Lead Editor, Investigative
A financial trail of secret Panama deals, a hidden Panamanian bank account and a hefty CONCACAF loan no one had an inkling about are just some of the things unearthed during a year-and-a-half-long Guardian Media investigation into the affairs of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association (TTFA) under the tenure of former president David John-Williams between 2015 and 2019.
Fourteen years after Trinidad and Tobago qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time, the TTFA is on course to face sanctions from international governing body FIFA for challenging the Normalisation Committee sent in to reorganise local football.
What this means is that should the recently removed board led by William Wallace fail to withdraw a High Court case against FIFA by September 16, T&T football will likely face its darkest ever moment – suspension from international football.
And while much of the focus surrounds actions taken by former president Wallace, a Guardian Media investigation has found that it was the action of another former president that pushed T&T football to the brink.
Guardian Media has unravelled a complex web of suspicious financial transactions done in the name of the Home of Football during its investigation.
The facility, now being used as a COVID-19 step-down centre during the ongoing pandemic, was billed by Williams as the project to turn around the fortunes of local football by generating income to pay off the TTFA’s massive debts. Instead, it has now plunged it into further debt.
“Although it’s the Home of Football, it belongs to the people of Trinidad and Tobago and it’s an opportunity for them to see it, touch it, feel it and to understand the truth of the Home of Football,” John-Williams said about the facility before its opening.
On November 18, 2019, at the facility’s official opening, FIFA president Gianni Infantino lauded John-Williams for the project, saying it will ensure his legacy.
“Well, this president, David John-Williams, has shown wisdom and vision because he’s investing in the future. And the results of this investment will be seen very clearly in the very near future,” Infantino said then.
However, John-Williams was ousted as FA president one week later and indeed his legacy lives on, but arguably for all the wrong reasons.
The result of the investment is a TT$23.7 million structure that remains unfinished and an association in crippling debt, with millions owed to contractors and service providers.
And that’s just the financial impact.
Local football has also been left in ruin, with coaches, officials and players left unpaid for years of hard work.
All this came despite John-Williams, between the years 2015 to 2019, having access to millions of US dollars in FIFA Forward Funding Programme money, as well as funds released by regional body CONCACAF.
Where did FIFA funding go?
In early 2018, construction began on the foundation of the Home of Football project.
Through its Forward Development Programme, which aims to support member associations with financial support in daily operations and development projects, FIFA gave the TTFA US$2 million for the facility in early 2017.
While the funding is usually given every four years, the period of an executive’s tenure, the TTFA received two sets of funding during John-Williams’ four years in office.
In January 2019, he received the second tranche, even before Wallace’s administration came into office.
In June 2018, according to Keith Look Loy, board member of Wallace’s former executive, John-Williams decided to split the first set of US$2 million funding in business transactions involving 15 companies.
The 15 companies, Look Loy said, were: Geotechnical Engineering Consultancy Services, Aleron Limited, CPML Contractors Limited, Quintessential Design Solutions, ECOTEC EPS Construction Technologies, Transbrokerage Services Ltd, Ready Mix (West Indies) Trinidad Ltd, Trinrico Steel and Wire Products Ltd, Kamal Phulsingh, Deon George Welding and Fabrication, Deon George Welding and Fabrication, Clophas Medina Limited, A.M.A Transport and Contract Services Limited, Ramlagan General Hardware, Point Lisas Steel Products Ltd and Alescon Ready Mix.
This method then, TTFA executives said, allowed the then president to circumvent having to put the contracts up for tender.
There was no record at the board level of the companies selected, according to former TTFA general secretary Ramesh Ramdhan.
“Even after the companies were contracted, executive members never saw bills or invoices for the project,” Ramdhan said when Guardian Media spoke to him several weeks ago.
These practices occurred despite FIFA Project Manager Solomon Mudege’s list of stipulations upon the granting of the funding for the project.
