Three Cabinet ministers have been summoned to appear before the Opposition-led Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament to answer a number of questions related to the operations of the state-run National Housing Corporation (NHC).
Committee Chairman and Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) leader Mia Mottley has apparently written to Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, former Housing & Lands Minister Michael Lashley and his successor Denis Kellman requesting that they appear in person before the parliamentary committee, in light of concerns raised by the country’s Auditor-General Leigh Trotman about financial spending by the NHC.
Of specific concern is the employment of 47 people over and above the approved staff complement for the statutory agency; the auditing of accounts and the laying of those accounts before Parliament and the awarding of contracts for the Exmouth, Coverley, Grotto, Bushy Park and Country Park Towers housing projects.
Recently the Opposition has been in the forefront of claims that at least three quarters of the units in the NHC’s Grotto, St Michael complex, which was intended to provide housing solutions for low-income Barbadians, will actually go to high-income earners.
In fact, speaking at a political meeting in St Michael Central back in April, Opposition Member of Parliament for St James Central Kerrie Symmonds had revealed that the BLP was in possession of documents, outlining Government’s plans to rent out 60 of the 80 apartments at the Grotto for $1,500 and upwards monthly to persons earning $5,000 plus.
More recently, Symmonds has also produced official documents to show that the Grotto high-rise housing complex, which was scheduled to be opened in September 2014 but remains unoccupied more than two years after completion, was incurring security costs of approximately $10,000 a month — charges that have not been successfully refuted by Government.
The Grotto project has been consistently in the news for well over a year now, so too the Valery, Brittons Hill, St Michael low income project which the Opposition Leader claims should have only cost the Government $200 per square foot, but winded up costing $548 per square foot or over $20 million each.
Mottley levelled those charges in Parliament back in June 2015. However, this drew an immediate response from Sinckler, who at the time had suggested that the Government’s controversial contractor Mark Maloney, as well as two other leading local businessmen – Bjorn Bjerkhamn and Sir Charles Williams – were among the beneficiaries of a 99-year lease issued by the former administration on the eve of the 2008 elections, which swept the BLP from office.
Preconco has since denied any involvement in that project with Maloney telling Barbados TODAY the charges that his company was paid exorbitant sums for the construction of low-income Government housing as “unfortunate”.
Today, neither Sinckler nor his attorney Michael Yearwood could be reached for comment, but when contacted, Kellman confirmed receiving a letter to appear before the Committee.
However, the minister of housing told Barbados TODAY he did not know why he was being summoned.
“The letter has nothing to do with me, so I’m not even getting involved in that,” he said.
Pressed on the issue, Kellman suggested that he was the victim of a political “witchhunt”.
“It can’t only be the chairman [of the PAC who sent the letter], it would got to be the Committee,” he said, telling Barbados TODAY that he would hate to think that Mottley was operating “on her own wild goose chase”.
He proceeded to cast doubt on the work of the Opposition-led PAC, which also includes representatives of his own Government, saying, “Any committee that is not legally done, I don’t worry about.
“I know what the Committee is supposed to do; and I know what Parliament expects . . . and I know what is supposed to be done before it could function; and as far as I know, what the Committee is doing is not what Parliament asked of it; and as far as I know it has not reported to Parliament the way it should,” Kellman said.
“If that is the case, I can’t consider it to be legal,” the St Lucy Member of Parliament stressed.
Barbados TODAY also reached out to Lashley, who is currently Minister of Transport & Works.
However, in a terse comment, he said Barbados TODAY should speak to the person who sent the summons to him.
Attorney Hal Gollop, QC, who is representing both Kellman and Lashley in the matter, said in a brief comment that he had formally responded to the letter on behalf of his clients.
“I have been retained to represent Mr Kellman and Mr Lashley and they have written off a letter to the chairman of the Committee asking for certain information, so I can advise my clients accordingly,” said Gollop.
Without providing any details of the letter, Gollop said the committee wanted to enquire into public matters.