Point Fortin highway commission prepares to begin hearings soon

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THE Commission of Enquiry (CoE) into the Solomon Hochoy Highway Extension project is preparing to begin its hearings, senior government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Newsday.

One official said the CoE “is getting ready to start to sit.” A second official hinted that the commission would hold hearings “both in person and virtual.”

A third official indicated that the commission has prepared certain pieces of correspondence that will be dispatched soon. None of these officials gave specific details about when the commission’s hearings would begin.

The members of the CoE were sworn in during a brief function at the Office of the President, St Ann’s on July 16, 2019. A statement from the Office of the President on that day, said retired justice Sebastien Ventour will chair the commission and he will be assisted by attorney Gregory Delzin, as a commissioner.

At that time, attorney Reginald Armour SC was the commission’s counsel. He was supposed to be assisted by junior counsel Vanessa Gopaul and Rishi Dass.

Armour replaced San Fernando West MP Faris Al-Rawi as Attornery General in a Cabinet reshuffle on March 16. Newsday was told that Armour has resigned as counsel to the CoE

The CoE was first announced by Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young at a post-Cabinet news conference at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s on July 11, 2019.

The terms of reference of the commission include finding out whether the ministerial oversight committee for the project established in 2011, under the then UNC-led People’s Partnership (PP) coalition govermment, fulfilled its mandate.

Part of that mandate included either acquiring or having taken steps to acquire properties that are no longer required for the construction of the project.

The committee was chaired by former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. Other members were former ministers Winston Dookeran, Dr Roodal Moonilal, Jack Warner, Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Kevin Ramnarine, Chandresh Sharma, Stephen Cadiz, Emmanuel George and Stacy Roopnarine.

The commission will make findings, observations and recommendations arising out of its deliberations as to whether there was any breach of duty by any person or entity; grounds for criminal or civil proceedings against any people or entities; whether civil proceedings should be recommended to the Attorney General for consideration; and whether the State used the appropriate best practice in acquiring land for public purposes.

On March 22, 2020, Al-Rawi said the CoE would proceed despite the covid19 pandemic.

“The CoE call for papers and submissions under the Commission will proceed and will be announced in the days ahead.”

Newsday understands the CoE’s hearings are scheduled to be held at Tower D of the Port of Spain International Waterfront Centre.

Under the CoE Act, a commission is appointed by the President. Section 9 of the Act gives commissioners the the power to make rules regarding the conduct and management of the enquiry.

Section 11, gives the commissioners the powers of the High Court to summon witnesses, to call for the production of books, plans, and documents, and to examine witnesses and parties concerned on oath.

Under Section 12 (2), people who fail to appear before a CoE without just cause or leave an enquiry before being given permission to do so by the comissioners or willfully interrupts the enquiry’s proceedings is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $2,000.

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