Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Colin Campbell | Answer, Mr PM!

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:09 AM
Colin Campbell
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... When a government of the same men and women sign a contract for $626 million to repair the Junction road in the middle of an election campaign, why should not the political ombudsman, the contractor general, the NCC, the parliamentary Opposition, civil society, and every single well-thinking Jamaican caution the prime minister?"

There has been much controversy about The Gleaner headline of Friday, September 22, 2017, which, by inference, accurately reflected Prime Minister Andrew Holness' response to questions put to him by journalist Dionne Jackson-Miller at a press briefing, and, therefore, his sense of accountability on the contract-award process and system of administration.

If the prime minister took the time to so patiently name those to whom he is answerable, conversely, there are those to whom he does not answer. Logically, therefore, since the enquiry was about the political ombudsman, she is squarely on the list of those to whom the prime minister does not answer. Everyone can draw their conclusion.

On matters of government-issued contracts, the prime minister said that he responds only to the contractor general, which is the constituted authority to oversee the contracting process, in addition to the National Contracts Commission, which has a statutory role in ensuring that the contract process is above board.

Based on this declaration, I wish to remind him of his promise to the people of Jamaica to respond to the OCG (Office of the Contractor General) report concerning the bush-clearing programme undertaken by his Government just before the last local government elections.

With the entire voter-buying episode occurring in the midst of the campaign for the 2016 November local government elections, a number of the OCG's findings and conclusions are consistent with the insistence of the People's National Party that the programme was devised and executed as a vote-buying exercise.

The findings disclosed a sordid tale of incompetence, recklessness, irregularities, as well as conflicted and corrupt actions on the part of the Holness Cabinet and some ministers of his Government.

It is instructive to note that the CEO of the National Works Agency, the body charged with the implementation of the programme, advised the OCG that "ordinarily, when we are doing a bushing, a grass-cutting exercise, we would, on average, spend ... a $100 million. By my own admission, we are spending near $600 million this time, which is unprecedented ... ."

The NWA said that the entire exercise emanated from the Cabinet, and the procurement process for this programme, says the OCG, "... was a deviation from the GOJ procurement guidelines".

Therefore, the prime minister's Cabinet gave instructions for the undertaking of a corrupt exercise that breached the laws of the land, targeting the Opposition.

As noted by the OCG report, the bulk of the vote-buying was done in PNP-led constituencies. This is understandable as there was no need for similar activity in the majority of JLP-led areas.

 

CORRUPTED CABINET

 

His administration has corrupted the role of the Cabinet of Jamaica as the principal instrument of government policy by taking a decision in Cabinet, which was in breach of established policies and rules, specifically, the procurement guidelines, when they bypassed the roles of the executive director of the NWA and of the NCC (to which the PM answers) and directed that the programme be implemented with their own specially selected contractors.

The OCG also found: "The contractors were selected by the Cabinet of Jamaica to execute works in relation to the Islandwide Mitigation (Debushing and Drain Cleaning) Programme", and "subsequent to the selection of the referenced contractors, Mrs Audrey Sewell, permanent secretary, MEGJC, wrote to Mr Everton G. Hunter, CEO, NWA, by way of an email dated November 17, 2016, and advised that "Minister Chang", in his capacity as acting prime minister, had given instructions for the replacement of the contractors who were initially selected for the parishes of Westmoreland, Hanover, and St James."

Minister Chang's instruction for the replacement of contractors is consistent with the Cabinet having made the selections.

Minister Chang sought to suggest that the Cabinet did not select the contractors when he told the OCG that the "contractors are recommended to the Cabinet by the NWA". But the NWA CEO advised: "... The Cabinet's decision instructed me to enter into contract with a select group of contractors to do work in a specified amount, in specified locations. And in full faithfulness to my obligation as an employee of the Government of Jamaica, I followed through forthwith and executed the contract, knowing fully well that I am clothed with the authority of Cabinet so to do."

The OCG's conclusion: "The process which led to the selection of the five contractors lacks transparency and accountability."

