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Udecottover landscaping contract

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Four employees at the Urban Development Corporation of T&T (Udecott) are now on administrative leave after a clash over the landscaping contract at the unopened, never used Couva Children's Hospital.

The contract, costing Udecott some $45,000 per month, was awarded to Trinidad and Tobago Landscaping Company (TTLC) which is owned and operated by Natalie Gabriel, wife of known People's National Movement (PNM) financier and supporter Andrew Gabriel.

The Sunday Guardian understands that the four employees were sent on leave pending the outcome of an investigation into how TTLC lost the maintenance contract at the facility. The four included two tender secretaries, the facility manager and two procurement officers.

The Sunday Guardian understands that Gabriel's company was awarded the contract in January 2017 for six months and got a six-month extension. When that extension expired, the facility manager at the Children's Hospital awarded the contract to another company, but that contractor was only on the job for one day before he was sent packing. The contract remains with Gabriel's company.

The Sunday Guardian received two letters issued internally at Udecott and in one of the letters the now suspended facilities manager at the Couva Children's Hospital had to explain the process that led to Gabriel's company losing out on renewal of the contract.

According to the letter, dated September 10, 2018, the TTLC was advised in January 2018 that the contract would expire that month and that a new Request for Proposal (RFP) process would be started.

The TTLC was thereafter retained on a month-to-month basis until Udecott initiated a new RFP process. However, TTLC claimed they were never informed of such a process and in the iterim, a new company was awarded a contract for the facility. But even before this new contractor picked up work, a third company was offered the same contract and turned up at the Children's Hospital to start work.

"On the morning of 6 September 2018 at or around 6.15 am, I was informed via a mobile call from the Facility Assistant that there was a contractor (named) at the main entrance to the facility requesting access to commence works," the letter stated.

The facilities manager said he denied that company access because it was never communicated to him that a third contractor was awarded the job.

He described a flurry of phone calls between himself and Udecott's office before letting the new contractor on the property.

"On perusal of the contract, I concluded that it was indeed a legal instrument," the facility manager said.

According to the letter, he let that third contractor on the compound at that time. The facilities manager also communicated to a TTLC on-site representative that their contract was terminated.

"It was verbally communicated to the on-site representatives of the Trinidad and Tobago Landscaping Company that a new contract was awarded to a new vendor and arrangements be made to de-mobilise from the site," he said.

The facilities manager, in the letter, said hours later he was "interrogated" on the RFP that gave the job to another contractor and the third vendor was dismissed.

Mixed messages from

There seemed to be mixed messages coming from within Udecott, as both the chief executive officer and the chairman offered differing explanations for the four suspensions.

On Thursday, the Sunday Guardian emailed Udecott seeking confirmation on the investigation. The communications department indicated that questions would be sent to the company's CEO Frank Barnes.

In a telephone follow-up on Friday, Barnes confirmed that four people were sent home but denied that it was in connection with the Couva Children's Hospital.

"It's an internal matter, I don't see why the media needs to be involved in this," Barnes said.

When told that as a state company utilising state resources, Udecott was expected to operate transparently, Barnes promised to make a formal response.

Later that day, the communications department said Udecott is "currently undertaking an internal investigation into the existing process relevant to the award of contracts at one of its facilities".

"The core objective of the investigation is to assess the reliability and effectiveness of Udecott’s current system from start to finish, more so to clearly identify all potential gaps that overall, could adversely impact the final outcomes," Udecott said.

"From a purely systemic perspective, it was decided that to achieve maximum benefit from this particular evaluation, such close review should be conducted independently of the persons who—on a day to day basis—operate the system."

But Udecott chairman Noel Garcia seemed to have a much different impression of the internal investigation.

In a subsequent telephone interview, Garcia confirmed that the four suspensions had everything to do with TTLC contract at the Couva Children's Hospital.

"Yes, they were sent home pending an investigation because of the contract at the Couva Children's Hospital," Garcia said.

He said Gabriel's landscaping company won an open tender two years ago to maintain 25 acres surrounding the Children's Hospital. He denied that the contract was granted for six months and then renewed for another six months. He said that TTLC lodged a formal complaint when they lost the contract.

"The company said that no one contacted them to let them know that the contract was up and they were not given the option to re-tender," Garica said.

He said preliminary investigations seem to support Gabriel's company's claim that there was no communication informing them of the end of their contract. He said the four employees may have bypassed Udecott's usual process and procedure.

"In the meantime, the status-quo remains," Garcia said, explaining that Gabriel's company will keep the contract until the matter is resolved.

"I am satisfied that management did the right thing and the matter needs to be investigated," he said.

Gabriel's lawyer confirms six-month contract

The Sunday Guardian contacted Andrew Gabriel, who directed questions to Jennifer Gonzales, the company's on-site manager at the Couva Children's Hospital.

Gonzales later informed the Sunday Guardian that the company's lawyer, Michael Quamina, would be responding to the questions.

In a subsequent email, Quamina said that TTLC had been invited to tender on many occasions and has been successful on one occasion. But there seemed to be further confusion over the time span of the contract, as Quamina contradicted Garcia and confirmed that TTLC had only a six-month contract which was extended when that time expired.

"The successful tender was for the landscape maintenance services for a part of the grounds at the Couva Hospital. The contract for the works, the term of which was six months, was awarded on January 9, 2017, and at the end of the term, TTLC was requested by Udecott to continue the services, and it complied at the original tender price," Quamina said.

Quamina said that on September 5, 2018, TTLC was, without any notice, prevented from entering the compound of the Couva Children’s Hospital, and was informed for the first time, that a contract had been awarded to another contractor.

"This event was followed by an email from Udecott the next day, terminating TTLC," he said.

"TTLC, as one would expect, made inquiries as to what led to this sudden decision, especially in circumstances where there were no issues with respect to performance, and as far as it was aware, there had been no tender process with respect to the issuance of a new contract for the works."

Quamina said TTLC was subsequently contacted by Udecott’s legal department, inquiring as to whether or not it was invited to participate in any process with respect to the award of a new contract for the works. He said Udecott was advised by TTLC that as the existing contractor on site, it was not made aware of, nor had it been invited to participate in any such process.

"Following that inquiry from Udecott, TTLC was requested to return to the site," he said.

State-run Udecott is expected to wrap up its internal investigations within the upcoming week.


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