CDA probes mystery US bank account

The cash-strapped Chaguaramas Development Authority (CDA) is now probing a mysterious US bank account opened in the period 2011-2012, with a US$1.4m deposit, although there was no Board or Ministerial approval.

The account was red-flagged by the Auditor General because no documents relating to the account could be found.

The issue was raised by Tourism Minister Randall Mitchell on Wednesday when officials of the CDA appeared before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Mitchell noted a concern from the Auditor General that documents “relative to a US account opened sometime in 2011-2012,” could not be found.

Mitchell asked CDA General Manager Deowatee Dilraj-Batoosingh to provide the reason for opening the account, where did the CDA get the money paid into the account and the current state of the account.

Dilraj-Batoosingh, who indicated she was not GM in the period when the account was opened in 2012, told the Committee “the account is something we are currently reviewing in terms of how it was set up, why it was set up,” and the source of the funds.

She admitted they had been “unable to find a board approval,” for the opening of the account, and “our records do not disclose a Ministerial approval for the opening of the account.”

What they had located, she said, “are documents that the funds paid into the account which came from one of the tenants at the start of the lease.”

It would appear, she said, that “it was part of a lease arrangement and the tenant paid in US dollars and it went into that account.”

But Dilraj-Batoosingh said the CDA was “continuing our checks in terms of all transactions,” on the account which she confirmed started in 2012. As of Wednesday, she said, there was US$740 in the account.

In response to further probing from Mitchell, she said, the account was opened with US$1.4m but could not provide no details on where the funds went. Based on the records which were found, she said, “it seems the funds were wired to various areas.”

She said the CDA is continuing its probe, “we are trying to trace back with the necessary supporting documents where the funds would have gone after 2012.”

Asked by Mitchell if there were any other instances of “money you can’t reconcile,” Dilraj-Batoosingh said, “I don’t believe so,” but she said there may have been instances of “improper recording, but not so much unaccounted for just where it was placed on the books.”

At the start of the hearing, Committee Chair Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie declared his interest to the Committee indicating that in the period 2012-2014 which was part of the period under review by the Committee, that he was the Minister of Planning in charge of the CDA.

Responding to a question from Tewarie about the state of the CDA, Dilraj-Batoosingh told the Committee that the financial situation at the CDA is “not good.” She said the organisation is in debt in “excess of $100 million,” which they were “trying to manage,” while at the same time dealing with “current operational cost.”

She said the debt had “stifled the way we can operate and move ahead in terms of development,” but she said the CDA had not let that hamper efforts to “generate further development and revenue.”

Dilraj-Batoosingh explained that most of the debt was “arrears owed,” some to employees and pension arrears. The debt also constituted monies outstanding to service providers dating back to the period 2013-2015.

Responding to questions from Committee member Adrian Leonce, the CDA GM admitted that “a $100 million is a lot to get past.” If the debt is not brought under control quickly, she said, “it will delay how fast we become sustainable,” but she said it is part of the CDA’s strategic plan and they are hoping by “2020 we will grow closer to that.”

Some debtors, she said, “are not as patient” and as a result “we have the unfortunate situation where persons file a court matter and we end up with a huge debt to pay within a couple weeks or months.”

Asked by Mitchell about rent receivables, she said they were able to recover TT$7 million in 2017 but the outstanding figure is TT$27 million.

While there had been a measure of success, she said: “We do need the co-operation of all tenants as well as the state tenants to pay their arrears.” She said while they understood the economy is difficult “we at the CDA do need the money.”

Dilraj-Batoosingh said the ultimate sanction for tenants who refuse to pay is “forfeiture of lease,” but admitted there is no time frame “we try to be accommodating with the tenants,” which she admitted had gotten the CDA into the position which it had found itself in. The Committee heard that tenant leases under the remit of the CDA in Chaguaramas range from the peppercorn rate of TT$100 for the early tenancies, to TT$300,000 which cover the last 15 years.

Source: (Rosemarie Sant)

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