Former Minister of Agriculture puts blame on Prime Minister over questionable building lease
COLOMBO (The Island/ANN) - Former Minister of Agriculture deems being questioned by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry over building lease agreement signed between the Agriculture Ministry and private company as unfair, as all decisions on the transaction was taken by Prime Minister.
It was not fair for the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) investigating frauds under the current administration to question him on the controversial lease agreement signed between the Agriculture Ministry and D.P. Jayasinghe company at a total cost of USD 7.3 million as all decisions on the transaction had been taken by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Former Minister of Agriculture, Duminda Dissanayake said before the PCoI yesterday.
Dissanayake made this statement when he was asked by Commissioner Sarojini Kusala Weerawardana whether he admitted that the agreement to move the Agriculture Ministry to a building owned by the D.P.Jayasinghe Company, had caused a loss to the tax payer. Earlier the Commissioners pointed out that there were many questionable aspects of the lease agreement.
Weerawardana said: "For example you told us that the total floor area of the building had 103,000 square feet. The lease agreement says that the Ministry has access to 90,000 square feet of the building but we pay a service charge for an additional 13,000 square feet. There is a problem here and it is something that even a child can understand."
Dissanayake said that he had not read the lease agreement and that all the necessary steps had been taken by the Prime Minister. "The Prime Minister presented the Cabinet paper wherein he mentioned the floor area of the building, the rent and all other relevant information. This was approved by the Cabinet and I was just implementing that decision as I have a responsibility to carry out their wishes. When you ask me about floor space and other problematic aspects, I have no answer to give you. What can I say?"
The former minister said that the decision to relocate the ministry, in 2016, was due to continuous pressure from the Parliament and the Prime Minister. The decision to look for a private building to house the ministry had been taken, based on the recommendations of a committee appointed by the Prime Minister, he said.
"I didn’t tell anyone to acquire the D. P Jayasinghe building on lease. Everything was decided and the Cabinet paper was presented by the Prime Minister. It’s his responsibility to answer to these questions."
Commissioner retired DIG Wijaya Amarasinghe pointed out that though the Cabinet Paper had been presented by the Prime Minister, Dissanayake also had the responsibility to think of the country’s finances.
The PCoI also questioned Dissanayake on spending USD 2.2 million for furnishing, carpeting, installing IT systems and air conditioning of the building. "We had to convert the building to suit a ministry," Dissanayake said.
Additional Solicitor General, Ayesha Jinasena, who led the evidence showed the Minister two observations by the President and Finance Minister in August 2016. The Finance Minister had stated that the Ministry of Agriculture had a tendency to waste valuable resource on unnecessary things, and recommended that the ministry should phase out the relocation process so that a large amount of money was not spent upfront.
"The President, too, observed that the staggering cost for furnishing, carpeting, installing IT systems and air conditioning of the building was not mentioned when the Cabinet was informed of the lease. He would have objected to the agreement if he had known, the President said and had urged you to talk to the owner of the building to reduce this cost."
Dissanayake said that he had informed the President that the expenditure amounting to USD 2.2 million could not be reduced through discussions with the owner as the lease agreement with the owner had been signed months back.
The Auditor General’s Department, after a study, raised a number of issues about the lease and subsequent events, one being that contracts to deliver furniture (USD 635,396) and IT systems (USD 339,875) had been awarded to various companies without proper competition. The Auditor General’s Department has stated that the contractors working on furnishing, carpeting, installing IT systems and air conditioning of the building had not finished their work on time and that the Ministry had not imposed a penalty of USD 114,216 for the delays as per the contract. This includes penalties from companies that provided furniture (USD 41,029), Partitioning, carpeting and installing ACs (USD 37,148) and IT systems and maintenance (USD 32,157).
On Monday the PCoI asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to appear before it, on September 12, in connection with the ongoing investigation.