Fri | Jan 18, 2019

Editorial | Wheatley has time yet in purgatory

Published:Sunday | December 16, 2018 | 12:26 AM

The picture Andrew Wheatley painted of himself in his interview with this newspaper a week ago was of a snivelling, remorseful character, too out of his depth to be aware that Petrojam was being incompetently run and, figuratively, sacked by the crowd he installed as its governors and managers.

The nepotistic hirings, cronyism and, perhaps, naked corruption and problems highlighted by the auditor general, he made us know, were not only systemic, but go way back, before he became minister in 2016.

“I embrace the AG’s report, which gives us, probably for the first time, an intimate knowledge of what was going at Petrojam, and it speaks to an inherent weakness in the operation of the entity,” Dr Wheatley said.

This newspaper, of course, does not question Dr Wheatley’s declaration of ignorance. But the fact that this would be the case suggests that he is an incurious and inattentive person to the point of irresponsibility and ought not to be trusted, or, more so, burdened, with either ministerial responsibility or fiduciary oversight of the resources of taxpayers, which, in the case of Petrojam, is hardly piddling. Its assets are estimated at more than J$18 billion, and its sales many multiples that amount.

Dr Wheatley’s professed hands-off gullibility is as surprising as it is revealing. He is a highly intelligent man with a background in science. A scientist with a PhD, he is credited with seminal research on the dietary properties of yam. He is also an experienced politician, having, before his ministerial appointment, served as chairman of the St Catherine Municipal Corporation and mayor of Spanish Town.

FALTERED AT INTERSECTION

He, in the circumstances, oughtn’t to have been a neophyte at management or at the art of affording subordinates authority while holding them to account, without encroaching on their operational responsibilities. Yet, Dr Wheatley suggests that he faltered at this intersection between authority and accountability.

He was unaware of the cost overruns on projects at Petrojam; of its inefficient production process and unaccounted-for leakage of fuel, way beyond the norm for oil refineries; of the breaches of procurement rules; or of the frivolous binge spending, including on a party in his honour at which the guests dined on, among other things, a four-tiered chocolate, topsy-turvy cake that cost taxpayers J$127,000. Dr Wheatley was in the dark about these things because the Petrojam board didn’t tell his ministry and he didn’t feel compelled to enquire about what would have been an obviously dysfunctional arrangement that left him clueless. He didn’t want to be accused of interference.

“There is a delicate balancing act where a minister might be accused of meddling if he is going around circumventing the established procedures as to when and how he interacts with an agency, having set general policy,” Dr Wheatley said. “... Maybe I should have meddled and run the risk of being accused of meddling.”

There is, however, a clear distinction between ministerial meddling in the operational functions of managers and the boards of entities, and being properly informed about their performance and of the matters for which they are to be held accountable. Systems and structures are in place at Petrojam for this to happen. And since Dr Wheatley wouldn’t have been deliberately permissive, he can only conclude that, at best, he was derelict in his duty.

We, like Andrew Holness, believe in second chances and redemption. But Mr Holness doesn’t have to read tea leaves or put his finger up to the winds of public opinion to know that this is far from the time for Dr Wheatley’s extrication from perdition and purgatory.