Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke has ordered a probe into the operations of the National Irrigation Commission (NIC) following questionable pre-election spending amounting to millions of dollars. The money was spent on December 23, 2011, days before the general election which saw the Jamaica Labour Party being booted from office.
The Sunday Gleaner has confirmed that Clarke has asked Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis to conduct a probe of the agency, which operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Donovan Stanberry, permanent secretary in the ministry, last week told The Sunday Gleaner that Clarke called in the Auditor General's Department shortly after he was appointed to head the ministry last year.
Among the alleged improprieties are contracts valued at $2.43 million, which were all prepared and approved on December 23, 2011.
The paperwork for the contracts was marked urgent and speedily given the nod by the finance ministry.
Copies of the contracts sourced by The Sunday Gleaner show at least nine, valuing $270,000 each, which was payment for water supplied to farmers under the Water Harvesting Programme.
A memorandum dated December 23, 2011 from Winston Shaw, acting manager of the NIC's On-Farm Water Management Unit, to its chief executive officer, Douglas Walker, explains the contracts.
In addition, a notation from the director of finance at the NIC, Tafari Burry, on each contract, declared, "Please prepare cheques for TODAY (December 23, 2011), thanks."
The contracts bore the names and addresses of the individual contractors, seven of whom are from St Mary and two from Manchester.
Additionally, copies of five pro forma invoices to hardware stores in Manchester and St Ann, totalling $342,507.12 for eleven 1,000-gallon water tanks, are among the documents sourced by Sunday Gleaner.
The invoice for the hardware stores stated that the "water tanks were required for the irrigation water storage tank project for selected small farmers in St Mary".
However, Stanberry said he has never seen the contracts.
"I frankly don't know of those contracts. I don't know how those contracts arose, and I don't know who are the beneficiaries or what was the arrangement.
"But what I can tell you is that shortly after the general election, there were some rumblings about contracts of that nature," said Stanberry.
"Prompted by the rumblings of impropriety, the minister of agriculture has, in fact, written to the auditor general to conduct an audit there. But I would not say the audit was specific to the rumblings surrounding these contracts," added Stanberry.
According to the permanent secretary, the only water-harvesting programme he was aware of was the United States Food and Agriculture Organization-funded programme, which was set up for demonstration purposes to show farmers how they could harvest water from rainfall.
NO MONEY GIVEN OUT
"That programme is fully transparent and closed off. Outside of that, I don't know of any other water-harvesting programme. And furthermore, we don't operate any of our programmes by giving money to individuals.
"None of our benefit programmes involves giving cash. Whether we give out seeds or not, it's never cash."
Stanberry said his office would also conduct investigations, even though with the NIC being an autonomous agency, his permission would not be needed in such an arrangement.
"The NIC has the power to enter into contracts without the permission of the ministry or minister. So I wouldn't sign a contract - even if it were legitimate - between NIC and anybody.
"It would only come to me if it has to go to the National Contracts Commission, if it is of that value," said Stanberry.
The NIC is an autonomous agency in the Ministry of Agriculture, which was established in 1986 and became operational in May 1987. It is mandated to manage, operate, maintain and expand such existing and future irrigation schemes and systems as one established by the Government or any department or agency.
The NIC is also mandated to fix and collect the rates or charges and to be paid for the use of such water. It maintains an islandwide presence through six district offices located in key irrigation areas.
In April 2012, the Cabinet approved a
new board for the NIC, led by Hopeton