Leader of Opposition walking on eggs again  


The MedPoint affair

It looks like the Leader of the Opposition has made a gaffe the last week at his Saturday press meeting which can be very damaging to the MMM. It will be recalled that he had questioned earlier whether the Med Point deal was not struck after a second much more favourable valuation of the hospital building by the Government Valuer.

He had claimed that thanks to this device the sale price of the hospital had climbed up from the original estimate of Rs 75 million to a figure by two-thirds higher of Rs 125 million within a short interval. This is the price at which the actual settlement was made for the building in December last year. He had gone on to suggest that the equipment lying in the old hospital was acquired for nearly Rs 20 million, on top of the cost of the building, casting doubt as to whether they were actually worth that much. The point on which he had been insisting was that it was necessary to know at whose request the second valuation had been carried out, the effect of which was to inflate the price by so much more.

The MMM’s guns were decidedly pointed against the MSM during the exchanges that took place during this first phase of accusations. Suspicions were thrown against the Ministers of Finance and Health for having facilitated the transaction, being related parties to the principal owner of the MedPoint hospital. A correspondence from the Minister of Health to the Minister of Finance was floated in part of the media showing that a request for setting aside a sum of Rs 150 million was made by the Minister of Health to her MSM colleague in the Ministry of Finance, which came quite close to the subsequent sale price of the property and equipment of the MedPoint Hospital (Rs 144.7 million).

Papers were reproduced in the press showing that there had indeed been an original valuation at Rs 75 million for the building by the Government Valuation Office sometime late last year. The question then arose as to why a government department like the valuation office would undertake a second valuation just after, only to inflate the first price by 67%, much to the detriment of taxpayers. This looked illogical inasmuch as such an action would tend to benefit rather the principal shareholder of the MedPoint hospital, Dr Krishan Malhotra, son-in-law of the Republic’s President and not the public. The MMM suggested at this stage that the Government Valuer would have carried out the second valuation at the behest of a party interested in the deal.

Meantime, the Chief Government Valuer had been put under arrest by the investigating body, namely the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), under a provisional charge of using public office for personal gratification. Questioned about the person who would have requested him to carry out the second valuation of the property, it is said that the Government Valuer could not recall who it was. It is clear that if ever there was such a request, a handful only of top office holders of this country could have asked the Government Valuer to do such an action, on the implicit understanding that the first valuation needed to be updated. The latter would have stated nevertheless that he could not recall. The matter seemed to be reaching a dead end at that point and there was growing impatience among the public that ICAC was taking too much time to sort the matter out. The investigation has entered into its seventh month.

There is no need to add that all sorts of speculations started flying in the air in the absence of a conclusive indictment in the case, pointing out at least as to where the orders for doing the deal the way it was done in December last actually came from. It is in this context that Paul Bérenger made astounding statements on the case during his press briefing on Saturday last. He stated that information he had obtained from “ministerial sources” indicated that it was the Prime Minister who would have received in his office Dr Malhotra whereupon he (the Prime Minister) would have spoken up to the Government Valuer to carry out a second valuation of the property. He went on to call upon the PM, Dr Malhotra and the Chief Government Valuer to swear an affidavit in case the information he had received were false. Both the Prime Minister and Dr Malhotra have almost immediately denied the allegation of Paul Bérenger as unfounded.

After having aroused so much public anxiety about the deal, Paul Bérenger now runs the risk of overturning the scales against him and his party. He did not advance any evidence to support the allegation he was making concerning the Prime Minister’s supposed involvement to have the second valuation done. The best he has been able to do in this regard is to state that he was relying on hearsay, notably from “ministerial sources”, leaving it for anybody to guess as to which “ministerial sources” he would be referring to. In conclusion, he has left it open to the Prime Minister to deny his speculation as to who could have given the order for the second evaluation. This weak ending is clearly not serious stuff or a responsible attitude, which the public may be expected to swallow line, hook and all.

This is all the more damaging as he had been successful so far to draw public attention to a case of acquisition of property by the government by following procedures that left much to be desired, to the point of causing ICAC to put a couple of public officers under arrest and calling others to account for failing to follow laid down procedures of public procurement. One was hoping that this case would throw very strong signals against all those involved in dereliction of public duties and put a stop to people getting away with abusive practices of their office. This would have helped to reinforce governance in the public sector. Instead of that, the Leader of the Opposition has succeeded to draw in a political controversy by making the most implausible of allegations against the supposed involvement of the Prime Minister in the second valuation of the property. By so doing, he appears to have taken away the knives he was pointing against the MSM at the earlier stage. Those knives are now directed against Labour’s leader. The problem is that the allegations he has levelled against the Prime Minister are so clumsy and devoid of evidence that he may be risking driving the knives against himself and the MMM, without failing to consolidate the Labour-MSM alliance that he has been trying to shake so often.

* Published in print edition on 15 July 2011

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