Sat | Jan 16, 2021

CMU president defends hiring Lawrence

Published:Thursday | May 16, 2019 | 12:23 AMLivern Barrett/Senior Parliamentary Reporter

Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) President Professor Fritz Pinnock yesterday insisted that the hiring of former St Ann North West Member of Parliament Othneil Lawrence as a $5.4 million-a-year adviser to the institution was above board.

Further, Pinnock has dismissed questions raised by the parliamentary Opposition that the east Kingston-based university funded two lavish parties – one aboard a yacht and the other at a North Coast hotel – for Ruel Reid, the discarded minister of education, youth and information.

Facing a grilling by opposition members of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament yesterday, the CMU head confirmed that Lawrence’s hiring took effect on April 1, 2018 and was done in keeping with established government guidelines.

“We keep a pool of applicants, and from that pool we drew a number of CVs (curricula vitae). We conducted interviews and did evaluations. Everything was done,” he insisted, disclosing that he was part of the interview panel.

He asserted, too, that Lawrence has an associate degree and the “tenacity” to handle the project he was hired to execute.

“This was not a permanent position. We have projects that we do and he was engaged for a particular project. He has been working; he’s still engaged with us and he has been performing his job,” Pinnock said.

The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) wrote to Lawrence on November 5, 2014, informing him of its decision to remove him as its caretaker for St Ann North West.

Lawrence, who was unseated by the People’s National Party’s Dr Dayton Campbell in the 2011 election, resisted the move, even taking the matter to the courts to prevent the party from ousting him.

Two months after Lawrence affixed his signature to the CMU contract, the JLP announced that Reid had been selected to replace him as the party’s St Ann North West constituency caretaker. The CMU falls under the education ministry.

It was against this background that chairman of the PAAC Dr Wykeham McNeill pressed for more answers on Lawrence’s hiring.

“I think you will understand that there is a concern because we all want to ensure that there is probity in everything that’s done,” McNeill said.

The CMU president said the former lawmaker submitted his application to CMU in December 2017 “because he was in the employment market”.

He acknowledged that he knew Lawrence from about 2011 when the former parliamentarian served as junior minister in the Ministry of Transport. The CMU was under the remit of the transport ministry at the time.

“Mr Lawrence has always been in touch with the university. He has always recommended young people, just like several members [of parliament] here who would call about youngsters,” he disclosed.

Explaining the circumstances that led to Lawrence’s hiring, Pinnock disclosed that in 2016, CMU developed a programme that targeted 1,000 at-risk youth across the island and needed a group of people to help coordinate the activities.

He said the university started the programme using retired teachers and persons fresh out of teachers’ colleges, but quickly discovered that they “could not connect to the youngsters” because “there was a gap”.

“We have found that you have a new type of individuals dealing with in society. They are not the norm,” he said, pointing to the case of a student who showed a senior administrator a phone message asking him to be part of a contract killing.

“Academia in the traditional form is not trained, not equipped to deal with these. What we are finding is that we have to now turn to politicians who know how to get these people out to vote. We have to turn to entertainers, we have to turn to people involved in sports,” he reasoned.

This was the basis on which the former parliamentarian was hired, Pinnock disclosed.

“After discussion, we thought that maybe it would be a good way to try him based on the challenge we were facing and, Sir, it turned out to be a good decision.”

The CMU boss “categorically” denied claims that the institution paid for any of the two parties held for Reid.

“CMU did not pay for birthday parties,” he insisted.

“What you saw was an industry function, which included members of the tertiary sector that were there,” he said in reference to pictures from the yacht party that were published by The Gleaner.