Wed | Sep 22, 2021

‘My hands are clean’ - Hutchinson’s partner reportedly quits RADA board amid sweetheart deal saga

Published:Sunday | July 19, 2020 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporter

Lola Marshall-Williams, the partner of Cabinet Minister J.C. Hutchinson, who has been punished over his role in the Holland Estate sweetheart deal saga, has declared that her hands are clean in the latest scandal that has erupted in the Andrew Holness administration.

“I am wonderfully made. I am blessed. The Lord is with me and all is well,” she told The Sunday Gleaner. “My hands are clean, my heart is clean. I have no animosity towards anyone and my blessings come from the Lord.”

The Sunday Gleaner has learnt that Marshall-Williams has submitted her resignation from the board of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) and the St Elizabeth RADA Parish Advisory Board, which she chairs.

Asked to confirm, she directed queries to Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw, who The Sunday Gleaner was unable to reach as telephone calls went unanswered.

“If I serve, or used to serve, I would have done so at the minster’s pleasure,” she said.

On Friday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that Hutchinson was being stripped of his responsibility for agriculture within the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries (MICAF) as part of a response to last week’s Sunday Gleaner report which raised questions about how his partner’s company was selected to manage the Holland Estate lands.

President of the Jamaica Agricultural Society, Lenworth Fulton, says he welcomes the developments, including the halting of all land distributions “until a proper audit is done to see if anything out there was either political or illegal”.

“It needs a reform, it needs a review and it should not be that every time an election is coming up, either with the PNP (People’s National Party) or the JLP (Jamaica Labour Party), there is this great haste to give away government land,” he said.

In his statement, Holness said there were “clear breaches” of established procedures, although he was “satisfied” that Hutchinson’s intent was to make the lands available to small farmers.

Hutchinson, himself, later on issued an apology, saying he was “wrong” and that the “course of action I chose cannot be defended”.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST

That admission followed days of denial and rejection of suggestions that his action in recommending Holland Producers Limited, in which Marshall-Williams was a director and shareholder, to take over the 2,400-acre property last July raised conflicts of interest concerns.

“I don’t see any conflict of interest. A company applies for leasing a property. It has nothing to do with me. Whether she sits on the board or whatever her other activities are, if she’s part of the company, makes an application for the land, what is the problem there?” Hutchinson had said.

He had also made it clear that his ministry did not recommend the company to the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings, contradicting the entity’s managing director, Joseph Shoucair, who said he acted on the advice of a MICAF official whom he refused to name.

Forty-eight hours later and with pressure mounting, Hutchinson issued a statement admitting that he did write to the SCJ “introducing” the company and asking for guidance.

But he did not reveal that he told the SCJ, which manages the Government’s sugar assets, to “immediately” hand over the lands to Holland Producers, according to a copy of the April 30, 2019 letter obtained by our news team.

UNAWARE OF SON’S BUSINESS

News also emerged that Hutchinson and Marshall-Williams’ son, Jason, was operating a business on the state-owned property. Hutchinson said he did not know. Holness has said steps should be taken to terminate any arrangements that allow for non-farm commercial operations on the lands.

The Holland Estate is located in the St Elizabeth North Western constituency which Hutchinson represents in Parliament for the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

The SCJ said it did not know that Jason was doing business on the lands, and neither could the entity speak definitively on whether it was aware that Holland Producers was leasing lands and charging farmers $9,000 per acre.

The issue of the sublease has emerged as a concern since Holland Producers was never in formal lease arrangement with the Government.

The SCJ had given the company 12 months as part of a “due diligence” period during which to determine whether it wanted to use the lands for farming, and according to Hutchinson, to clear the land of cattle.

That period ended on June 30, and with the prime minister halting all ongoing SCJ land transactions in progress and transferring Holland Estate to the Agricultural Investment Corporation, the future of Holland Producers’ engagement with the property is uncertain.

The Government says 184 farmers were allotted lands on the estate.

Hutchinson has explained that he needed to act quickly after the lands were returned to the Government last year to prevent squatting and cattle invasion.

Holness has taken Hutchinson, a JLP deputy leader, under his wings at the Office of the Prime Minister and replaced him at MICAF with Leslie Campbell.

RADA has been one of the key government bodies supporting farmers.

Mark Lee, its deputy parish manager for St Elizabeth, is a director of Holland Producers.

The Opposition People’s National Party had called for the Integrity Commission to probe the issue.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com