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Green light for new phone firm - Holness rejects OCG recommendation, grants cellular licence to holding company

Published:Tuesday | September 13, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Andrew Holness

The true beneficiaries of Jamaica's third cellular licence remain under a cloud as the Government has admitted that in doing its due diligence, it did not go beyond the names submitted on the application by Symbiote Investments Limited.

Symbiote is the holding company for Caricel, the firm that will provide the telecoms service.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday announced that his administration will grant the $2.7-billion licence to Symbiote, rejecting Contractor General Dirk Harrison's July recommendation not to do so "pending substantive due diligence checks on the applicants".

"After careful consideration and advice, the Government has decided to proceed," Holness said, adding that in arriving at the decision, meetings were held with the Jamaica Constabulary Force, Spectrum Management Authority (SMA), the Office of Utilities Regulation, and Symbiote representatives.

"We did our due diligence," he declared.

However, Peter Bunting, opposition spokesman on national security, was not satisfied and tested Holness' declaration when Technology Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley answered questions on the issue that were due for response from June 9.

"Will the minister disclose the directors, shareholders, and ultimate beneficial shareholders of this entity?" Bunting asked.

Wheatley said: "The directors of Symbiote, at the date of application (October 14, 2015), were Natalie Neil, Undell Williams, Lowell Lawrence", the same people being shareholders, with the addition of Minnett Lawrence and Narysingh Limited, which is incorporated in St Lucia.

Bunting, however, queried who the shareholders of Narysingh Limited were and their percentage holding.

Wheatley, with advice from Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, said the shareholders are Natalie Neil, Undell Williams, Lowell Lawrence and Minnett Lawrence - all with equal shares.

Holness and other government members accused Bunting of being "unfair" with his line of questioning.

"If somebody is applying to you for a licence, and you have the discretion whether or not to issue that licence, it is not fair for you to ask 'Who am I ultimately dealing with?'" Bunting asked after Wheatley pointed him to the Companies Office for further clarification.

Finance Minister Audley Shaw intervened, asking Bunting whether he had queried the same issue when the matter came before the previous Portia Simpson Miller Cabinet of which he was apart. That administration conditionally approved the licence on February 15, days before the general election.

The condition was based on assessments from the Financial Investigations Division that have now been used by the Holness administration in granting the full licence.

Bunting has argued that since he tabled his questions in May and [since] the subsequent OCG report in July, "directors have been added, directors have been removed, and shareholders have been changed".

"Who are we dealing with?" he asked in the House of Representatives.

The OCG report noted that four people were removed as directors of Symbiote on July 1, including George Neil, who was added a month before.

The contractor general advised Wheatley not to sign the licence, stating that variations of Neil's name on documents suggested an attempt to mislead the Government as well as the presence of adverse findings involving Neil arising from a 2009 OCG probe.

Meanwhile, the prime minister, in admitting to the loopholes in the licensing system, said the attorney general had recommended "placing a duty on non-natural persons who are applying for telecommunications licences to provide all required and relevant information about their shareholders, directors and other officers".

Symbiote's attorney, Patrick Bailey, who had rejected the OCG's findings, said the Government's decision to grant the licence was "mature".

"The prime minister carefully considered the relevant factors and came to a mature decision to facilitate a major investment in telecommunications [and] that the investors had broken no law. This provides a platform for further competition in the field," Bailey told The Gleaner.

Meanwhile, Symbiote could face sanctions if the SMA proves allegations that it has been using the spectrum licence without final approval.