Former school contractor fires back

Tom Jones International denies defective work

Tom Jones International fired back at the project management firm overseeing construction of the Clifton Hunter High School project for publicly stating the construction company left 
defective work. 

The response, issued by Tom Jones’ spokesperson David Legge on Friday, came after a 17 May front page story in the Caymanian Compass under the headline ‘School construction 
errors costly’. 

“Tom Jones International denies the allegations of defective work,” the statement read. “In fact… the Compass article was the first Tom Jones International had heard of these allegations despite the fact that it ended its involvement with the project 18 months ago, in December 2009.” 

The statements about the defective work were made by project manager David Benoit during a media walkthrough of the Clifton Hunter project arranged by the Ministry of Education on 12 May. Mr. Benoit said some of the construction mistakes involved correcting 98 per cent of the window and door opening sizes. He said more than $2 million had already been spent repairing defective work and that the amount “is not going to stop”. 

Mr. Benoit did not mention Tom Jones International by name, but he did refer to the “former contractor”. 

Mr. Legge pointed out there is ongoing litigation between Tom Jones International and the Cayman Islands Government over the Clifton Hunter and John Gray high schools and asserted that Mr. Benoit’s remarks were highly prejudicial. 

“Mr. Benoit is not a disinterested party in this lawsuit,” he said. “He is on the payroll of government and government is a party to this highly contentious court case. Propriety and practice suggest that all parties keep their remarks in proper legal channels. Mr. Benoit’s statements, which we consider libellous and defamatory, have caused grave damage to the reputation of Tom Jones International, which is now reviewing the matter with its attorneys.” 

Troubled projects 

The Clifton Hunter and John Gray high school projects have been embroiled in controversy and problems almost from the beginning. In early 2008 Tom Jones International, a relative newcomer to Cayman’s construction industry, bid significantly lower on the schools than all of Cayman’s well-established construction companies. This led some construction industry professionals to predict large cost overruns on the project – even though the contract was for a set price with no escalation clause to cover possible increases in the cost of building materials.  

In addition, the tendering process came under criticism when the completion date for the school was extended for one year after Tom Jones International was awarded the contract. 

The cost of the two schools – almost $120 million combined – also drew sharp criticism, partially because many economists were already seeing signs of the global economic downturn that became official later in 2008. 

In April 2009, a dispute between Tom Jones International and a subcontractor led to public protests when 150 employees – many of them Caymanians – were laid off. 

After the May 2009 general elections, the new United Democratic Party government revealed that Tom Jones International was already in a dispute with the government with regard to $17 million in cost overruns, which the contractor said involved change orders. 

The UDP government also reported that the schools wouldn’t be completed by the beginning of the 2010/11 school year as scheduled. As of now, the government won’t give a firm completion time, but it has said it will complete the Clifton Hunter High School first. 

By September 2009, severe problems between the government and Tom Jones over payments became public, leading to Tom Jones walking off the John Gray project site. Although they returned shortly thereafter, they walked off both the John Gray and Clifton Hunter work sites in November 2009, stating they believed government had insufficient funding to complete the projects. 

Tom Jones went on to publicly slam the previous People’s Progressive Movement Government, saying the schools projects were part of a spending spree that was “ill-conceived, poorly executed, over-indulgent and insufficiently funded”. Former minister of education and now leader of the opposition Alden McLaughlin responded by saying Tom Jones’ statement was filled with “many inaccuracies and deliberate untruths”. He said Tom Jones was trying to “extract more money from government” by over-inflating the cost of change order items. 

In November 2009, Tom Jones International was sued for $2.24 million for amounts due on work completed by one of its major subcontractors on the high school projects, Caribbean Mechanical (High Schools 2008) Ltd. Shortly after that, Tom Jones sued the Cayman Islands Government for $2.95 million for work completed and not paid for. 

The government subsequently counter-sued Tom Jones, but that suit was thrown out of court by the judge, who said he found it “forensically embarrassing” because of its lack of details. 

The original lawsuit for $2.95 million is still unresolved. In his statement on behalf of Tom Jones International on Friday, Mr. Legge contended the Caymanian Compass should have waited to publish its 17 May article until after it had a response from the construction company. The newspaper did try through email to get a response from one of Tom Jones’ local directors before publication, but that director was travelling and unavailable for comment. 

“Given the gravity the allegations, and the fact that the reporter’s source was a representative of the government team involved in the lawsuit, Tom Jones International contends that the Compass should not have printed the article until it had made a much more vigorous attempt to solicit comment from its spokesperson, attorneys, or managers…” Mr. Legge contended. 

However, Caymanian Compass Editor Tammie Chisholm said that since Mr. Benoit’s comments were made during an event in which all media were invited, she did not feel it appropriate to hold the story until Tom Jones had commented. 

“We allow all parties the chance to tell their side of the story, and while Tom Jones International wasn’t able to tell their side of this story in the first article, we have given them that ability in this story,” she said.