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