Sun | Jun 13, 2021

McLean need not recuse self in ministry probe – Gov’t

Published:Thursday | May 6, 2021 | 12:27 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter
Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education.
Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education.

The Holness administration has played down concerns that acting Permanent Secretary Dr Grace McLean’s authority in the education ministry poses a conflict of interest to the ongoing investigation of programmes for which she held responsibilities.

But the parliamentary Opposition is insisting that the Government must make it clear to Jamaicans that McLean will have no role in the provision of responses to auditors.

On April 19, Education Minister Fayval Williams announced that she had asked the Auditor General’s Department to expand a probe of the ministry to include the Career Advancement Programme (CAP) and the Centre of Occupational Studies (COS) following revelations from a Gleaner investigation.

During her tenure as chief education officer (2009-2019), McLean held responsibilities for CAP and COS, which themselves had partnerships with the Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JTCE) and the Cecil Cornwall-led Western Hospitality Institute (WHI) – two entities facing the auditor general’s scrutiny.

Although the programmes were led by directors, McLean did not have a hands-off approach, playing a crucial role in decision-making, including attending routine meetings up to the time she became acting permanent secretary in February 2019.

“Those directors were administrators who took instructions from the chief education officer. They were programme directors, not divisional directors. Only the chief made decisions on things like costing and expenditures,” said an official of the ministry not authorised to speak on the matter.

As acting permanent secretary and the ministry’s chief accounting officer, McLean will have to oversee and approve the ministry’s response to whatever findings emerge from the auditor general’s investigation of the initiatives and partnerships she controlled.

Junior Education Minister Robert Morgan, to whom Williams deferred on Wednesday when the question about a potential for conflicts of interest was raised, said the query was “treading along a very dangerous ground”.

He argued during a post-Cabinet press briefing that the Government could open itself to a lawsuit if the suggestion is that McLean be asked to recuse herself on the basis “of an accusation not yet borne out in fact”.

Morgan said the ministry is “very committed” to probity, transparency, and accountability, which is why, he added, Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis was called in after the Gleaner report.

However, Opposition Spokesperson on Education Dr Angela Brown Burke isn’t satisfied, arguing that “it would be a very untidy situation for her (McLean) to oversee the ministry’s response to programmes she has managed”.

“I am sure the person leading would need to speak with those who had responsibilities for the programmes. She cannot report to herself. The Jamaican taxpayers deserve the greatest transparency in this matter,” Brown Burke said in a statement.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica said the ministry should consult with the auditor general to address concerns about the audit’s independence.

Before a restructuring exercise last year, CAP and COS were the Government’s multibillion-dollar flagship progammes developed to provide certification in vocational areas, such as hospitality, to thousands of children who left grade 11 without qualifications.

CAP was established in 2010 and has been under the ministry’s direct control since 2013 while COS was set up in July 2016.

The Gleaner’s investigation revealed that the WHI was the largest financial beneficiary from the CAP and COS programmes at the same time the institution’s president led CAP’s oversight committee and the JCTE.

Cornwall was the architect of the COS and has admitted pushing the appointment of at least one of its directors.

The JCTE, meanwhile, negotiated with CAP on how its members (tertiary institutions) could benefit from ministry programmes and received millions in commission for coordinating implementation of CAP and COS courses.

It was also revealed that CAP and COS’s staff structure have, over time, been revolving doors for WHI employees, including in 2019 when Jahraski Young left his job as WHI principal to take up the directorship at COS.

The JCTE was the entity that shocked officials last year after it became private in February 2019, blocking the auditor general’s investigation into use of government funds connected to the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) scandal.

The Auditor General’s 2020 report on a special audit of the CMU indicated that a company belonging to Cornwall sponsored a party for McLean.

Questioned yesterday whether she shared any business relationship with Cornwall, McLean said: “I can say with all sincerity that I have no business relationship with anyone within or outside of the ministry.”

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm