Tue | Sep 19, 2017

OCG probe of distribution of farm supplies delayed

Published:Thursday | November 10, 2016 | 11:00 AMJovan Johnson
Dr Wykeham McNeill

For now, the main anti-corruption body, the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), will not be called to probe whether the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration has been facilitating the partisan distribution of millions of dollars worth of farm supplies through the so-called Production and Marketing Organisations (PMOs).

Yesterday, Dr Wykeham McNeill, chairman of the Parliament's Public Adminis-tration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), yielded to the cries from government members for further checks before the OCG was invited.

McNeill was insistent on getting the anti-corruption body after representatives of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA), which operates the 628 PMOs, could not explain, among other things, how money was being allocated to the groups, which are supposed to be made up of registered farmers.

Chief Executive Officer of RADA Peter Thomas and acting Permanent Secretary in the Agriculture Ministry Reginald Budhan led the team that faced the PAAC. RADA falls under the ministry headed by Karl Samuda with assistance from J.C. Hutchinson, minister without portfolio and St Elizabeth North Western member of parliament.

 

Unregistered groups

 

The disclosure of unregistered groups first came from Manchester Southern representative Michael Stewart, who alleged that distribution was being done on a partisan basis. "The thing seems to be shrouded in a lot of secrecy and operating in what I would term a very clandestine manner. There are 21 PMOs in South Manchester. So far, $1.3 million was distributed among farmers, [and] I note that the distribution is concentrated to my opposition (counterpart). That is what is used as scarce benefits."

There was more.

Manchester North Western representative Mikael Phillips, using his constituency as example, pointed out to the RADA representatives that their list of registered PMOs did not contain some groups to which funds had been allocated.

"I've never known a farmer's group in Hasteygood, yet still the farmer's group there has collected $100,000. And then you have John's Hall, who has got twice. On what basis? I even spoke to one chairman. You have it down here that they had received $100,000. When I spoke to chairman of the group, he said he knows nothing of it."

Information from RADA's report submitted to the PAAC showed that the names of eight St Elizabeth groups to which $2.1 million had been allocated on September 26 were not on the official list of registered groups.

Meanwhile, the report revealed a significant increase in the number of groups in St Elizabeth and Westmoreland over the period March to August. PMOs in St Elizabeth moved from 35 to 92, up to August. For Westmoreland, the figure increased by 75, from 45 in March to 120.

McNeill, the MP for Westmoreland Western, said the changes were "troubling".

"In my constituency, I found that there were 40 registered PMOs. Of those 40 PMOs, I got the names of the contact persons who, largely, are the chairmen. Of the 40 names that I got, four are registered farmers in my constituency. When you have 75 groups formed in Westmoreland, four of the groups have registered farmers, something is wrong," he argued.

The ministry representatives could not explain the situation. According to them, while $30 million had been allocated to the PMOs, only $7 million had been disbursed when the programme was suspended in August for reviews.

Budhan, meanwhile, said auditors would be asked to look at the issues and report back to the PAAC in one month. I want to say how distraught the ministry is about this matter. It has been very distressing to us. We understand the issue. We understand the implications."

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com