Allegations of foul play over space satellite plan need to be probed
IT IS indeed a matter of great pride that the process to launch Bangladesh’s first space satellite in under way. It is also befitting that the satellite has been named ‘Bangabandhu-1’ after the founding president of the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Unfortunately, however, as a three-part series of investigative reports published in New Age on May 17, 18 and May 23 points out, the tender process for the prestige project, for the country and especially the government led by the Awami League, seems to have been plagued with irregularities — administrative, regulatory and, presumably, financial — in the selection of its consultant. As the reports show in substantial details, not only the family of a senior member of the cabinet but also the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission may have been involved in such irregularities.
First of all, the small US consultancy firm that has been awarded the $10 million contract falls short of a number of minimum requirements that should have disqualified it from even participating in the tender process. For example, while the expression of interest document states that ‘any firm’ that wishes to participate in the tender should have ‘at least fifteen years of experience in the industry’, ‘a successful record in providing consultation for at least ten satellites’ and ‘direct experience with various spacecraft platforms from several spacecraft manufacturers’, Space Partnership International was only registered as a company in the United States on November 24, 2009, less than a year before the expression of interest was published. Intriguingly, the BTRC overlooked the obvious shortcoming and accepted the application on the ground that the firm was in a joint venture with another US company, RKF Engineering Limited, which has ‘the requisite experience of a minimum of 15 years’, thereby meeting a provision in the Public Procurement Regulations 2008 that if two or more companies come together the qualifications of any one of the partners can satisfy any particular tender requirement. As it turns out, these two companies are not even in a joint venture, a fact confirmed by both Space Partnership and RFK.
Yet, the Space Partnership made it to the short list of five candidates for technical evaluation, which, according to the BTRC, found the small US company with barely a dozen employees to be the only applicant to have obtained an average score of more than 80, requiring only its financial bid to be opened. However, one of the evaluators said that two companies had scores of more than 80, and that Space Partnership with 81 was, in fact, a distant second to Globecomm Systems Inc, which scored 92 but was eventually disqualified under questionable circumstances. That’s not the end of the story, though. The vice-president of business development at Space Partnership happens to be the brother-in-law of the younger brother of the civil aviation and tourism minister, which naturally has raised questions that the family link among the quarters concerned may have had a role to play in influencing the tender process.
Overall, the controversy over the selection of the consultancy firm seems to have become a low point for the space satellite project and could undermine the credibility of the BTRC in particular and the government in general. Hence, for the sake of transparency and its own public image, the government needs to initiate a competent and credible inquiry into the allegations and, if the allegations are found to be true, even arrange for a re-tender. Meanwhile, the US government needs also to run its own inquiry under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; after all, the company in question is based in the US.
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