Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Integrity Commission to probe Market Me, health ministry dealings

Published:Sunday | July 19, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Students at The University of the West Indies, Mona, at the January 2018 launch of Jamaica Moves Wellness Wednesday on the campus.
Market Me Director Lyndsey McDonnough and Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.
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The Integrity Commission has taken an interest in the controversy involving the Ministry of Health and Wellness and marketing firm Market Me Consulting Limited, setting the stage for a major probe into the ministry’s dealing with the company.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source at the State’s corruption watchdog agency told The Sunday Gleaner that there was a “small” initial briefing internally as the issue erupted, sending Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton on the defensive about more than $40 million worth of contracts awarded to Market Me.

Market Me is the company behind the Jamaica Moves physical fitness campaign, which is being promoted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness to bring awareness to the impact of non-communicable diseases and get Jamaicans, through a number of initiatives, to take steps to reduce the risk of contracting them.

The health ministry is undertaking an internal review of the process which led to the contract being awarded to Market Me, the newspaper understands.

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Dunstan Bryan, yesterday refused to confirm the review, but indicated to The Sunday Gleaner that the ministry will issue a statement on the situation tomorrow.

It has been revealed that the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) had rejected the renewal of a multimillion-dollar contract to the company. But that decision was reversed following a successful lobby by the ministry.

Companies Office of Jamaica records show that Market Me was incorporated on February 20, 2013, with Lyndsey McDonnough and Kristina Kerr as directors.

Both are listed as marketing specialists.

The company initially made an unsolicited proposal to the ministry in 2016 for a contract valued at $15.9 million, which was approved.

In May 2019, the ministry wanted to extend the contract, but the procurement authority objected, noting that there was no evidence that value for money had been achieved from the first contract and Market Me had not met the minimum required score in the bid document.

PROGRAMME DISRUPTION

But the permanent secretary led a ministry team that lobbied for a reversal. It was argued then that going to open market would have disrupted the Jamaica Moves programme, which was officially launched in April 2017.

The ministry officials – Permanent Secretary Bryan; Dr Simone Spence, acting director of health promotion and protection; and Trudy Brennan, acting director of procurement – argued further that the ministry was desirous of maintaining the look and feel of the programme as it had seen “positive results” coming from the campaign led by Market Me.

The PPC reversed its decision after the ministry reduced the contract period from two years to one.

However, the commission advised the ministry to put in place appropriate measures to ensure the project was put to tender before the contract period expired.

That renewed contract was worth $38.9 million.

But there are more questions regarding the unsolicited bid submitted by Market Me to the health ministry.

It has also been revealed that there had been a plan for a social media campaign aimed at getting Jamaicans ‘moving’ from 2013 in the ministry, three years before Market Me approached the Tufton-led ministry in 2016.

Sources have also revealed that Market Me had been awarded a number of contracts relating to other projects, other than the Jamaica Moves initiative, by the health ministry, “totalling millions of dollars”.

At a press conference last week, Tufton did not directly answer whether he had a close affiliation with any of the principals of Market Me.

“Yes, I have a great relationship with Market Me. I think they are an amazing company. They have delivered very effectively during my tenure as minister, and I have no difficulty in saying they work hard, and I enjoyed working with them,” Tufton responded.

Meanwhile, McDonnough, speaking on behalf of Market Me, declined to comment on the contract award process.

“On the instructions of my lawyer,” she told The Sunday Gleaner, “I currently have no comment. At the appropriate time, Market Me Consulting Limited will release a formal statement.”

OUTSOURCE LARGE CONTRACTS

Civil society advocate Carol Narcisse pointed out that the Government of Jamaica Procurement Handbook 1.2 noted that “An unsolicited proposal may be considered if it (a) demonstrates a unique and innovative concept, or demonstrates a unique capability of the contract; (b) offers a concept or service not otherwise available in Government”.

Narcisse further pointed out that the handbook said an unsolicited proposal may be considered if it does not resemble the substance of a recent, current, or pending competitive tender.

The health ministry has long had a capacity problem to implement large-scale health campaigns, a former senior official at the ministry told The Sunday Gleaner.

The official, who did not want to be identified in the story but has worked for more than a decade in the public health service, said it was usually the case that the ministry would outsource large campaigns.

However, those campaigns are usually not through unsolicited proposals, the official added.

Opposition Spokesman on Health Dr Morais Guy has also questioned whether the existence of multiple contracts between Market Me and the Ministry of Health and Wellness should trigger an investigation to ascertain whether Tufton used his position as the portfolio minister to steer, or influence – in part or whole – the contracts awarded to Market Me.

He said, if the claims were true, “it will amount to cronyism, nepotism, and the abuse of public office, which would then necessitate an immediate investigation by either the Integrity Commission or the Auditor General’s Department”.

editorial@gleanerjm.com