Talk is not cheap
After initially refusing to comment on his egregiously high telephone bills, Arnaldo Brown eventually posted the following on Facebook:
"I understand the public concern over telephone expenses incurred during the period July 2013 to June 2014.
... I went on 15 overseas assignments on behalf of the Government and people of Jamaica. I visited several countries, including the United Kingdom, Turkey and Indonesia.
The call and data charges were incurred as I executed my duties as minister of state ... . Whilst on overseas assignment, it's necessary to be in contact with ... the ministry, key stakeholders and the diaspora by phone and email.
"The concern ... is fully understood and accepted, and without more information, I know the impression that such expenditure may convey. I acknowledge that the bills are very high, largely attributed to data and roaming charges. However, it is important for everyone to know that these bills were incurred genuinely as I carried out my work ... . In going forward, I intend to put in place measures to ensure a reduction in the cost of these bills ... ."
Sounds (belatedly) impressive. But:
1. Until RJR broke the story, there was zero concern about this expenditure from any Cabinet minister.
2. The excuse about being abroad just doesn't wash. According to Nationwide's Abka Fitz-Henley, Brown's telephone bill for June 2014 alone was $410,000. As a taxpayer whose limited resources are being spent in this profligate manner, I won't accept Government can't do without Arnaldo Brown while he's on specific assignment overseas.
3. " ... Without more information, I know the impression that such expenditure may convey ... ." Arnaldo Brown must now provide "more information". His and other ministers' individual cell phone bills should immediately be made public so we, their employers and payers of their bills, can see numbers called; times; and duration of calls. If this results in marital or other disruption, so be it.
4. Exactly what couldn't be accomplished at home without Arnaldo on the phone to the tune of $410,000 in one month? Why couldn't the combined skills of ministry staff and/or minister cope?
5. Why must he always incur "roaming charges"? Why can't foreign embassies/consulates provide loaner phones? Four hundred and ten thousand dollars in one month? Really? Seriously? Why are we begging 'Herald' and others for free (and held) temperature machines while Arnaldo spends 20 such machines in one month chatting on the phone?
6. "In going forward, I intend to put in place measures to ensure a reduction in the cost of these bills." Why not before Abka exposed the scandal?
7. Where'd Bobby Pickersgill roam between July 2013 and June 2014 (phone bill $791,000)? Where'd Fenton Ferguson and Phillip Paulwell roam (respective bills for the period $749,000 and $930,000)?
8. Please note Peter Bunting's bill over the year was $32,000; Mark Golding's, zero. But, the JUNIOR MINISTER in foreign affairs spends $410,000 on the telephone in one month? C'mon, man!
Obviously, the old firm of Bunting and Golding understands the meaning of public office, public service, and the value of taxpayers' dollars, while Government preaches austerity. Whatever their successes or failures may be, these two are leaders. Others appear opportunists by comparison.
Don't tell me Bunting and Golding can afford to pay their own bills. This has NOTHING to do with personal affordability. It has everything to do with individual concepts of integrity and what we will or won't take for granted.
The phone issued by Government of Jamaica to a minister is NOT to be used for personal or constituency purposes, so don't tell me constituents have that number. When it's understood that Government pays a person providing foster care for a child $1,000 per week (in arrears every two months), I'm appalled that so-called public servants think it's OK for ordinary Jamaicans to pay for these calls. This is the same mentality that insulates ministers from the lot of ordinary citizens, namely driving in traffic, facing the savagery of Jamaican hospitals, and t'ief/gunman in our yards daily.
Years ago, when I was appointed a statutory body's executive chairman, I was asked how much I wanted. My reply was J$2 million per year if I was allowed to continue my law practice. The conversation continued:
Minister: "That's all? What about allowances?"
GR: "No thanks."
Minister: "Come on. At least take a government car?"
GR: "I have a car. I don't need a government car."
All this came against the advice of The Old Ball and Chain, who assured me I would prioritise the appointment over my practice, lose my law practice, and not be thanked. She was right on every count.
Peace and love.
n Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.