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PM, Golding wrestle over conflict of interest amid calls to pull Gabbidon as board chair

Published:Wednesday | December 15, 2021 | 12:13 AM
Edward Gabbidon, chairman of HEART.
Edward Gabbidon, chairman of HEART.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has expressed confidence in Edward Gabbidon as chairman of the HEART/NSTA Trust despite a litany of controversies plaguing the institution in recent times, including allegations of conflict of interest facing the board head.

But Leader of the Opposition Mark Golding on Tuesday cautioned the prime minister, who had earlier warned against persons “weaponising” conflicts of interest and connected parties in the public sector.

According to Holness, the HEART/NSTA Trust chairman’s company had been doing business with the agency long before he was appointed chairman.

“We have to be careful how we seek to vilify persons who enter public life to give service,” Holness declared during a question-and-answer session in Parliament.

St Andrew South East Member of Parliament Julian Robinson had asked the prime minister questions regarding the spending of $5.6 million by the board of HEART/NSTA Trust to hold a retreat at the Moon Palace Jamaica Resort in Ocho Rios, St Ann, between October 7 and 10 this year.

Responding to concerns from opposition lawmakers, Holness said, “Not every conflict of interest suggests corruption. In a small country like Jamaica, it is almost going to be inescapable, and that is why you have these standards.”

The prime minister made it clear that disclosure must be made to boards and that there has to be transparency in processes.

According to Holness, when the issue arose, “What I had to check in terms of the chairman I appointed ... that if there were any involvements, any conflicts or connected party issues that they would have been declared to the prescribed authority, in this case the board.”

But Golding indicated that the prime minister’s remarks about weaponising conflicts of interest were misplaced, arguing that the discussion should rather be about “excising it and bringing it to an end because it has become an epidemic”.

“PM, HEART is a strategic agency. That chairman has had issues raised. If I were you, I would remove him and install a new board,” Golding told Holness.

Manchester North West Member of Parliament Mikael Phillips, who also chairs the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), said the oversight body received correspondence from the legal department of HEART/NSTA Trust stating that it had not “been furnished with a copy of a declaration of interest or have sight of same”.

Phillips said that the prime minister should have appointed Gabbidon to another board and not HEART.

“Why appoint him as chairman of the same board of the entity (of which) he is a major supplier?” asked Phillips.

Commenting on the issue, Robinson said that he found the $5.6-million retreat expenditure excessive at a time when Jamaicans have had to “band dem belly” owing to the impact of COVID-19.

He said that HEART/NSTA Trust’s contributions had declined because employers would have cut back.

“I believe everybody has to share and show regard for the challenges that the country is going through,” said the St Andrew South East MP.

Robinson pointed out that HEART had options, noting that the agency owns the Runaway Bay HEART Academy where it trains tourism workers.

“So if you decided you want to have an off-site retreat, you could have gone there. I have been there. I sat on the HEART board. It’s a great facility. It could have been used if you wanted to go to the north coast. You could have gone to a hotel in the Corporate Area. I find it excessive.”

Robinson said the spending was symptomatic of a broader problem that had been affecting the training agency.

Listing the concerns, Robinson said: “You have a chairman who is in a conflict of interest about contracts awarded to his company. You have senior management that awarded themselves salary increases of 20, 30, 40 per cent and then had to get it retroactively approved by the Ministry of Finance, when Nigel (Clarke) is going to only give us four per cent for the public sector.”

He also said that students had completed their studies at the institution and could not get their certificates.

Robinson said further that HEART was not satisfying the interest of its external stakeholders but was inwardly focused.

“I am saying to you, Prime Minister, as the minister responsible, this institution was started by your mentor, Edward Phillip George. You have to take hold of it. The retreat is just one example, but there are many other issues and it is not fulfilling its mandate,” he said.

A breakdown of the sums spent for the retreat saw accommodation, meals and technology support costing $4.1 million. A facilitator was paid $800,000 and a strategic coach received a little more than $664,000. The prime minister said that the costs were in keeping with standard market rates.