In July 2017, Mudege wrote to then association president, saying, firstly, any contract or purchase of supplies more than US$300,000 must be subject to a tender process. Secondly, any contract under US$50,000 could be awarded to a single contractor or supplier and thirdly, selective tendering required three quotes before any contract could be awarded.
However, when Wallace came into office, he said he found no evidence that any of those recommendations were followed.
This allowed John-Williams to bypass the board and handpick contractors and suppliers for the project, according to several former TTFA executives.
In addition to the US$2 million special funding for the Home of Football project, John-Williams, as then-president, had access to another $1.25 million in annual operational cost allocations from FIFA in 2018.
Despite this, the following embarrassing events happened that year.
In July 2018, the T&T Under-15 women’s team was unable to compete in the CONCACAF Championship in Florida after the TTFA failed to provide funding for the team to get US visas in time.
In August 2018, then T&T Under-20 men’s coach Russell Latapy stopped team training after hundreds of thousands in salaries for him and his staff went unpaid for more than a year.
In September 2018, the T&T senior women’s team could not afford to enter into a pre-tournament training camp in North Carolina and resorted to seeking public help on social media and government assistance.
Minister of Sport Shamfa Cudjoe eventually answered their call, providing a cheque for more than US$60,000. But Cudjoe wasn’t pleased about the circumstances behind it though, saying, “They are our flagbearers and we have a duty to ensure that they are treated with dignity, compassion and respect, and this national embarrassment could have been avoided and must never be allowed to happen again.”
2017 hardly different to 2018
Between November 2016 and January 2017, T&T’s national team had three managers – Stephen Hart, who was fired, Belgian Tom Saintfiet, who resigned and Dennis Lawrence, who replaced Saintfiet.
Just a few months into his tenure, Lawrence and his staff complained about not receiving salaries on time. Lawrence, later fired in December 2019, achieved a 16% winning record.
In February 2017, former manager Hart sued the TTFA for US$714,000 for wrongful dismissal and outstanding salaries.
In May 2017, the T&T Futsal team sued the TTFA for unpaid salaries and expenses totalling more than US$65,000. The association was later ordered in 2018 to pay the figure plus legal costs in compensation.
In late 2017 into 2018, the T&T senior men’s team did not receive match fees amounting to close to US$100,000.
These legal battles left the organisation with a debt of more than US$1.7 million at that time.
Lots of material
After writing to FIFA’s member association director Veron Mosengo-Omba in July 2017, asking for permission for the TTFA, and not a contractor, to purchase structural material for the Home of Football project, John-Williams was granted permission to do so.
This approach, John-Williams claimed, would have saved the TTFA and selected contractors money.
“The association is in the fortunate position to have the necessary in-house expertise to collaborate with project managers and make educated decisions on the construction activity,” John-Williams wrote in a letter to Mosengo-Omba months after.
According to former TTFA executive Look Loy and others, the then board had major concerns about this move.
Given John-Williams’ background as a contractor, there was a possible conflict of interest, the board felt then. And with the then-president failing to provide them with information about the project, they weren’t sure who the main contractor for the project was.
Those answers remained unanswered during the entirety of the project, according to members of the then board.
According to our findings though, there is reason to believe that the contractor for the project was none other than John-Williams himself.
Guardian Media has discovered that the former TTFA president oversaw business transactions with a Panamanian company called ECOTEC.
But when asked recently about his decision to conduct business with ECOTEC, allegedly without board approval, John-Williams refused to answer the question, saying, “Mr Bassant, I’m not talking to any media.”
John-Williams also made several trips to the Central American country during his tenure, unknown to any of his fellow executives.
Guardian Media obtained details of his destinations in 2018 and 2019 and the short times he spent while there. Invoices, obtained by Guardian Media, showed the transaction involving the exchange of goods to be delivered for the Home of Football.
Signed by John-Williams and ECOTEC’s commercial director Juan Jose Cano Alvarado, the invoices amounted to approximately US$282,653.85.
According to the invoices, the materials purchased included: thermal panels, drymix and proform blocks.
