By Rehana Ahamad
A 2016 debt of $100 million and the delay of several infrastructural projects could see Courtney Benn Contracting Services Limited being disbarred from receiving state contracts. Wednesday’s meeting of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlighted the startling fact that the company was initially overpaid a whopping $120.6 million for preparatory works required for the upgrade of the East Coast Demerara Highway from La Bonne Intention to Beterverwagting.
Recently appointed Permanent Secretary (PS) of the Ministry of Public Works, Vladim Persaud, explained that the company was written to several times between 2017 and 2020. “Four times in 2017, three times in 2018, two times in 2019 and again in 2020. Additionally, we have also written in 2021 requesting that the contractor make restitution. He has not done so,” Persaud told members of the PAC.
The Ministry’s Engineer, Nigel Erskine, explained that the overpayments occurred as a result of the revised scope of works for the project, which entailed a change in building materials.
“The contract provided for the construction of a reinforced concrete revetment on the northern side of the road. When the project started, we had some difficulties in terms of the procurement of the material,” Erskine explained.
He told the committee that a decision was then taken to revise the contract to use timber revetment instead. “As a result of that, the scope of works changed significantly, because the timber is much cheaper,” the engineer noted. He was unable to state clearly when the changes were made.
The PAC heard that despite being initially overpaid in 2013, the contractor received further payments in 2014. Questions were also raised with regard to the company receiving an advance of $264 million, which accounts for 76 per cent of the overall project cost.
“Is this a practice, for a company to be paid 76 per cent of the contract sum?” Opposition Member of Parliament, Ganesh Mahipaul questioned.
The committee moved to call on former PS, Balraj Balram, to answer to the advanced payments, but he was unable to do so. Balram, in his virtual participation, said that he normally issues payments based on the engineer’s evaluation. The engineer responsible for the project at the time was not present.
Mahipaul then directed his questions to PS Persaud, with regard to the ministry’s next steps to retrieving the outstanding monies. “It is time we move from the first phase of collecting our $100 million, which is writing letters, to taking action,” Mahipaul asserted.
It was then that Persaud decried the inefficiencies of the Attorney General’s Chambers, which, under the previous administration, failed to take action against the errant contractor. Persaud, who assumed office in October 2020, said that the ministry has already issued termination letters to the company, for various projects dating back to 2016.
Persaud also revealed his intention to keep Courtney Benn Contracting Services away from Government projects, altogether.
“We will not award more contracts to a contractor who has large sums of outstanding works, and also, outstanding sums of monies, to the Government of Guyana,” Persaud insisted. His authority to disbar the contractor, however, immediately came into question, with the PAC, led by Interim Chairman, Jermaine Figueira, instructing him to hit pause, at least until the installation of the Public Procurement Commission (PPC).
Minister of Governance and Parliamentary Affairs, Madam Gail Teixeira said that while the disbarment regulations could block the company from bidding for future projects, it would not specifically address issues of recovering monies owed to the state. “These are contracts that have been awarded already,” she reminded. Teixeira also emphasised the Government’s duty to ensure that the monies owed are recovered. “Even if you debar them, you are not going to get the money back,” she posited.