Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Contractor General questions whether three Gov't ministers lied about influence in de-bushing probe

Published:Thursday | June 29, 2017 | 12:10 AMJovan Johnson
Contractor General Dirk Harrison

Contractor General Dirk Harrison has concluded in a report that three government ministers may have lied about their roles in selecting contractors, subcontractors and setting payment terms in the execution of the controversial pre-election de-bushing programme last November. 

The Office of the Contractor General's (OCG) special investigation report into the $800-million project was tabled yesterday in the House of Representatives.

The report stated that the project was a "deviation" from government guidelines and the selection of the five contractors "lacks transparency and accountability". 

It also outlined multiple instances of contradictory statements by Everton Hunter, the chief executive officer of the National Works Agency (NWA). The NWA implemented the project.

But some of the more revealing findings centred on five government ministers, including Daryl Vaz and Everald Warmington, who operate out of the Andrew Holness-headed Economic Growth and Job Creation Ministry where the NWA is based.

National Security Minister Robert Montague; Energy, Science and Technology Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley and Labour and Social Security Minister Shahine Robinson are the others.

The report said Wheatley, Montague and Warmington admitted to entering into "consultative discussion" with engineer Vincent Taylor, who heads Construction Solutions Ltd. 

That company had responsibility for St Catherine, St Mary and St Ann, parishes where all the ministers, except Vaz, are parliamentary representatives.

Vaz, the MP for Portland Western, held discussions with Patrick Gordon of Asphaltic Concrete Enterprises, the company that had responsibility for Portland.

Shahine Robinson's involvement is linked to the 'facilitator' role played by her campaign manager, Tyrone Robinson, the chairman of the North East Regional Health Authority and board member of the Tourism Product Development Co. Ltd.

"The consultative discussions held between the named contractors and [Wheatley, Montague and Vaz] led to the recommendation by the members of parliament, of specific subcontractors, and in the case of [Wheatley] facilitators, who were ultimately selected for the execution and performance of the respective contracts," the 485-page report stated.

In the report, the OCG said that, given the role played by the Cabinet - the selection of the contractors through emergency procurement - and the ministers' membership, "questions may arise as to whether the referenced members of parliament found themselves in an invidious or conflicted position".

MENDACIOUS OR INSINCERE?

The OCG report noted that, though the ministers "emphatically" stated they made ‘mere’ recommendations and suggestions, it concluded that those recommendations influenced the decisions of the contractors.

"In this regard, influence, whether expressed or tacit was brought to bear upon a process for which they had already administered as Cabinet ministers. Further, this influence transcended into the award of sub-contracts in respect of the execution of the said programme."

That's when the OCG said that, with "keen interest", it noted the evidence from Taylor about minister's role in specifying the persons to whom cheques should be paid out to, the amount of money that should be paid out and the manner in which monies were to be apportioned to sub contractors and so-called facilitators.

"This is especially the case," the report said, "when juxtaposed with the denial and challenge of the subject members of parliament. In this regard, the OCG can only reasonably conclude that either  [Robinson, Wheatley and Montague] are mendacious in their representations or that Taylor is being insincere," the report stated.

Meanwhile, the contractor general said the use of facilitators as agents or third parties, to receive funds and to pay labourers "is a corruption enabling mechanism" and without documentation to verify their actions such a system " neither lends itself to a credible system of accountability nor transparency".

Cabinet, the contractor general said, deviated from procurement rules when it selected the contractors after approving the project. 

"In this instance, the approval of the head of entity which is required for contracts awarded under $100 million was bypassed, as well as that of the National Contracts Commission, whose final approval is required before the award of contracts above $100 million."

"The Cabinet of Jamaica is neither a public body nor a procuring entity, within the meaning derived from the applicable laws," it added.

The OCG opened its probe on November 22 last year into the project which the Opposition People's National Party maintains was used by the Jamaica Labour Party administration to "buy" support for the November 28 municipal elections. The project was launched on November 18. 

The project, which was to also include a drain-cleaning component, was budgeted to cost $606 million. But those funds ran out without the implementation of the drain cleaning which was expected to cost about $200 million. 

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com