Customs documents obtained showed that between February and May 2018, 40 containers with material for the Home of Football arrived from Panama at the Port of Port-of-Spain.
The invoices and materials were sent directly to John-Williams, suggesting he was the contractor for the project.
In contravention of Article 8 D of FIFA’s Forward Development Programme regulations, which states that associations may only use bonafide accounts to transact project business, the materials were paid via RBC and Republic Banks accounts, when all three of TTFA’s accounts are at First Citizens.
FIFA deposited its funding into those First Citizens accounts. Ramdhan, the former TTFA general secretary who had knowledge about these First Citizens bank accounts, also verified this to Guardian Media.
Asked why he decided to use Royal Bank and Republic Bank accounts to pay ECOTEC, John-Williams, whom we caught playing golf in Couva, claimed, “I don’t know about any Royal Bank account, Mr Bassant, but if you say we use Royal Bank, fine.”
These transactions, of course, came at a time when the association was unable to meet even operational costs.
And apart from the US$300,000 spent in material from ECOTEC, there were significant shipping costs. This included a US$53,268 fee for demurrage – a late fee for failing to clear shipments that had arrived at the port.
The delay, according to shipping sources, was because John-Williams didn’t have enough US currency, despite receiving US$2 million for the project in 2017.
The former TTFA boss refused to answer questions Guardian Media posed to him about the demurrage, as well as the reasons for his failure to clear the containers.
Breakdown of cost to ECOTEC
ECOTEC MATERIALS- $282,653.85 US
FREIGHT- $86,055 US
VAT ON THE SHIPMENT- $46,422.82 US
PORT RENT – $47,896.16 US
TRANSPORT- $11,571.42 US
THE PANAMA DOCUMENTATION: $7,096.35 US
BROKERAGE – $6,428.57 US
DEMURRAGE- $ 53,268 US
The ECOTEC invoices for two of the containers also contained inconsistencies.
According to the documents, one container contained thermo panels, while the other had proform, other materials and two monomix machines. On the invoice, the two monomix machines were valued at US$8,200 each. However, on the customs form C82, the monomix machines were not listed. And according to shipping sources, the machines were not inside the containers examined.
The machines bizarrely appeared on the construction site of the Home of Football later on but then they disappeared in November 2019.
A police report was filed by former TTFA secretary Ramdhan on March 20, 2020, but they are yet to be recovered.
With no indication on ECOTEC’s website that they carry monomix machines, Guardian Media contacted ECOTEC’s commercial manager, Juan José Cano Alvarado, by phone on August 17.
At first, Alavarado said the company did not sell the machines. But upon hearing about the TTFA’s purported purchase, he claimed the company did sell the machines.
Despite the pumps being valued at US$8,200 on the invoice, Alavarado claimed the cost of one machine was at least US$14,000.
“David contacted ISOTEX – Venezuela and they sent it to us since they do not handle production for the economic reasons that we know in Venezuela,” Alavarado said when asked who contacted him from Trinidad to do business.
Alavarado said ECOTEC ensured payment was confirmed before materials were delivered.
When questioned about invoices which seemingly show that John-Williams paid for ECOTEC material with money from non-TTFA accounts, the former TTFA boss declined to answer.
John-Williams also declined to comment specifically about the purchase of the two monomix machines as he strolled through the Sevilla Golf Course with a golf club in hand.
In 2018, as confirmed by immigration sources, John-Williams made seven overseas trips. Of special interest were his trips to Panama, with his first trip to the Central American country coming on January 17, 2018.
His two-day visit came approximately one month before he submitted the invoices for ECOTEC to FIFA officials for the Home of Football. In December 2018, he travelled to Panama City again, returning to Trinidad three days later.
“Based on our detailed information, you travelled to Panama in 2017 and also in January 2018 and December 2018. I have all your travel documents and records. Was that only to conduct business with ECOTEC, or was it also to attend to your Panamanian bank account at BPR Bank?” Guardian media asked John-Williams.
With reporting by Joshua Seemungal.
Part Two – Following the Money Trail and Implications