we deliver on those facilities promised. Investment in sites and attractions are critical in expanding eco and adventure tourism. So delivering at least two ziplines is a priority for us going forward.”
But the discrepancy on the Main Ridge project was not the only concern highlighted by the Auditor General.
On page 29 of the report, the Auditor General highlighted issues surrounding the escrow account for the $143 million Milshirv project.
The THA launched the project in 2013 after purchasing three acres of land from a limited liability company at a cost of $12 million in November 2011. The limited liability company agreed to construct an office building which, on completion, would be leased to the THA for 20 years. It was to be used by the Division of Agriculture, Marine Affairs, Marketing and the Environment by way of a BOLT (Build-Own/Operate-Lease-Transfer) arrangement.
“Paragraph One of the Supplemental Deed dated 14 July, 2012 required that the sum of $21,569,248 be placed on an escrow account and represented 18 month’s rent in advance payable under the Office lease,” the Auditor General’s letter stated.
“In accordance with Note 8 to the Financial Statement, the Escrow account at a commercial bank for Milshirv Properties Limited was closed on 12 July, 2016. An examination showed that the sum of $21569.248 and $101,592.24 were withdrawn from the account on 29 April, 2016 and 12 July 2016 respectively,” it stated.
However, the Auditor General’s report stated that a notice from the bank dated 14 July, 2012 “indicating to whom the funds were released was however not produced for audit.”
The Auditor General also noted that among the discrepancies was that the THA Executive Council’s minutes approving more than $7 million in property rent each year was not seen.
Davidson-Celestine recently pronounced that during the 20 years of the PNM being in power in the Tobago, there has been no corruption.