Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Editorial | Mr Grey should start Petrojam probe

Published:Tuesday | June 19, 2018 | 12:00 AM

We appreciate the pledge by Andrew Wheatley, the energy minister, to deal decisively with the complaints of mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption at the Petrojam oil refinery, of which he apparently believes there is, at the very least, prima facie evidence.

But as much as we welcome Dr Wheatley's intervention, we, like Trevor Munroe, the head of the anti-corruption group, National Integrity Action, are not sanguine that an intervention by Dr Wheatley is sufficient. Nor do we believe the announced investigation by the auditor general, Pamela Monroe Ellis, to be sufficient.

It is the kind of case the newly established Integrity Commission is designed to deal with and provides an opportunity for it to display its worth and competence and to determine whether its operating structures, including how investigations are decided on, may be in need of rejigging.

Unfortunately, the commission has, thus far, said nothing, at least publicly, about this matter, which, we hope, is not a sign of credence of our declared unease with its staff arrangements, including the fact that Dirk Harrison, its director of prosecutions and competent former contractor general, couldn't be cloned to be the agency's lead investigator, or couldn't hold both jobs at the same time.

Petrojam, of which the Jamaica Government is majority shareholder and which is owned jointly with Venezuela, has been the subject of public scrutiny recently over social support spending. The Opposition claims that the lion's portion of that expenditure is allocated to parliamentary constituencies represented by governing party politicians.

There are also allegations of preferred staff being hired at over-the-top salaries, generally low employee morale, major cost overruns on projects, including the construction of a wall at more than three times its projected cost, splashy spending on connected persons, and, generally, lax governance.

A review by the Auditor General's Department, generally, is usually a retrospective analysis of expenditure by government agencies to determine whether appropriate procedures were followed and taxpayers received value for their money. So, while we have no objection to the probe by Mrs Monroe Ellis' office, it is not designed for the function of ferreting out acts of corruption or to proceed with the prosecution of individuals if misbehaviour is discovered.

 

TROUBLING MATTERS

 

Dr Wheatley reported last week that he had summoned the Jamaican directors of Petrojam - Chairman Perceval Bahado-Singh, Richard Creary, and Harold Malcolm - because of the "preliminary findings of an investigation into several grave and troubling matters" at the company.

According to a statement from the minister's office, Dr Wheatley intended to use "the powers afforded to his office and take decisive action to deal with all those matters currently affecting the state-owned entity". He implored the public's "patience as he addresses all relevant issues".

The obvious conclusion is that Minister Wheatley smells a rat.

However, we are not convinced that either Dr Wheatley himself, or the ministry he leads, has the investigative competence to undertake this project or that he can rely on the agency's board of governors, who are also under scrutiny, and, like Dr Wheatley, may be accused of a conflict of interest.

In the event, this is an episode that should be on the radar of the Integrity Commission and the interim head of its investigative division, David Grey, who was the top operations man of the now-defunct agency that was supposed to probe corruption by public-sector employees.

If Mr Grey interprets his powers narrowly, he will await a specific assignment from the commissioners, who, notably, include Mrs Monroe Ellis in her role as auditor general. But we would advise Mr Grey, as is provided for at Section 31(c) of the act, to commence the investigation "on his own initiative" and await any "general or specific" direction the commissioners may issue.