Rolston Anglin appears before Public Accounts Committee
Former Education Minister Rolston Anglin has defended his role in the management of Cayman’s ill-fated high school construction projects, saying he walked into a “storm” when he took over the job.
Mr. Anglin acknowledged that mistakes were made, but said he inherited a “ship that wasn’t just sinking, it was sunk,” after he was elected in 2009.
He was speaking at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in the wake of a damning auditor general’s report highlighting mismanagement and overspending on the school projects between 2008 and 2013.
The auditor’s report stated: “The project resulted in the completion of only one of the three high schools originally planned, another two high schools being started but not completed, took over nine years, and cost $172.7 million, or almost double the initial planned costs.”
Mr. Anglin said he accepted the auditor’s conclusion that the Ministry of Education should not be in charge of construction projects, admitting there was insufficient expertise.
But he rebutted suggestions that he had overstepped his authority and inappropriately intervened in the day-to-day management of the projects. He also took issue with what he described as “inflammatory and erroneous” statements in the report.
He said he had walked into a “storm” in 2009 with the lead contractor Tom Jones International about to walk out on the job.
The audit report highlights how government failed to re-tender the project, when the firm followed through on that threat, instead appointing its consultant as project manager.
This criticism failed to consider the time pressure and the legal issues government was facing, Mr. Anglin said.
“The high school projects were in crisis and we went with a sole source and quite frankly, it saved the country millions of dollars in my view from a potential lawsuit with the former general contractor,” he said.
Mr. Anglin also took issue with the auditor’s suggestion that Cabinet should have been provided with new details on full costs, design changes and completion date at the recommencement of the project.
“This idealistic and calm wording does not reflect the true storm, and the attendant pressures that existed at that time. We had legal and construction advice regarding the timeliness of a restart. We got as much data to Cabinet as possible within the time constraints,” Mr. Anglin said.
Ultimately the Clifton Hunter High School was completed and opened in 2012, while the new John Gray High School remains unfinished.
At the same PAC hearing on Thursday, former chief officer in the Ministry of Education, Mary Rodrigues, expressed similar concern that the audit report did not accurately reflect the challenges the project faced.
Ms. Rodrigues, who also took over her position when construction was already under way in 2009, added, “Although this audit might suggest the ministry did nothing right in relation to this project, the ministry was fighting against the odds under very difficult circumstances to manage what seemed at most times to be unmanageable.
“There is evidence of where the ministry took appropriate action that was positive and prevented worse outcomes.”
Ms. Rodrigues acknowledged that with hindsight, more detailed planning should have been done in the early stages and said the new requirements to produce strategic outline cases and business cases for major capital works would help prevent similar failures in future.
“The truth is, that without a business case, without detailed plans, we were flying blind, desperately fighting fires trying to figure out what was going on, while at the same time dealing with a contractor that was constantly submitting legal challenges,” she said.
Mr. Anglin also delivered a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of the auditor’s comments in relation to him, personally.
He refuted suggestions that he had not received Cabinet approval for a scheme to break up work packages to allow smaller firms to be involved.
He said this had been done with full government approval to help stimulate the flagging economy.
He also dismissed as “outrageous” claims that he had directed that small, local contractors receive flexible treatment over the quality of their work.
He chastised the audit team for failing to highlight issues with the project stemming from the previous administration, including what he described as a “curious” loan arrangement. He also drew attention to a civil servant who lived overseas and was paid a total of $604,000 over 20 months for work on the project, under the previous PPM government. He added that neither he nor Ms. Rodrigues had been interviewed during the audit process and questioned the professionalism of the auditor general’s team.