According to the OCG: "The consultative discussions held between the named contractors and Dr the Hon Andrew Wheatley, the Hon Robert Montague and the Hon Daryl Vaz led to the recommendation by the members of parliament of specific subcontractors, and in the case of Dr the Hon Andrew Wheatley, facilitators, who were ultimately selected for the execution and performance of the respective contracts", and "given the role which was played by the Cabinet, in respect of the referenced programme and the fact that the stated members of parliament are sitting members of the said Cabinet, questions may arise as to whether the referenced members of parliament found themselves in an invidious or conflicted position."

Will the prime minister tell the nation what his responsive action to the conflict of interest allegation about his ministers?

The situation, therefore, is that subcontractors were appointed (i) in breach of the agreement with the NWA and (ii) based, at best, on recommendations of JLP ministers/MPs, or, alternatively, in keeping with the directions and influence of said JLP ministers/MPs, who participated as Cabinet members in the decision to proceed with the programme.

In addition, two of the contractors indicated that they utilised the services of "facilitators". One contractor described the facilitators "as persons who did no work but who were selected by the members of parliament to collect money and to pay the labourers who executed the works".

One such facilitator was Mr Tyrone Robinson, the campaign manager for Shahine Robinson, who acted in the capacity as a facilitator engaged by Construction Solutions Ltd. Mr Robinson facilitated payments in the amount of more than $4.1m.

 

CONCERNS ABOUT EVIDENCE

 

The OCG also had serious concerns about the evidence provided by Tyrone Robinson, which it said "is riddled with half-truths, concealed answers and unanswered questions. In some instances, the representations made by Mr Robinson amount to a direct attempt to mislead as the answers are not just an insult to the authority of the contractor general, but defy common sense and intelligence".

The situation created was that JLP MPs utilised "a corruption-enabling mechanism" and 'recommended' facilitators, some of whom were JLP political operatives, to collect and pay out state funds without proper supervision, documentation, and accountability in circumstances where there were no means of independently determining who received payments.

A very serious conclusion reached by the OCG is as follows:

"The OCG notes with keen interest the further evidence provided by Mr Vincent Taylor concerning the involvement of the referenced members of parliament in (a) specifying the persons to whom cheques should be made payable, (b) the amounts in which same should be made payable, and (c) the manner in which same were to be apportioned to the subcontractors and/or facilitators. This is especially the case when juxtaposed with the denial and challenge of the subject members of parliament. In this regard, the OCG can only reasonably conclude that either the Hon Members of Parliament Mrs Shahine Robinson, Dr Andrew Wheatley and Robert Montague are mendacious in their representations or that Mr Taylor is being insincere."

It should also be noted that Mr Montague admitted that he provided one contractor with banking information for one of the subcontractors he recommended.

It is readily recognised that the ministers/MPs would have a compelling reason to deny that they were as involved as the contractor suggests, but the question must also be asked, Why would the contractor, who actually received the contract with the highest value, lie in this manner? There is no discernible reason why he would. That, together with Mr Montague's admission of providing banking information, would suggest that the ministers/MPs were improperly deeply involved.

"The OCG concludes that all contractors realised profits in excess of 15 per cent of the contract value. Asphaltic Concrete Enterprise Co Ltd recorded the lowest profit margin of 17.13 per cent, while Construction Solutions Ltd recorded the highest profit margin of 76.44 per cent as at June 9, 2017."

In the context of the unprecedented nature of the programme and an abnormally high profit margin of 76.44 per cent for the contractor that received the highest-value contract, one must question the motives of all involved in this programme. The contract with the highest value was for $183,600,000, of which $176,951,302.00 was actually disbursed. Based on the OCG's conclusion, the profit margin from that contract would be $135,261,575. The question must be asked - how can the Holness administration justify one contractor who was specially selected by its Cabinet receiving profits of $135.2m from payments of $176.9m?

The same question must also be asked when a government of the same men and women signs a contract for $626m to repair the Junction road in the middle of an election campaign, why should not the political ombudsman, the CG, the NCC, the parliamentary Opposition, civil society, and every single well-thinking Jamaican caution the prime minister?

And when PM Holness says that he answers only to the OCG and the NCC, what's wrong with the interference, "I don't answer to you, madam"?

The prime minister's statement to Parliament, in response to the OCG, to which he answers, and as was promised by the information minister in July, would be most welcome now.

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