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Outameni lawsuit

Published:Thursday | November 13, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness.-Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer

Opposition considers suing Gov't over NHT purchase

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner writer

As pressure mounts on the Portia Simpson Miller administration over the controversial National Housing Trust (NHT) purchase of the property on which the Outameni Experience sits, the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has signalled that it is mulling court action.

"We are looking at the legal ramifications of the project and will be saying more about that in the very near future," said JLP General Secretary, Dr Horace Chang.

With Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller claiming that NHT has not purchased the business known as Outameni Experience but the property at Orange Grove on which it is located, well-placed sources in the JLP divulged that litigation is the most likely option.

Meanwhile, there were behind the scenes ripples in sections of the Government last night into this morning in the aftermath of Simpson Miller's presentation in Parliament on Tuesday, with one member declaring: "I am a dejected, disgruntled and bitter Comrade."

Questions were raised in the PNP about Simpson Miller's claim that as Prime Minister with direct portfolio responsibility for the NHT, she only became aware of the March 2013 transaction in October 2014 - a year and a half later when it was published in the newspaper (The Gleaner).

JLP insiders told The Gleaner that Opposition Leader Andrew Holness is expected to detail at Sunday's annual conference of the JLP, how the party plans to proceed in its agitation against the decision by the NHT Board to engage in the transaction.

Lawyers associated with the opposition party spent yesterday exploring the responses to questions tabled by Holness last week, as well as the supplementary ones fired by other parliamentarians at Tuesday's fiery sitting of the House of Representatives.

"If it's property that has been purchased, as the prime minister has claimed, then we need an explanation as to the basis of that valuation and how it was

arrived at - that at $18 million per acre," said Chang.

Describing the absence of transparency as seriously problematic, political analyst Dr Hume Johnson said further clarifications are necessary despite Simpson Miller's intervention.

She said while it would be a shame not to capitalise on such a venture, "however, if this is now the responsibility of the housing department (ministry), what is the role of the tourism ministry?" she said.

Added Johnson: "What the Government is obliged to reveal to the public is the reason for the NHT's involvement in the purchase of a tourism product."

She said it is important to find out whether the NHT has expanded its mandate of providing housing solutions to Jamaicans to include tourism products and heritage promotion."

Johnson suggested that the Government must clarify to the Jamaican public what they intend to do with the property.

"If the Outameni Experience is not part of the sale as (the) prime minister indicates, what shall become of it? Is it the intent of the NHT to dispense with the Outameni Experience?"

Added Johnson: "Outameni, after all, is an important tourism product that presents a more comprehensive cultural offering of Jamaica that transcends the sun, sand and sea model of promoting brand Jamaica."

As did chairman of the board Easton Douglas and the minutes of the board meeting of March 14, 2014, Simpson Miller said the NHT board had paid $180 million for the property and indicated that it would be spending another $100 million to effect refurbishing work.

But as Opposition members frowned at Simpson Miller, she dropped another bombshell on Tuesday when she announced that another $20 million is to be shelled out to purchase Outameni's brand and equipment.

Simpson Miller said the board had advised her that the decision to purchase the property at Orange Grove in Trelawny and not the attraction known as Outameni Experience was firmly grounded on the NHT Act of 1979.

The prime minister said that she was told by the board that in addition to the statutory mandate to add to and improve the existing supply of housing and to enhance the usefulness of the funds of the Trust by promoting greater efficiency in the housing sector, it was empowered to do more.

These include providing finance for social services and physical infrastructure for communities developed under the projects and to administer and invest monies for the NHT.

Lawyers are reportedly contending that while the Government is banking on Section 4:2 of the NHT Act, it does not give the board or the prime minister carte blanche to act on its own free will.