Wed | Aug 12, 2020

In the dark - SCJ says it was unaware JC’s son operated store on sugar lands

Published:Thursday | July 16, 2020 | 12:21 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter
Joseph Shoucair, managing director of Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings.
Joseph Shoucair, managing director of Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings.

The government entity that manages the country’s sugar lands said it did not know that the son of de facto Agriculture Minister J.C. Hutchinson was operating a business at Holland Estate in St Elizabeth.

Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings has also disclosed that it was reviewing arrangements at the property, which has been under the management of Holland Producers Limited, a company with links to the minister.

SCJ Managing Director Joseph Shoucair, who made the revelations, said he learnt that Holland Farm and Garden Supplies was doing business on the estate through the media.

Shoucair said that he had “absolutely no knowledge” about the process that led to Jason Hutchinson’s company being permitted to operate on government lands.

This development follows Wednesday’s admission by the elder Hutchinson, a minister in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries, (MICAF), that he was not aware that his son, Jason, had a business on the 2,400-acre property.

Jason’s mother, Lola Marshall-Williams, is Minister Hutchinson’s live-in partner. Up to earlier this week, she was a director and shareholder of Holland Producers, whose selection to manage the lands since July 2019 has been shrouded in controversy.

Jason’s company and Holland Producers were registered with the Companies Office of Jamaica on the same day – May 16, 2019 - and just over two weeks after Minister Hutchinson backed his partner’s company to get control of the lands.

Shoucair, meanwhile, has declined to say whether Holland Producers was allowed to sublease the lands to small farmers and impose charges on the tenants - at a monthly cost of $9,000 per acre - despite not paying the Government for its one-year possession of the farmlands.

The Gleaner has obtained a receipt, purportedly stamped by Holland Producers, showing payments by a farmer to whom lands were leased.

A copy of a lease agreement between Holland Producers and a farmer has also been seen.

DUE DILIGENCE

Shoucair insists, however, that SCJ Holdings did not lease the property to Holland Producers and pointed to the 12-month arrangement, which ended on June 30, 2020, in which the company was expected to conduct due diligence to determine whether it would go into a formal agreement with the Government.

“There is quite a bit of learning as to what due diligence is,” he said, declaring that he would not comment on the reported actions of Holland Producers.

“What SCJ agreed to was due diligence,” he stressed, repeatedly.

On a leg of his media tour on Wednesday in which he rejected claims of conflicts of interest, Hutchinson said that all Holland Producers was expected to do was to “go and get off the animals” that posed a headache for J. Wray & Nephew, the company that operated the lands before returning them to the Government last year.

The SCJ Holdings boss said that he has held discussions with Hutchinson and Holland Producers since The Sunday Gleaner broke the story but declined to comment on the nature of those talks.

Leaked documents have revealed that Hutchinson was instrumental in helping his partner’s company get the approval to manage the lands for the 12-month period.

The documents have contradicted his initial statements to this newspaper in which he claimed that the ministry played no role and that all determination was left up to SCJ, which, however, has claimed that it only followed the advice of the ministry.

It has subsequently been revealed that Hutchinson had written to the SCJ on April 30, 2019, telling Shoucair to “immediately” give possession of the lands to Holland Producers.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson has said that he does not see why his resignation would be necessary but has admitted that he could have made a declaration to Parliament’s Ethics Committee on the connections he shared with Marshall-Williams.

“It’s heart-rending knowing where I am coming from and being dragged over this thing. It grieves me,” he said.

The Public Administration and Appropriations Committee of Parliament has invited SCJ and the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) to a meeting next week over the controversy.

Marshall-Williams is a director of RADA and chairperson for the entity’s St Elizabeth Parish Advisory Board. The entity has been supporting farmers on Holland Estate.

Telephone calls to Hutchinson’s son to query how he got authorisation to set up his business on government property have gone unanswered.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com