Sat | May 25, 2019

Vaz defends role in land sale, Harrison stands firm

Published:Thursday | May 2, 2019 | 12:31 AMErica Virtue and Edmond Campbell/Senior Gleaner Writers
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A furious minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz yesterday said he was unapologetic about his role in the controversial beach and land sale in St Ann, insisting that he was standing by the decisions he made to expedite the sale even as former contractor general Dirk Harrison stands by his damning findings following a probe of the sale.

In a report released this week on the sale of the Rooms on the Beach hotel by the Government and beach lands by the Urban Development Corporation in April 2017, the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) said the lands were sold below market price and that the Government did not optimise income from the divestment process. The report revealed that taxpayers lost more than a billion dollars in the sale of lands owned and sold by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to Puerto Caribe Properties Limited, operators of Moon Palace Jamaica Grande Hotel, saying that Government gave away a US$13.5 million property for US$7.2 million in the name of development.

“Jamaica stands to benefit much more than any perceived loss from the sale,” a peeved Vaz told The Gleaner yesterday. ”Employment opportunities that will be created, projected revenues to Government, in fact, in the first year of operation, based on projections, Jamaica will get more than US$9 million in taxes. This is more than the sale price.”

He said that the owners of the land “must” begin development of the property or it would revert to the UDC.

According to Vaz, the hotel operators offered to purchase the property since they operated adjoining properties.

Vaz said the hotel was involved in “beach nourishment”, which included efforts to rehabilitate the beach, which was valued at US$3.5 million.

He charged that the comments of the former contractor general unfairly targeted him, giving the impression that he interfered in the sale of the property and pressured the UDC into accepting the US$7.2 million sale price.

He gave no explanation for the difference of US$2.1 million in the initial offer of US$9.3 million and the agreed sale price of US$7.2 million, saying that the deal was conducted by the UDC. The OCG report pointed out that the UDC said negotiations were done at the ministerial level . Referenced minutes of the state agency showed that Vaz’s instruction was that he be notified if there were difficulties.

“I am standing by my decision for my role in the sale,” Vaz said defiantly. “I was the one who involved the prime minister in the deal. If I was involved in hanky-panky, I would not be involving the PM.”

In a terse response to a statement by the Integrity Commission on the findings of the report, former OCG boss Harrison yesterday declared: “I stand by the July 2018 report and conclusions set out.”

He refused to provide further responses on a statement issued on Tuesday by the commissioners of the Integrity Commission on developments preceding the tabling of the report in Parliament.

The Justice Karl Harrison-chaired Integrity Commission has indicated that it had concerns with some of the conclusions of the July 2018 report prepared by the former contractor general.

In a statement on Tuesday, the retired Justice Harrison said the commissioners unanimously agreed that the “validity of certain of the substantive conclusions was doubtful and could be open to serious questioning if read by an objective person”.

The commissioners are Justice Harrison (chairman), Justice Seymour Panton, Pamela Monroe Ellis, Derrick McKoy, and Eric Crawford.

Justice Harrison reported that after discussions with the former contractor general, he reviewed and made amendments to the initial report.

He said that the final draft from Dirk Harrison was submitted to the commission on March 1, 2019.

Justice Harrison claimed that at that time, the former contractor general took the position that the latter version of the report would be his final, and he requested that it be submitted unaltered to the Parliament. He said that the commission acceded to this position.

However, the commission decided that in the “interest of transparency, procedural fairness, and in pursuit of natural justice, the parties who were adversely implicated in the report should be informed of the findings and given an opportunity to respond.

“If they chose to respond, their response would also be submitted to the Parliament. We saw value in making all facts, findings, conclusions, and views available to the Parliament and the public by extension … ,” said Justice Harrison.

Checks by The Gleaner yesterday with the Houses of Parliament revealed that responses from Vaz and Prime Minister Andrew Holness have not been tabled in Parliament as the documents were not appended to the report.

On Tuesday, General Secretary of the People’s National Party (PNP) Julian Robinson called on the Integrity Commission to explain the process it employs in dealing with legacy reports completed by the contractor general during his tenure and how those reports are treated.

In a press briefing to address the findings of the report, which was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, Robinson said the PNP wants the commission to state whether reports completed by the then OCG could be altered in any way by the Integrity Commission.

“I think it is important for public confidence that there be clarity on the process,” Robinson said.

The OCG was subsumed by the Integrity Commission last year.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com