Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Editorial | Holland deal doesn’t pass smell test

Published:Thursday | July 16, 2020 | 12:09 AM

J.C. HUTCHINSON must by now appreciate why, well beyond the first whiff, the Holland Producers land deal doesn’t pass the smell test. Indeed, the olfactory receptors of Mr Hutchinson’s Cabinet colleagues, too, should feel under assault from something malodorous, which the resignation of the minister’s life partner, Lola Marshall-Williams, from the Holland board doesn’t dissipate.

For the issue relates not only to Ms Marshall-Williams. It involves, too, a host of other connected parties, an absence of transparency and arm’s-length dealing, as well as, at the very least, poor judgement by public officials in their handling of taxpayers’ assets. It is important in this regard to place Mr Hutchinson, Ms Marshall-Williams and other key personalities and their agencies into their appropriate context.

Mr Hutchinson, the member of parliament (MP) for North West St Elizabeth, is not only an MP and highly competent and respected agriculturalist. He is minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF), where the boss is Audley Shaw. Among the ministry’s political leadership, Mr Hutchinson is the key technical man in agriculture.

MICAF’s portfolio includes the Sugar Corporation of Jamaica (SCJ), which used to control several sugar factories, until a decade ago when they were sold to private operators, some of whom have since left the business, returning several thousand acres of land to the SCJ.

The Holland lands were not part of this giveback. They were part of 2,400 acres of Holland Estate in St Elizabeth, which were reacquired when the rum and sugar producer, J. Wray & Nephew, now a subsidiary of the Italian drinks company Gruppo Campari, opted out of a long-term lease as it weans its way out of sugar. The SCJ regained the land early in 2019, months after J. Wray & Nephew announced its intention.

This is where Holland Producers Limited, a company incorporated in May 2019 as an agricultural production and land management outfit, is significant. Holland Producers’ three registered directors are Ms Marshall-Williams, Mark Lee and Kenneth Daley.

Apart from her personal/familial relationship with Mr Hutchinson, Ms Marshall-Williams is a member of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) board, which, like the SCJ, falls under MICAF. RADA provides extension and other support services to Jamaica’s farmers. Ms Marshall-Williams is also chairman of RADA’s advisory board for the parish of St Elizabeth, where Mr Lee, her co-director at Holland Producers, is RADA’s deputy parish manager.

Months after Holland Producers’ incorporation, it entered into a one-year arrangement for control of 1,400 acres of the estate lands. There was no financial consideration for this initial scheme, under which Holland Producers was apparently able to sublet lots to small farmers. The economic arrangements for these subsidiary deals are not clear. RADA has initiated a probe into what assistance it may have given to these farmers, which, we expect, would have been coordinated out of its St Elizabeth office.

CONTRADICTING STATEMENTS

There was, insofar as we are aware, no public tender for the lands Holland Producers came to control. And there is a dispute over who initiated the private treaty arrangement.

Minister Hutchinson told this newspaper that Holland Producers applied for the land on its own accord, without being recommended by any official. He was, however, contradicted by SCJ’s CEO, Joseph Shoucair.

It was Mr Hutchinson’s ministry, Mr Shoucair said, that “directed the SCJ’s attention to a company called Holland Producers”.

Said Mr Shoucair: “The arrangement was that when the lands were returned to SCJ, we would make them available to MICAF. MICAF then nominated Holland Producers and hence the arrangement for the one-year due diligence period. … I acted on the advice of MICAF.”

That, on the face of it, is pretty damning stuff, even given Mr Shoucair’s disinclination to name the specific person who gave the “advice” – some might claim order – upon which he acted.

There may be nothing illegal or criminal in the deal. But even after a long, hard look, it is hard not to perceive a conflict of interest, which isn’t cured by Ms Marshall-Williams’ post facto demitting of Holland Producers’ board. Her relationship with Mr Hutchinson raises questions about what, if any, preference Holland Producers may have received from the Government, as does her seat on the RADA board. So, too, does Mr Lee’s employment by RADA. Further, Mr Shoucair, as CEO of the SCJ and custodian of its assets, and the duty of care and fiscal responsibility he owes the company’s owners, the taxpayers of Jamaica, he has further explaining to do.

Clearly, Mr Shaw, as the overall boss of MICAF, can’t remain silent. And neither can Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who must satisfy himself that the rules relating to the divestment of government assets were followed, and if they weren’t, what he intends to do about it. In the event, something seems too lax and permissive about how public officials handled this venture.