Update | ‘No coincidence’
Bernard says JCTE privatisation occurred the week after he was transferred; Grace McLean sent on leave
Sidelined Permanent Secretary Dean-Roy Bernard has charged that the privatisation of the controversial Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE) was effected shortly after his exit as chief accounting officer of the Ministry of Education and...
Sidelined Permanent Secretary Dean-Roy Bernard has charged that the privatisation of the controversial Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE) was effected shortly after his exit as chief accounting officer of the Ministry of Education and blamed the blurring of lines by Cecil Cornwall for the simmering scandal.
Bernard made his claims in the wake of his successor, acting permanent secretary Dr Grace McLean, being sent on a leave of absence Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the tabling of a damning report by Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis alleging impropriety by both in the payment of $124 million by the ministry to the JCTE.
A major probe is expected to begin shortly after the auditor general recommended that Education Minister Fayval Williams call in the police or an anti-corruption watchdog to investigate the matter.
Bernard said that, before he was transferred from the education ministry, he was dealing with the JCTE as a public entity comprising principals and vice-principals of tertiary bodies.
“The week after I left the ministry, the 22nd of February, 2019, the JCTE was privatised. There is no coincidence, because there was now the idea that it would morph into a private entity and would not account for funds transferred to it,” Bernard told The Gleaner on Wednesday..
Bernard, who has taken the Government to court over his transfer, said that the JCTE would have performed its function up to his departure in February 2019. He argued that the nub of the auditor general's concern was not that the JCTE ought not to have obtained those funds at that time but that there was no oversight of how the money was spent.
“There is nothing to say that work was done and money passed and there was no value for money. It is the stiff-neckedness of the chairman Dr Cecil Cornwall that is creating a mess,” Bernard lamented.
“On the one hand he is saying he is private, but he continues to use the Government's TRN,” he added.
In the special audit report into the JCTE which was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, the auditor general recommended that the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service institute surcharge action against Bernard and McLean on the basis that both officers failed in their fiduciary duty.
But in a Gleaner interview on Wednesday, Bernard said he had done nothing wrong, noting that he did not see a copy of the auditor general's report until the document was tabled in Parliament.
In a pre-dawn appearance at the education ministry on Wednesday, The Gleaner understands that McLean went to her Heroes Circle office and collected some items.
The Office of the Prime Minister said on Wednesday evening that Maureen Dwyer, chief inspector in the National Education Inspectorate, will assume McLean's acting role effective today.
“The Government anticipates that the investigations will be thorough and expeditious,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness' office said.
In her report, Monroe Ellis had revealed that, based on HEART Trust's financial records, $75 million was transferred to the JCTE between September 2017 and September 2018, to train 250 students in the Occupational Associate Degree (OAD) programme.
At the same time, the decision to transfer funds directly to the JCTE in order to fund a unit within the education ministry was questionable, said Monroe Ellis, given that the project charter gave management responsibility for the programme to the ministry via the Centre of Occupational Studies (COS).
The auditor general reported that the HEART/NSTA Trust could not confirm that the $75 million transferred to the JCTE was utilised to provide funds to the COS in the ministry, as stipulated in the project charter.
McLean indicated that the ministry did not receive any funds from the JCTE.
From late 2016 to early 2019, Bernard was the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education.
Bernard said he joined the ministry in November 2016 and, therefore, might have signed the letter requesting a TRN for the JCTE.
“People would have to write to me and justify it, and it could be that there could have been deceptive comments at the time that I would have relied on, and some kind of hoodwinking,” he said.
At the same time, Bernard said it was only fair that, as the person being audited, a copy of the draft report should have been sent to him so that he could provide a response.
As pressure mounts on the education ministry, the embattled McLean is no stranger to controversy.
The Auditor General's 2020 report on a special audit of the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) indicated that a company belonging to Cornwall, the JCTE chairman, sponsored a party for McLean.
In the same report, the auditor general pointed out that public officers were forbidden from soliciting or accepting gifts in accordance with Section 4.3 of the Staff Orders (2004).
In July 2020, the acting permanent secretary struggled to explain to a parliamentary oversight committee why she gave the green light for the spending of $400,000 in 2018 to stage a surprise birthday party for Fritz Pinnock, the sidelined president of the CMU who is facing corruption charges in the CMU scandal.
The acting permanent secretary told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that she was asked by then Education Minister Ruel Reid to coordinate the party. She said at the time, that Ministry of Finance Circular No. 25 was used as an overarching guide to carry out the directive. (Reid resigned in 2019 amid a corruption scandal and is facing fraud charges along with his wife and daughter, as well as a municipal councillor).
However, at that time, Bernard told The Gleaner, he did not give permission to anyone at the ministry to use public funds to host any party for Pinnock.
“I did not give Dr McLean any such permission,” Bernard said plainly, noting that Circular 25 indicates that permission should be given by the head of the entity.
The document, according to McLean, indicated that money could be spent on major anniversaries, awards, and awards functions.
However, what is being described as a birthday party was not borne out by an invoice on which the Auditor General's Department reported earlier.
In her CMU report to Parliament, Monroe Ellis had said her department identified a payment amounting to $406,747.57, which was approved by the then chief education officer in respect of a surprise birthday party for the CMU president. McLean was the chief education officer at the time.
However, a review of payment vouchers and supporting documentation by the auditor general revealed that these payments were for “hosting meeting with the Caribbean Maritime University and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information on August 16, 2018”.
By way of a memorandum dated August 14, 2018, addressed to the then chief education officer from the project coordinator, a request was sought and obtained for the payment of $277,290 for hotel expenses. The approval was given by McLean on August 15, 2018, and the payment executed on the same day.
Editor's Note: Dean-Roy Bernard became permanent secretary in late 2016, not late 2017.