Sun | Aug 9, 2020

Orville Taylor | Not guilty until… the Petrojam gels

Published:Sunday | July 5, 2020 | 12:31 AM

Former Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley is guilty of nothing! And anyone who says that he is, is just as guilty of what he is being accused of. Of course, I put my helmet on after the first stone is thrown at me for that introduction. However, we live in a democracy, where rules, procedures, and guidelines are there to set us all free – not enslave us. Until Wheatley and his crew from the Petrojelly debacle are brought before an appropriate tribunal and duly convicted, they are as guilt-free as Caesar’s wife.

We are generally familiar with the ‘principles of natural justice’ which require that every single person who is suspected of committing an offence be made aware, preferably in writing, of the charges against her. Second, this person must be given an opportunity to defend herself with or without counsel, and if an adverse decision is made against her, she must have the right to an appeal to a higher authority. Our system, thankfully, does precisely that. One beautiful thing about it is that we accept as final a positive evaluation of the accused by the court, and there is no appeal. Thus, if the Bench or jury comes up with a shocking verdict that lets the ‘guilty’ walk free, no one has a ‘second bite of the cherry,’ to use a term from former Contractor General Dirk Harrison.

However, until we dispense with the Privy Council, we have a successful and transparent multistaged process that the accused can utilise to finally prove her innocence.

The obedience of the juridical and procedural rules is sacrosanct. From my recollection, the majority of dismissal cases before the Industrial Disputes Tribunal in Jamaica that are adjudged ‘unjustifiable’ are for procedural breaches under the Labour Relations Code. Interestingly, a few years ago, it was revealed that approximately 80 per cent of all disciplinary cases in the Ministry of Education, which were reversed, were done so due to breaches of procedure. We must, therefore, be careful that we do not lynch Wheatley and others before they get ‘their day in court’.

PROCEDURAL BREACHES

On the surface, there are so many procedural breaches as well as apparent transgressing of legislation. In fact, reading the report from the Integrity Commission, the evidence seems very damning that they committed an endless litany of violations of procedure and law. Local anti-corruption affiliate of Transparency International (TI), our own National Integrity Action (NIA), has welcomed the revelations of “evidence to confirm and extend damning allegations regarding Petrojam made during hearings before Parliamentary committees in 2018 as well as findings in the Auditor General’s Report of December 2018. As such, acts of irregularity, impropriety, nepotism, cronyism, and corruption costing taxpayers many millions of dollars are documented in these reports”.

A party for US$11,260 (J$1.37 million), whose cost justified it being called a ‘surprise’; persons who failed to qualify for the positions they were given even though the assessors empanelled to evaluate them was not hostile; and a ‘retreat’ with no surrendering of any supporting evidence that it was.

Beyond the money issues, the procedural ones are even more troubling. In a country that has struggled to get a positive score on TI’s corruption perception index (CPI), the need for transparency in all entities that spend government money is paramount. It might not seem like a big deal, but the numerous accounts of people personally known, connected or related to him, who keep popping up like pimples on an adolescent’s face is embarrassing, to say the least. One example is the concern about his dishonesty “… in his representations concerning Ms Sophia Deer and whether he sought to mislead and did mislead the director of investigation”. Though there is no dough surrounding Deer, what matters is that there was no declaration of a potential conflict of interest. For those of us who have bothered to read the Bible, perception matters – Romans 14:16 “Let not then your good be evil spoken of”; and Thessalonians 5:22 – “Shun the appearance of evil.”

Examples of good standards on transparency come from the University Council of Jamaica and its affiliates. These are tighter than a big man’s ‘spangie’ pants and shirt when ‘trouble tek him’. Real, perceived, or potential ‘conflicts of interest’ arise when people are in positions to use knowledge, authority, or influence for personal gain or to benefit or prejudice others. It doesn’t matter if there was actual interference with the processes.

Statutory and governmental standards regarding transparency revolve around i) appropriate procedures and guidelines; and ii) avoiding any behaviour, whether real or imagined, which potentially brings the institution or country into disrepute.

We have come too far as a nation to run roughshod over rules and procedures, but two wrongs don’t make it right. Let the course of justice flow!

- Dr Orville Taylor is head of the Department of Sociology at The UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of ‘Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.