Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Holness-OCG showdown looms - US Embassy publicly adds voice to Symbiote licence concerns

Published:Friday | December 2, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Harrison

A face-off is shaping up between Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), the country's main anti-corruption body, over the administration's decision to grant Jamaica's third cellular licence to Symbiote Investments Limited.

Yesterday, Holness was forced to issue a statement noting his "concern" over recent comments from Contractor General Dirk Harrison.

Harrison advised in a July report that the Government should not issue the licence because of "adverse" findings against George Neil, one of the players in Symbiote, the holding company for Caricel, which will provide the telecoms service.

The Government went ahead anyway as Holness declared in Parliament on September 13: "We did our due diligence."

However, in a Nationwide radio interview on Tuesday, Harrison claimed that something Holness did not say in Parliament left him "curious".

"I find it a little curious that something that went unmentioned by the honourable prime minister was the fact that there exists a Cabinet decision which stated that when the licence is signed by the minister, Dr (Andrew) Wheatley, the name George Neil should bear no reference to Caricel."

Wheatley is the minister of science, energy and technology who signed the $2.7-billion licence.

"I'm very concerned," Harrison continued, "that the honourable prime minister would have made the statement he made in the Parliament on the 13th (September) and he didn't share with the country that fact, but instead, he stopped short of chastising the office and the role of the office."

 

WHEATLEY INSTRUCTED

 

The statement from Holness' office said he has instructed Wheatley "to prepare and issue a statement, setting out the timeline and sequence of events surrounding the grant of the licence".

Meanwhile, Holness is under even more pressure to address the issue with the public entrance of the United States government into the issue.

The US Embassy in Kingston, in a Twitter post on Tuesday, said "us, too" in response to the OCG's concerns.

Holness' statement also confirmed that the Symbiote issue has been the subject of discussions between Jamaica and the US.

 

EMBASSY NOT MEDDLING

 

Joshua Polacheck, public affairs officer at the embassy, said the Tweet was not an indication that the US was meddling in domestic affairs.

"What the embassy was doing was highlighting concerns raised by the contractor general about the lack of clarity around this particular telecoms contract," Polacheck told The Gleaner.

"We hear the contractor general say that the contract was signed two and a half months ago, but it does not appear to be a matter of public record. No representative from that company, as far as we're aware, has approached any American authorities about issues around inter-connectivity," he added.

In an apparent response to the Twitter comment from the embassy, Holness said his administration would "continue to engage" the US "via normal diplomatic channels, with a view to addressing any concerns".

Minnett Lawrence, Symbiote's lawyer, has maintained that her clients have been above board.

Wheatley had struggled in Parliament to provide information on the directors, shareholders, and ultimate beneficial shareholders of this entity.

The contractor general advised Wheatley not to sign the licence, citing that variations of Neil's name on documents suggested an attempt to mislead the Government as well as the presence of adverse findings involving Neil from a 2009 OCG probe.

David McBean, managing director of the Spectrum Management Authority, told The Gleaner yesterday that the company is up to date on a payment plan. He declined to give details on the structure of the payment plan.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com