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Commission quizzes Binns on projects

Giving evidence: Derrick Binns, Cabinet secretary (File photograph)

A “concerted effort” to change the culture within the civil service regarding financial rules has been made of late, Cabinet Secretary Derrick Binns told a hearing yesterday.

Giving evidence to the Commission of Inquiry, Dr Binns said: “The attitude and the culture and the means to monitor and achieve compliance with financial instructions has changed considerably of late.

“The decision to do so has been taken by the civil service executive.”

He said he could not say for certain if it was the first time such measures had been taken but added: “I can say we understand the issues and we have made a concerted effort to change the culture and the regime.”

The island’s top civil servant was giving evidence on the second day of the commission’s public hearings at St Theresa’s Church Hall in Hamilton, which are expected to last until October 11.

The tribunal is probing the misuse of public funds between the years 2009 and 2012, as identified by Auditor-General Heather Jacobs Matthews in a report last year.

Dr Binns is the first witness to have been questioned by commission lawyer Narinder Hargun and the panel itself, comprising of chairman Sir Anthony Evans, Fiona Luck, Kumi Bradshaw and John Barritt.

Today, fellow senior civil servants Marc Telemaque, Anthony Manders and Cherie Whitter are due to give evidence.

Mr Hargun asked Dr Binns about two projects from the time when he was permanent secretary at the Ministry of Works and Engineering: the Heritage Wharf cruise ship pier at Dockyard and the Dame Lois Browne-Evans court and police building in Hamilton.

Mr Hargun said the pier — which cost taxpayers $60 million — was one of the largest civil engineering projects undertaken on behalf of the Government of Bermuda, yet was managed by the Ministry of Tourism and Transport, rather than the Ministry of Works and Engineering, which had the expertise.

Dr Binns said it was sometimes necessary for projects to be outsourced and the pier project was on a tight deadline, as it needed to be ready for the visit of a large cruise ship in April 2009.

He said in such circumstances it wasn’t unusual to engage outside help, which was what Tourism and Transport did, in relation to the pier.

Mr Hargun referred to Dr Binns’s witness statement to the commission, in which he said he was asked by Mr Telemaque to sign a contract between the Bermuda Government and Correia Construction regarding the pier.

“If the project was being managed by the Ministry of Tourism, why couldn’t they sign it?” asked Mr Hargun.

Dr Binns replied that his Ministry had been asked to review the contract, as it had reviewed such contracts before, and that he “sought to provide the assistance” required by the Ministry of Tourism.

In relation to the court building contract, Dr Binns told how he was “unable to ascertain” the rationale of Public Works Minister Dennis Lister when the latter rejected a recommendation from ministry technical officers on which firm should get the $70 million contract.

Mr Lister preferred a different firm, Landmark Lisgar, and told Cabinet he was satisfied it was the right company for the job, the hearing heard, without telling them about the recommendation from the technical officers. Landmark Lisgar was awarded the contract.

“There are many decisions that are made within the Ministry based on advice but for a project as complex as this it would be uncommon for the Minister not to accept the advice,” said Dr Binns.

He was asked by commission chairman Sir Anthony Evans if it would be helpful if ministers were obliged to put recommendations from technical officers regarding contracts before the Cabinet. “I see no harm in that,” replied Dr Binns.

The tribunal continues.

In the interest of treating the Commission of Inquiry much like continuing court proceedings, The Royal Gazette has taken the decision to disable comments. This is done for the protection legally of both the newspaper and our readers