Fri | Jul 10, 2020

Editorial | The tawdriness of Petrojam

Published:Wednesday | December 5, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The auditor general's report on Petrojam hasn't told us much that we didn't already know from leaked internal audits, the revelations of whistle-blowers and information elicited at hearings of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) - of the end-runs around procurement rules; the spending, with abandon, of taxpayers' money; and raw nepotism and cronyism. Except that we now have it in greater, and granular, detail that will excite the imaginations of those with appetites for the tawdry.

For instance, we know that the manager for human resources, development and administration, who was employed without the advertised qualifications, at a salary higher than her predecessor, in turn hired a sibling, who had been rejected by an interview panel on the basis that he was not qualified for the job.

"This engagement was an explicit act of nepotism," said Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis. This was not the only hiring to which the human resource management was a party, overturning the decision of the initial, and presumably technically oriented, interview group.




The high-chested partying at expensive hotels at Petrojam's expense; the spending of consultancies for which there was no apparent value; the overspending on, and ineffectual management of, projects; and the inability of the company's management to reverse the annual leakage of thousands of barrels of oil, at a cost of billions of dollars, are also among issues that might cause cynics to assume that more was at play than managerial (in) competence.

In the event, this newspaper, and, we assume, most Jamaicans, had concluded that the oil refinery had long been badly managed. Its problem, however, grew exponentially worse during the two-year-plus tenure of Andrew Wheatley, the former energy, science and technology minister, who Prime Minister Andrew Holness was forced to fire three months ago. If his word about his ignorance of all that happened around him were to be taken at face value, Dr Wheatley was, in his carelessness, almost criminally permissive, blissfully unaware as the hordes sacked the shop. In that, if nothing else, Dr Wheatley's failure as a minister was complete.

There is, however, more than ministerial failure in this matter. Petrojam underlines a deeper crisis of accountability in government, not least in the seeming ignorance, to which Mrs Monroe Ellis alluded, among the permanent bureaucracy of their responsibility in this arrangement.

This weakness/ignorance was highlighted in the complaint of Audrey Sewell, Prime Minister Holness' permanent secretary (PS), to the PAAC, of officials, like herself, having to take "flak for things that, by law, we have no authority, no power to address", when it is the CEOs of agencies, who are often vastly better paid than PSs, who should be held to account.

" ... Permanent secretaries are now expected to walk behind them and clean up, and it's not fair to permanent secretaries," she said.

Ms Sewell may have a point about inequity in pay. Nonetheless, by law, under the Public Management and Accountability Act, as well as the government accountability framework, as the auditor general pointed out, permanent secretaries are tasked with monitoring the performance of the bodies that fall under their ministries "against expected results, manage risks and advise/inform the minister accordingly".

There was no such monitoring of Petrojam by the energy ministry, and neither did it come from the oil refinery's parent company, the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ). This crisis of accountability, we suspect, is not limited to Petrojam, the PCJ, or the other bodies for which Dr Wheatley had responsibility, and which, in recent months, have been in the spotlight. Other scandals will surface.

The important thing is to have systems to prevent their occurrence and, if they happen, to readily hold perpetrators to account. In other words, there is a need for a robust anti-corruption regime and a strong champion against graft and malfeasance among public officials, which Prime Minister Holness, when he came to office, promised to be. It is urgent that he step up his game on this front.