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Officials at loggerheads over airport deal

Two senior Ministry of Finance officials are at odds over whether adequate permission was sought for the Bermuda Government's deal to build a new airport terminal.

“Clearly we are at an impasse,” David Burt, the Shadow Minister of Finance, said at the close of yesterday's lengthy meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

“It seems, sadly — which is not surprising — that it has broken down along party lines,” added Mr Burt, who is chairman of the committee.

Members of Parliament from both parties spent two hours questioning Anthony Manders, the Financial Secretary, over whether or not the government's own rules were flouted in the deal with Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) to build a new terminal for LF Wade International Airport.

With Mr Manders's view widely diverging from those given at an earlier meeting by Curtis Stovell, the Accountant-General, the PAC unanimously agreed to call Mr Stovell back for further questioning next week.

Simultaneously, Heather Jacobs Matthews, the Auditor-General, will be asked if her office can give an independent opinion as to whether or not financial instructions were breached.

Ms Jacobs Matthews is to be contacted after a motion from Progressive Labour Party MP Wayne Furbert, who said he preferred to go to her directly rather than “wait five years” for a report on the airport deal.

Mr Manders repeatedly maintained that an initial waiver from the Accountant-General to proceed with CCC amounted to approval for the entire project as it was structured in the agreement.

Mr Burt responded: “What I consider unfortunate is the fact that the Government and the minister are expecting the people of this country to believe that the guardian of the public purse took less than 24 hours to waive permission for a $255 million project.”

At its opening of business, the committee heard from a May 2015 memo from Mr Stovell to Mr Manders saying that CCC's selection of a “hand-picked” contractor, Aecon, to be a sole-sourcing that required his approval.

However, the Financial Secretary insisted that all subsequent phases of the project has been given in the letter of agreement approved by the Accountant-General, and that it was CCC's purview to select Aecon.

However, PAC member Cole Simons pointed out that Mr Stovell had earlier told the committee that he had not given permission for the sole sourcing of the contractor.

“Since then, have you reconciled that difference?” Mr Simons asked.

“We have met and will reconcile it,” Mr Manders said, describing the agreement with CCC as unique, highly complex and difficult to explain — and like “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole” when it came to financial instructions.

“This is not a typical transaction,” he said.

“It's difficult to fit in with financial instructions. That's why at the beginning we asked for sole sourcing and to waive financial instructions.”

Questioned repeatedly by Mr Burt how he could reconcile his position with Mr Stovell's assertion that financial instructions had not been followed, Mr Manders told the PAC: “If he had that position, I think he should have withdrawn the original approval.

“If he was that serious, he should have said ‘I withdraw' ... He had that ability. He could have done that.”

The plan with CCC was a government-to-government deal that had only been possible to make with Canada, the Financial Secretary said.

“It's unfortunate that this happened,” Mr Manders added. “Going forward, I think it would be prudent that the ministry keeps the Accountant-General in the loop.”

He recommended regular updates on the project be delivered to the PAC.

However, he said: “It would be very odd after agreeing to this government-to-government approach to have to go back and seek further approval, when we had approval from the beginning.”

PAC member Lovitta Foggo said it had been her understanding from Mr Stovell's remarks earlier that he had not granted permission.

“When I marry that information together, it still puts flags up for me,” she said.

Asked by PAC member Jeff Sousa if the agreement had been given in an “open and transparent manner”, Mr Manders replied: “In my opinion, yes.”

Although agents from Aecon and CCC were on the Island examining the airport before the permission was given, Mr Manders said they were “scoping the project” at their own expense, independently of the Government.

He also denied that there had been any pressure put on him by the Bermuda Government, and said that he had put no pressure on the Accountant-General to give the waiver.

Asking questions: the Public Accounts Committee members during yesterday's meeting

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Published December 11, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 11, 2015 at 8:34 am)

Officials at loggerheads over airport deal

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