Tue | Jun 25, 2019

Mark Wignall | Is profiteering implied in AG audit?

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM

In any investigation or audit of any arm of government, whether it is carried out by the contractor general or the auditor general, when imprudent and deliberately reckless authorisation of spending is approved by boards or top management and highlighted, it is usually the sheer mismanagement that is stressed and not the motivating factors.

Attached to the audit may be a lot of technoÒ speak as it relates to accounting, auditing, and management practices, but delicately embracing the words, the sentences, the paragraphs and the tables is the question, why was it all done?

And while no finding in the damning auditor general's report has pointed to or used the word 'profiteering', one cannot help but ask, did any of the powerful insiders in the

top-management structures of the boards examined gain something monetary, or was it done to secure a powerful strategic and influential spot for one person or a group of people?

The audit covers three administrations. The period covering the latter part of the Golding-led JLP administration of 2007-2011 when James Robertson was energy minister. The other period was when Phillip Paulwell was energy minister under the Simpson Miller PNP administration of 2012 to 2016. And, of course, the present period, led by PM Andrew Holness, when the energy ministry had to be seized from Dr Andrew Wheatley, and, so far, has been 'rescued' by the Office of the Prime Minister.

Let us get one thing straight here. All of the shocking and embarrassing findings will have to be owned by the JLP administration and the man who is its principal officer, Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

I must confess, not being able to wrap my head around the 'loss' of 600,000 barrels of oil. I confess total ignorance. I have read and reread, and the more I do it, the more confused I become.

What I can understand, though, is small stuff, plainly laid out for easy consumption by the layman.

For example: "On November 17, 2017, and January 5, 2018, Petrojam's general manager approved payments for invoices totalling US$21,767 (J$2.6 million), in relation to two parties, which were of a personal and private nature. The parties were held on September 19, 2017, and January 9, 2018, at two hotels in Montego Bay." The September party was for Petrojam's board chairman.

In another instance, where Petrojam decided to throw a party on taxpayers' dollars, 'The hotel's invoice for the other party, dated January 4, 2018, was referenced 'Petrojam Ltd Party'. In addition, we noted a chain of email correspondence with the caption 'Petrojam's Surprise Party - Tuesday, January 9, 2018'. The emails, which were circulated among the general manager, manager, HRDA, head of procurement, and two representatives from the hotel, highlighted an attendee list of 15 individuals. The list comprised the minister for MSET, three members of Petrojam's management staff, two board members, and nine other individuals not employed to Petrojam. Petrojam could not justify the basis for the expenditure.'

Maybe in these instances, the benefits were immediate and obvious. Fancy food, wine, and expensive liquor and the beauty of a tourist resort to laze away the time. With the taxpayer paying for it.

 

POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS

 

On the day before the AG's report into PCJ and Petrojam bombed its way into our disgust, a well-known PNP MP called me.

"I read your piece on Sunday and see you hinting at some things. May I say it may be even worse than you think."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"I have been doing my count and I can tell you that only just about 10 PNP MPs are now supporting Peter Phillips. We have been conducting polls, and the results are depressing, but to me, they are not a surprise. In just about every constituency right now, the popularity of Peter Phillips is lagging behind the PNP MP and the prime minister. In many cases, it runs to double digits."

"So what is the PNP plan going forward?" I asked.

"Mark, we are not like the JLP that had Young Turks like Daryl Vaz, who were not afraid to make noise. We are just remaining silent and hope that the JLP Government and Andrew Holness trip up. That is not a plan, but that is where we are."

If major factions in the Opposition PNP are now using as a plan the likelihood that the JLP Government will trip up, the audit has presented itself.

A JLP MP sent me some documents, which I had previously seen, which included a letter from a feisty Karen C. Cross of the New Molynes Group of the PNP, a part of which read: "This (PNP) party has become a party of sycophantic, power-grabbing, narcissistic, lazy, do-nothings waiting for the JLP to fail. The results of this latest bumbling, along with your greatest faults of exclusivity, will reckon with you one of these days. This party has a listening problem."

He also sent me a copy of an invitation - An evening with The President of the People's National Party, Dr Peter Phillips. The session was for December 1, and the contribution was $6,000. But it was cancelled. Were there not sufficient takers?

How will Holness play this out?

"I blame the PM," said the JLP minister to me. "We all heard the rumblings and knew of the situation inside PCJ and Petrojam before we came to power. The PM should have immediately sought an audit before mid-2016."

"That I can understand, but this is now. How does he extricate himself from this, politically, and what sort of an appeal can he make to the people that going forward, there will be radical changes in accountability and transparency? It seems now to be only words," I said.

"He will just have to face it head on. In the early days of 2016, he didn't want to make it look like he was on a witch hunt. He simply wanted to govern and to touch the lives of the most needy people and those who want to get on with their lives in a better way," he said.

One reader responded to my Thursday column and said: 'While you have raised good questions on the oversight role of the minister and board, the original model for Petrojam, what were the weaknesses in management that allowed for management policies to be violated? Did anyone push back or request specific directives be put in writing from the general manager to violate these procedures? It takes more than one individual for a system to break down."

The presence of an opposition party, the PNP that is waiting for the JLP to muck up, ought to be the JLP's worst nightmare, so why is it not feeling that way even with every other person at street level talking about the AG's findings?

That is the feature of two-party politics, where one party, this case, the Opposition PNP, is riven with factionalism and may just not be able to find the cohesive elements needed to launch sustained and systematic attacks on the JLP administration, especially where it relates to the damning auditor general's report.

The PNP MP said, "If you are looking for an example of how far back we must claw to gain the relevance you speak of, look at East Portland. Polls there are showing Ann-Marie Vaz ahead of Bloomfield by double digits. And she just reach there officially."

The big problem facing the PNP in trying to mount a united front in its political attacks on the Holness Government is that it has to protect its flanks from many internal skirmishes before it looks to burning issues that need its presence.

The thing is, can the PNP claim ease of credibility in criticising the present PCJ/Petrojam findings under JLP stewardship? Hmmm?

- Mark Wignall is a political and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mawigsr@gmail.com.