Sun | Mar 29, 2020

Wounded Wheatley breaks silence - Former minister confident that probes will clear him of any wrongdoing

Published:Sunday | November 4, 2018 | 12:00 AMArthur Hall
Wheatley: ... I thought it best to remove myself from the ministry to facilitate, or more or less not to give the impression that there would be any form of ministerial interference...
Wheatley: ... if you look at my track record you will see my performance at the ministry was second to none ...
Wheatley: The record will show that I did not select any person for any job apart from the recommendations for appointment to the different boards.
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For weeks he was the target of almost every dart flung by the parliamentary Opposition, and even members of civil society joined in, as more and more damning allegations came out about operations at entities in the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology which he headed.

On July 1, in the middle of what has been dubbed 'the Petrojam scandal', Prime Minister Andrew Holness tried to turn down the heat by relieving him of the responsibility for the energy portfolio, but that was not enough to satisfy the critics.

By the end of the month, Dr Andrew Wheatley's stint as a Cabinet member was over, as he resigned 28 months after he was first appointed.

In his first full media interview since his resignation, Wheatley last week declared that his hands are clean, and he expects the ongoing investigations into the entities that fell under his portfolio will prove he did nothing wrong.

"I resigned because there was a lot of noise out there surrounding an entity within the ministry, Petrojam, and we had asked for the auditor general to look at the matter ... and I thought it best to remove myself from the ministry to facilitate, or more or less not to give the impression that there would be any form of ministerial interference," said Wheatley, as he rejected claims that the resignation was an admission of his failure.

"Now, if you look at my track record you will see my performance at the ministry was second to none in terms of the number of programmes we rolled out, the achievements and the general impact on the society, especially young people," added Wheatley.

The former minister rejected claims that he selected his friends and confidants to take key positions in the entities under his portfolio, and that backfired spectacularly based on the several allegations and resignations that followed.

"The record will show that I did not select any person for any job apart from the recommendations for appointment to the different boards. As far as the hiring and firing of persons, or any form of employment, this minister did not have any hand in the appointment of anyone," said Wheatley.

According to Wheatley, while he accepts that he selected the Jamaican members of the board of Petrojam, including the chairman, Dr Perceval Bahado-Singh, who all resigned in the face of mounting questions about their stewardship, he had no control over the operations of the entity.

"In January 2016 the Public Bodies Accountability Act empowered the boards of a number of entities on how they operate, and Petrojam is one such entity where the management has quite a bit of control in the operation of the entity," said Wheatley, as he scoffed at attempts by the Opposition to hold him personally responsible for any failing at the agency.

He also rejected claims that Petrojam had spent an extraordinary amount in his South Central St Catherine constituency, and argued that the probes now taking place will prove that.

"I am sure that the investigations will show that I did not earn any money and my lifestyle has not changed since before becoming a minister."

Wheatley argued that as a minister, the options are not many when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the entities under one's portfolio.

"You don't want to be accused of overreaching and interfering in the entity. The minister and the Cabinet are responsible for policy, but as far as operations are concerned it is the entities themselves. And that is the sad thing about it because you are not part of the daily operations of the entity but yet your name is the first to be called.

"And I am sure that I am not the first minister to suffer from that. It is just the harsh reality of what it is. But I am not going to remove myself from any blame. To me that would be a sign of weakness. You have to just accept it as it is and make sure that next time you put in safeguards to prevent any reoccurrence," declared Wheatley.

The product of Spanish Town, St Catherine, Wheatley attended St Jago High School, where he captained the team to the TVJ Schools' Challenge title and earned a scholarship to the University of the West Indies, where he joined with a group of equally financially challenged students to get through tough times.

"My mother worked in a betting shop in Spanish Town and she would wash the neighbour's clothes for me to attend school. I remember going to my father to ask him for money to do some A Levels and he asked me, 'how many more subject you want'," remembered Wheatley, as he spoke of his mother, who supports the Jamaica Labour Party, and his father, who is a supporter of the People's National Party.

"At UWI it was rough, but we shared everything and it helped us to develop a friendship and a bond where we shared everything,"

From the UWI, Mona, Wheatley travelled to Imperial College in London, England, after being awarded the British Commonwealth Scholarship, where he was the only black person in the lab and had to prove himself to be accepted.

Since then, Wheatley has done work as a senior lecturer in basic medicine at the UWI and has collaborated on studies on diabetes management with Professor Errol Morrison. They have also published the first Glycemic Index on commonly eaten Caribbean foods.

"Before we did that it was only foods that were consumed in first-world countries that you had a Glycemic Index on. This informs our doctors on how to treat diabetic patients and what form of foods to consume, and help health-conscious persons," said Wheatley, who has also done work on cocaine addiction and the use of nutritional supplements to reduce the cocaine cravings of addicts.

arthur.hall@gleanerjm.com