Sun | Aug 9, 2020

‘IMMEDIATELY’ - Leaked letter reveals Hutchinson demanded SCJ Holdings expedite land offer to sweetheart’s company

Published:Wednesday | July 15, 2020 | 12:28 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter
Day workers who are contracted by small cultivators on the Holland Estate in 
St Elizabeth prepare to leave the farm on Tuesday. The lands have embroiled Minister J.C. Hutchinson in a melodrama over potential conflict of interest.
Day workers who are contracted by small cultivators on the Holland Estate in St Elizabeth prepare to leave the farm on Tuesday. The lands have embroiled Minister J.C. Hutchinson in a melodrama over potential conflict of interest.

J.C. Hutchinson, a de facto agriculture minister, urged an entity in his ministry to give possession of sugar lands at Holland Estate in St Elizabeth to a company in which his partner was a director and shareholder, according to leaked documents that suggest the minister was more forceful in the selection process than he initially let on.

Hutchinson’s partner, Lola Marshall-Williams, has reportedly quit in the aftermath of controversy.

It has also been revealed that Hutchinson’s son operates a store on the Holland Estate lands.

Companies Office of Jamaica records show that Jason Hutchinson is registered as a sole trader of Holland Estate Farm and Garden Supplies, which operates on the lands.

Jason Hutchinson is the son of J.C. Hutchinson and Marshall-Williams.

Jason Hutchinson’s farm store was incorporated on the same day his mother, Marshall-Williams’, company, Holland Producers, registered with the Companies Office – two months before it was given possession of the lands.

The leaked documents, along with a press statement from the minister on Tuesday, give a clearer picture of how Holland Producers Limited was selected in 2019 to manage the more than 1,400 acres of state-owned property.

Those developments follow a Sunday Gleaner report that revealed contradictions in accounts from Hutchinson and Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings about how Holland Producers Limited was selected.

Hutchinson initially claimed that the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF) did not recommend the company, contrary to SCJ Managing Director Joseph Shoucair, who insisted that he acted on the “advice” of MICAF.

In his statement Tuesday, Hutchinson gave a new version of events, revealing that he wrote to Shoucair in April 2019 “introducing” the Holland Estate Management Company and “asking for his attention and guidance” on the matter.

Holland Estate Management Company (HEMCO) later became registered as a company, Holland Producers Limited, with Marshall-Williams listed as one of three directors and one of two shareholders.

But Hutchinson, who has denied that his involvement represented a conflict of interest, did not reveal the extent of his demands on the SCJ, which went beyond his request for “guidance” from the SCJ, which falls under his ministry.

“It is, therefore, important that these participants, who have been selected, start occupying the land IMMEDIATELY upon the relinquishing of Appleton’s lease,” read a copy of the April 30, 2019, letter obtained by The Gleaner, the exclamatory capitalisation the minister’s emphasis.

Further, Hutchinson advised in his missive to Shoucair that HEMCO “will be submitting a formal application for these lands, and so, I am requesting your assistance in this critical aspect of the development of our local agricultural sector”.

The letter also noted that the company, which represented some community stakeholders, had already interviewed 245 farmers who reportedly expressed interest in occupying the Holland property.

“We intend to have all of the lands in full production within three months of the handover,” he said.

Those interventions were missing from Hutchinson’s press statement on Tuesday in which he also declared that he had no personal interest in the matter.

“Let me state categorically that I have in no way benefited from the lands at Holland, either directly or indirectly,” he said. “It was never my intention to derive any benefit from the Holland lands, nor do I have an interest in Holland Producers Limited.”

Almost a week after Hutchinson’s letter to SCJ, Holland Producers, under Marshall-Williams’ signature, formally applied to the SCJ saying it was “prepared to undertake management of the property”.

Marshall-Williams has resigned as director of the company, the statement disclosed, because she didn’t want the project at Holland “to be embroiled in any controversy”.

She remains a board member of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) and chairperson of the entity’s St Elizabeth Parish Advisory Board.

Mark Lee, another director of Holland Producers, is the deputy parish manager of RADA, St Elizabeth.

Chairman of RADA, Nigel Myrie, has ordered an audit of the benefits the authority has provided to the 184 farmers who have been allotted lands on the property.

A Gleaner team visited the Holland property on Tuesday and spoke with employees of a farm store and the managing company’s offices. Workers were also observed in a just-sprayed pine field. A fence, which the team was told was erected to control marauding cattle, was also spotted.

“Me would love piece of the land, but we nah go get any because we nuh have the money like the big man dem who can do transport and tings,” one worker said.

Holland Producers Limited only provides oversight management for the property on behalf of the farmers and none of the directors get any benefit from the company, Hutchinson said.

He has also signalled that the Government will be pursuing a formal lease arrangement with Holland Producers now that the 12-month period during which the company was allowed, without making financial commitments, to determine the viability of the land ended on June 30.

The company was registered with the Companies Office of Jamaica on May 16, 2019 and got possession less than two months later.

Opposition Spokesman on Agriculture Victor Wright has alleged that the arrangements put Holland Producers at a disproportionate advantage over other interests and cannot be allowed to stand.

Holland Estate is located in the St Elizabeth North Western constituency that Hutchinson, a Jamaica Labour Party deputy leader, represents in Parliament.

And Marshall-Williams is the party’s constituency liaison officer to the Electoral Office of Jamaica.

Hutchinson is pushing for the establishment of the Holland property as an agro-economic zone and the first major project where “small farmers have been put at the heart of development with no middleman”.

The Holland property comprises 2,400 acres of land but some sections have been earmarked for the Airport Authority of Jamaica and cattle pasture.