Ex-NHDT chair admits mistakes over waste scandal

| 11/04/2024
Geoffry Ebanks (from social media)

(CNS): Geoffry William Ebanks (47), the former chair of the National Housing and Development Trust who resigned after he was charged with corruption in 2022, told a jury on Tuesday that he doesn’t think he is guilty of the offences he has been charged with. Nevertheless, he accepted that a “lot of mistakes were made” in how waste from the North Side NHDT site, earmarked for Beacon Farms, ended up as fill across his own land and trucked there on the NHDT’s dime. He said he was helping the “whole country” by taking the material.

Ebanks, who has pleaded not guilty to misconduct in public office and breach of trust, denied any wrongdoing when, in February 2022, he directed truckers contracted by the NHDT to take what could have been up to 100 loads of material, including green waste, soil and fill, to his own property.

He claimed that he had been told by one of the truck drivers that the rehabilitation farm, selected by the board to receive the material, couldn’t take any more after just two days of deliveries. So he told them to take it to his land so that they could clear the NHDT site as quickly as possible and keep the project to build low-cost houses on track.

Ebanks claims that he told and received the OK from the NHDT director at the time, Julio Ramos. However, Ramos gave evidence to the contrary, and Ebanks never told the board or declared any conflict over the re-direction of material that had been cleared from the crown-owned land where the first government-funded affordable homes would be built in that district.

Giving evidence from the stand over two days this week during his trial, Ebanks insisted he was trying to help move the project forward as quickly as possible in line with the minister’s wishes. He was also preparing for a groundbreaking well ahead of when the site was really ready so that the ministry could show action before Christmas 2021 as a demonstration that the relatively new administration was going to make things happen.

Ebanks claimed there was a lot going on, with a new board of inexperienced people, and he was under pressure as chairperson to build as many as 100 houses a year. He said he was also managing housing trust projects in West Bay, Bodden Town and East End, all at various stages — a workload he described as overwhelming.

Nevertheless, he found time to visit the North Side site on a very regular basis because he had to pass it every day and wanted to see the progress, he told the court. But he insisted that he had no interest in the material that was going to be cleared and taken to Beacon Farms.

Given the cost of trucking the waste material to the dump in George Town, the board had decided it would be cheaper and easier to donate all of the material cleared from the site to Beacon Farms, where all of the workers are recovering from drug misuse. It has a large composter to deal with the green waste and would have been able to use all of the soil, rock and other material around the very large site.

Ebanks claimed that after just two days, one of the truck drivers came back and told him that the farm was full. Ebanks admitted he never followed up or checked and merely based his actions on the word of a driver.

The jury had heard previous evidence that the farm was not full and had been happy to take all the material that was on offer. All that was required was for the truckers to hold off on deliveries for a day or two until the farm’s heavy equipment operator was back on site to move the material to create room for more loads.

Ebanks said that the same day he heard about the farm being full and believing that it could not take any more, he visited Ramos at his office and told him that he “could use the material”. He claimed the director gave him the OK to take it.

The next day, he began redirecting the trucks to his and his father’s properties. Over the next several weeks, more than one hundred loads were taken to his land. Despite attending numerous board meetings, subcommittee meetings and even an official tour of Beacon Farms, Ebanks said nothing at all to his colleagues about the fact that the waste was no longer going to the farm but to his land.

Although Ebanks had told the court that he was not interested in the material and was merely placing it on his land to hold it until it could go to the farm or elsewhere so that the project “kept moving”, the material was spread across his land.

He even revealed how he had paid Johnny Ebanks, the father of Planning Minister Jay Ebanks, several thousand dollars to spread the waste across his land. The jury also heard that, for a short period, Johnny Ebanks had also been paid by the NHDT as a trucker to move material and appeared to be increasing his costs as time went on until it was pointed out to the board that employing the minister’s father might look bad.

The court has heard during the course of the trial about other irregularities that happened under the board: Minutes of meetings do not appear to reflect the full details; meetings were held where no minutes were taken; meetings were held in the absence of the director; and other board members were often in conflict. Board members were said to have been involved in the work of NHDT projects and had to recuse themselves from meetings of the board as well as subcommittee meetings.

Despite his awareness of potential conflicts, Ebanks never raised his own.

The issue only came to light after CNS was given information about the re-direction of the topsoil, and we approached the NHDT management for comment. We asked several questions about why the material was going to the board chairperson’s own land but never received any official answers on the issue until the Anti-Corruption Commission became involved.

When he testified during his own trial, Ebanks was asked by defence attorney Oliver Grimwood, from Samson Law, about the email from CNS asking about the diversion of the material. Describing his reaction, he said, “There was always something… You can’t win for losing ’round here.” He continued to state that he may have made mistakes but had done nothing wrong and was just trying to help.

During cross-examination by prosecutor Sarah Lewis, Ebanks continued to claim that the re-direction was not for his benefit but for the NHDT and the country because by taking the material, he had kept the project on track. He said that he had been willing to reimburse the trust for the tens of thousands of dollars in trucking costs but never kept a record of how many loads had been delivered to his land.

Lewis put it to Ebanks that once the material had been used as fill and spread across his property, this made that land much more valuable. “Not necessarily,” Ebanks responded. However, he did not deny that while he had said anyone could come and take the material, they would now have to dig it up.

Despite serving on various organisations’ boards, including the Cayman Islands Agricultural Society, for many years and running a commercial farm, Ebanks continued to state that he was unaware of how things worked. He said he and the board were taking direction from Ramos, even though the board was supposed to be above the director.

He claimed that everyone was learning and didn’t know what they should do. However, he accepted he had signed the conflict of interests and code of conduct documents, which set out what is expected and how to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of them.

Ebanks continued to say that he had done nothing intentionally wrong. He said that, with hindsight, he had made mistakes “by getting involved with it”, but he believed he was helping. He accepted that it was not his job to tell the truck drivers where to deliver the loads, especially when the rest of the board didn’t know. He said that was another mistake, “for which I can only apologise”.

The prosecutor asked him about paying the minister’s father a considerable sum to move the material across his land, which she said showed the material was valuable and certainly had value to Ebanks. “The value was to the country, not to me” because the material was getting taken away, he said.

Lewis pressed him on why he did not check what the truckers told him about Beacon Farms, why he didn’t call the farm or speak to anyone there during his official tour, why he had missed so many board meetings while the fill was being trucked to his home, and when he did attend, why he did not tell anyone on the board that the material was being truck to his yard.

In response, he maintained that these were all mistakes, but Ramos knew everything, and that was enough. “There were quite a few mistakes made during this learning process… that’s for sure,” Ebanks told the court. “Things could have been done differently. I accept that,” he added as he continued to insist that he had not intentionally done anything wrong.

The case continues.

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