‘I would do it again’
Al Miller to accept national award despite two convictions
The Reverend Merrick ‘Al’ Miller could not believe what he had just heard after he answered his telephone while relaxing at home with his family last Monday.
The caller disclosed that he had been selected to receive a national honour, Commander of the Order of Distinction, and wanted to know if he would accept.
“I was a little surprised. A mean, I had to double-check wha the person a say, who was calling and if she know wha she a say,” Miller recounted to The Sunday Gleaner before agreeing to accept the award.
The popular and sometimes controversial clergyman stood out among the 144 persons who will collect national honours and awards on Heroes Day in October.
Another notable inclusion is House Speaker Marissa Dalrymple Philibert, who is to be conferred with the Order of Distinction in the rank of Commander.
The Sunday Gleaner reported last month that Dalrymple Philibert, an attorney-at-law, is on trial before the General Legal Council for allegations of professional misconduct over her handling of a client’s estate more than two decades ago.
Miller, though, has two criminal convictions, one of them for a corruption-related charge tied to what is widely considered to be the darkest period in modern Jamaican history.
But that was not going to stop the founder of Fellowship Tabernacle, the mega church located in St Andrew, from accepting the recognition.
“For me, there is nothing that I have done that I am ashamed of,” said Miller, referring to both convictions during an interview with The Sunday Gleaner hours after the award was made public on Friday.
Appearing to address his detractors, Miller pointed out that history is replete with stories of men and women who are either convicted or killed “for what they did all in service”.
“You can look at our own national heroes. Look what happened to a number of them, but is it true? Were they not convicted and even hung? Does that make it right, does that make it true? And what we must be committed to is the principle of truth and what is right,” he said.
At first glance, Miller’s inclusion on the list of honourees seemed “questionable”, said anti-corruption advocate Jeanette Calder.
“Because these decisions should be able to stand up to scrutiny and questions,” explained Calder, executive director of Jamaica Accountability Metre Portal, a corruption watchdog group.
On the flip side, however, she believes that it also presents an opportunity for redemption.
“In the designing of our society, should we not send a message that redemption is accessible and that no one act defines who we are,” Calder argued.
“If the sum of the contribution you have made to our society’s development is deemed greater, then this is a powerful message for the many who have fallen afoul of the law for us to say there is still a place at the table for your gifts.”
The National Honours and Awards Act, which was enacted in 1969, is silent on the criteria for the Order of Distinction in both the Commander and Officer class.
Both the regulations, which give teeth to the legislation, and the 2021 award nomination form, vaguely indicate that the Order, in both classes, can be conferred upon a citizen of Jamaica or any other country who renders “outstanding and important services to Jamaica”.
The committee of Cabinet that makes the decisions is “highly influenced” by their own political predilections, said the Reverend Ronnie Thwaites, a former Cabinet minister in the Portia Simpson Miller-led administration.
More than a decade ago, lawmakers appointed to a parliamentary committee expressed concern about the criteria used to select recipients of national honours and awards at both the local and national levels.
“The members are of the view that individuals should not be honoured or awarded based on the discretion of those making the recommendations and, therefore, propose that the System of National Honours and Awards be transparent,” the committee said in a 2009 report to Parliament.
Without naming Miller or Dalrymple Philibert, Thwaites, the former Kingston Central member of parliament, who also served on the committee, believes that generally the choices for national honours and awards “to some extent, not all, are so obviously questionable that they demean the whole texture of national honours”.
In 2019, eleven years after the committee first tabled its report in the House of Representatives, Culture Minister Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange signalled that the Government would revisit the issues raised in it.
“I have requested a copy of the report, which I will discuss with the chairman of the National Honours Committee and the prime minister,” Grange told The Gleaner during an August 2019 interview.
Yesterday, she committed to provide The Sunday Gleaner with an update on her efforts, but up to late afternoon she did not return several calls.
DID NOTHING WRONG
Miller’s first conviction for negligence resulting in the loss of his licensed firearm in 2011. The firearm was stolen from his car as he stopped to pick plums at a St Andrew school, he said at the time. He was sentenced to a fine of $80,000.
“I don’t know what was the issue there because it was stolen and recovered within a couple of weeks and I was instrumental in the recovery,” he said, arguing that it could have happened to anyone.
“There were another 16 firearms that were stolen that month in a similar manner.”
Five years later, in July 2016, Miller was found guilty of the more serious offence of attempting to pervert the course of justice and sentenced to a $1-million fine.
He was charged in 2010 after drug kingpin Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke was apprehended in his sport utility vehicle in St Catherine on June 22 that year. Miller is appealing the conviction.
Coke’s arrest ended weeks of mounting tension across the Jamaican capital, triggered by the months-long delay by the then Bruce Golding-led Government to authorise his extradition to the United States to face drug charges.
A month before the arrest, Coke mysteriously escaped his west Kingston stronghold of Tivoli Gardens after two days of fierce gun battle between the security forces and heavily armed thugs loyal to him.
When the shooting ended, 69 civilians and one member of the Jamaica Defence Force were killed in what became known as the Tivoli Gardens Incursion.
Miller has insisted that at all times the Jamaican police were aware that he was taking Coke to the US Embassy in St Andrew, to surrender.
This assertion was rejected by Simone Wolfe-Reece, the Parish Court judge who presided over his corruption trial.
Wolfe-Reece said she found, based on the evidence presented by prosecutors, that the popular pastor was “less than candid” with his account of what happened on the day Coke was captured.
“The evidence supports a finding of fact that he [Miller] was seeking to evade the local authorities,” said Wolfe-Reece, now a High Court judge.
Miller still believes that he did nothing wrong.
“That was service to country to do what I felt I had to do. There is absolutely no aspect of it, as far as I am concerned, that I did wrong,” he stated.
“So, what I did, I would do it again. I brought no shame to my God and certainly not to my country.”