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EDITORIAL: PM needs to clear air on AA-Bartlett deal

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Although he is often accused of injecting the data with steroids and of providing overoptimistic analyses of the sector's performance, Ed Bartlett, Jamaica's tourism minister, has earned credit for delivering modest growth in visitor arrivals in a difficult global environment.

With his cherubic countenance, engaging personality and general good humour, people, by and large, are well-disposed to Mr Bartlett. But he now faces a charge that will require more than past performances and charm to overcome. At the same time, Prime Minister Bruce Golding's response to the issue will say much about his eloquently declared, and often repeated, commitment to accountability and transparency in government.

Mr Bartlett is accused by Contractor General Greg Christie of misleading his Cabinet colleagues about the origins of an airlift guarantee agreement between Jamaica and American Airlines (AA) which, with the complicity of two public officials, John Lynch and Lionel Reid, was consummated, even though Cabinet had asked for further consultations and alternative proposals.

The substantive allegations against these officials apart, this case raises broader questions about existing mechanisms for the follow-up of Cabinet directives and whether ministers are sometimes allowed to 'run with it' for reasons not open to public scrutiny.

This issue goes back to 2008 when Mr Bartlett controversially announced that the government agency, Jamaica Vacations Ltd (JamVac), had signed an agreement to provide additional flights to the island from the United States cities of Chicago, Dallas and Miami, for which Jamaica would guarantee up to US$4.5 million if American Airlines lost money on the routes. The idea was to provide more seats into Jamaica during a period of uncertainty.

unsolicited proposal

The problem is that in his brief to the Cabinet, Mr Bartlett told ministers that the deal was based on "a verbal, unsolicited proposal from American Airlines". In fact, it was the Jamaican officials who proposed the deal.

Curiously, that brief, of September 9, 2009 - which Cabinet asked to be withdrawn for the additional work - came at least a month after Mr Lynch, in his role as chairman of JamVac, had signed the deal that had been largely negotiated by Mr Reid, the agency's executive director. Contractor General Christie discovered no additional submissions to or approval by the Cabinet for the agreement.

Two things are inexplicable: the apparent hot pursuit of the deal with AA with, as Mr Christie observed, sparse evidence of other carriers being engaged; and telling the Cabinet that the proposal had been unsolicited when, as Messrs Bartlett and Lynch concede to Mr Christie, it was they who initiated the negotiations.

In many jurisdictions, such obvious misbehaviour or display of poor judgement by a minister and/or public officials would lead to their resignations, dismissal or public censure. The public, we are sure, will see how Prime Minister Golding handles this issue.

But there is also another issue to be addressed. While, as Mr Christie concluded, there was no apparent Cabinet authorisation for the deal with American Airlines, the fact that it was executed was no secret.

Prime Minister Golding ought to have been aware of this lack of authorisation and would have understood that substantial sums were involved. What did he or his aides do about it? Did they ask questions of Mr Bartlett?

Mr Golding needs to clear the air on this matter.

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