Sat | May 8, 2021

‘I’m not going to lap my tail’ - PS defiant in wake of PAC grilling

Published:Thursday | February 4, 2021 | 12:19 AM
Colette Roberts Risden said she won't be hounded out of her job as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.
Colette Roberts Risden said she won't be hounded out of her job as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

Jovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter Colette Roberts Risden, the embattled permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS), has asserted that she will not be going anywhere as lawmakers push for accountability over the...

Jovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter

Colette Roberts Risden, the embattled permanent secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security (MLSS), has asserted that she will not be going anywhere as lawmakers push for accountability over the exposure of $3.3 billion to loss or misuse at the ministry.

At the same time, a senior spokesperson for the Holness administration has pushed back against allegations that there’s a “plot” to oust the top civil servant who, reportedly, does not enjoy the confidence of her portfolio minister, Karl Samuda.

“I’m not going to cower. I’m not going to lap my tail, and I’m not going to walk away,” Roberts Risden is reported to have told some of her senior directors during an “urgent” meeting she called at the ministry’s North Street offices on Wednesday morning.

But she urged her colleagues unwilling to work as a team to retreat.

“If a person does not want to be part of the team and does not want to take part in moving the ministry forward, then you need to find a way to excuse yourself ... . Whatever hatchet or motive people have, remember the country,” she is reported to have said.

The meeting followed Tuesday’s sitting of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC), whose members, mostly government representatives, flayed her over a “culture of unresponsiveness” to internal audit findings while accusing her of being derelict in her duties.

The Gleaner further understands that the permanent secretary, who left Gordon House in tears, warned that if she is viewed negatively, “the ministry will look bad and we all will look bad”.

Roberts Risden has declined to speak about the meeting, which was more than an hour long.

The alleged comments, however, have reportedly not gone down well with some officials, who claim that they left feeling “intimidated” and “threatened”.

“Who is she talking to when she is saying people are not part of the team? And who must excuse themselves?” asked one attendee, who was not authorised to speak with the media.

“Public servants did their work, and it is their work that has exposed the ills at the ministry. Is she saying that they are not part of the team?”

The permanent secretary was grilled over the auditor general’s 2020 annual report released last month, which highlighted struggles of the internal audit unit to get the management, including the permanent secretary, to respond to a range of findings, including 60 specific concerns.

Roberts Risden is the chief accounting officer for the ministry, a fact PAC members reminded her of in their unusually aggressive questioning of the senior civil servant.

“You and your team acted in flagrant disregard to the guidelines,” Donovan Williams declared, followed by Heroy Clarke, who said, “You have to sit in the hot seat and take the blame”.

Noting that she was not aware of the 60 issues until the auditor general’s report, Roberts Risden maintained that even without a paper trail, many of the issues that she inherited in 2015 had been addressed.

Ministry loyalists of Roberts Risden have alleged that the fierce questioning of their boss, led by the government members of the PAC, was proof of a “plot” to have the permanent secretary removed from the ministry.

The relationship between the PS and Minister Samuda reportedly tanked soon after his tenure started in September last year because of an undisclosed procurement issue that the minister felt slighted by.

Robert Morgan, a junior minister in the information ministry, on Wednesday, dismissed the claim of a plot.

“You could make an argument if you wish about the questioning, but then you would have to base that argument on whether the questioning was fair or unfair,” said Morgan at a post-Cabinet press briefing.

“I cannot make such a judgement. That’s for the committee to decide in their right as legislators in how they interrogate matters that are before them.”

The Ministry of Labour and Social Security has been at the centre of a scandal over the exposure of $3.3 billion to loss or misuse over the past two years and the Sunday Gleaner-uncovered questionable financial dealings at the National Insurance Fund.

Messages and telephone calls to Samuda, who has held his tongue since the scandal broke, have gone unanswered.

The ministry is scheduled to return to the PAC next Tuesday.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com