Lands Commission says all allocations were above board; Police to probe leakage of documents
Trevor Benn, Chief Executive Officer of the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission (GL&SC), on Friday denied claims by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo that the Commission is involved in a giveaway of prime state lands to government officials and supporters.
“This is a technical agency, not political,” Benn told reporters at a press conference at the agency’s Durban backlands office.
With the aid of maps and documents, Jagdeo at a press conference on Thursday at his Church Street, Georgetown office said the Commission had doled out lands to several persons.
Among those he named were: Head of Project Management Office at the Ministry of Presidency Marlon Bristol; Special Assistant at the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) Eric Phillips; Chief Elections Officer Keith Lowenfield; and supporter of A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) Charles Ceres. Phillips and Ceres have dismissed Jagdeo’s claims. Bristol has not responded.
According to Benn, all of the lands Jagdeo mentioned were allocated prior to December 2018 and in some instances prior to the 2015 General and Regional Elections.
As it relates to Eric Phillips, Benn said the approval for the land leased to the SARA Special Assistant was granted long before he assumed office in 2016.
In relation to Keith Lowenfield, the Commissioner said the Chief Elections Officer’s name was one of four persons, led by Charles Ceres, on an application submitted in 2004. The land was also approved in 2004 but the title was not granted for the over 1,000 acres of land, he said.
“For convenience, we saw Keith Lowenfield name being featured because people have political motives,” he said.
Benn said he sought to issue the title after taking office but at the time, several persons were squatting on the land and this caused the lease to be cancelled.
Lowenfield later requested alternative land and the process is ongoing to facilitate same.
Jagdeo alleged that the prime lands are ideal for lucrative shore-base facilities and deepwater ports but Benn said none of the persons made a case for such projects.
The Commissioner also sought to accuse the former government of issuing prime lands to affiliates for substantially less or no money, including Government Ministers.
Further, he claimed that the PPP government sought to bar access to lands by some who did not support them. He referred to two cases, one involving Muriel Allen and another involving a Member of Parliament. He said that they acquired lands in the 1980s but those lands were repossessed after the former Government was elected to office.
In the mid-1990s, the courts ordered that the lands be returned but this was not done. As such,
Benn said that when he assumed office, he ensured that those court orders were complied with.
He did not go through the remainder of the names but said: “all this time these two individuals were debarred from accessing their land, now we’re trying to restore it.”
The CEO affirmed that public officials have a right to apply and be issued with leases for government land “regardless of which government employee you are.”
“There is no limit to an applicant or to the amount of application,” he added.
“I think it is a travesty that we are pulling the names of good people in the mud for political gains,” he noted.
He said the Commission has issued thousands of acres of lands over the past years but it is convenient that only selected names were mentioned.
Police to be called in
The documents displayed by the Opposition Leader at his Thursday’s press conference can be obtained from the Commission after making a request and paying a sum of money. However, no such request was made.
Benn said the Police will be called in to investigate the leakage of information from the Commission.
Questioned on whether the items were removed from the agency or photocopied and given to the politician, Benn said: “if you receive property you didn’t earn, I don’t know how else to describe it other than stolen.”
He asserted that some staff of the agency are in collusion “with powerful persons.”
“It is against our HR policy. We know those individuals who are complicit and we will deal with them condignly,” Benn stated.
He sought to assure clients that stricter systems will be put in place to guard against their information ending up in the public domain without permission.
The Commissioner reiterated that he is fearful for his life given threats he has had to face at his current post.
While he said he cannot swear for his staff, Benn said every decision made under his tenure can withstand scrutiny.
“I am not buyable- you can’t pay me enough money.”
He spoke of several improvements made at the GL&SC since his appointment and challenged anyone to come forward with evidence of corruption against him.