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Construction, the hustlers' magnet

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Gary Spaulding, Senior Gleaner Writer

FOR MANY years, the construction industry has been the magnet for hustlers looking to make a quick buck.

The industry has also been a feeding tree for corruption, particularly with regard to government projects.

The latest scam by corrupt persons infiltrating legitimate National Housing Trust (NHT) programmes appears to be part of the regular assault on the construction sector by con artists over the years.

Political analyst Richard 'Dickie' Crawford has argued that corruption in the construction sector often leads to cost escalation.

"The escalation clause is an open door for corruption," asserted Crawford.

He cited two factors which have given rise to corruption in the construction industry: large sums of money being spent over a short period, and the nature of the construction industry, which enables the padding of bills.

When the earthquake of January 1993 rocked the Parliament building, members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were bickering over the massive cost overrun - nearly twice the approximately $7 million projected - on the construction of the Blood Bank building on Slipe Pen Road in downtown Kingston.

With the Blood Bank sitting on the fringe of the People's National Party (PNP)-dominated South St Andrew and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)-dominated West Kingston, members of the PAC traded blame as political activists ran amok on the volatile site.

Material was stolen in bulk, the PAC was told, and supporters of both sides - the skilled and unskilled alike - demanded work.

It was the governing JLP that started the project in the 1980s, but the Blood Bank was completed under the PNP in the mid-1990s.

It has never been proven just how much of that cost overrun was linked to corruption.

When any discussion of corruption in the construction industry surfaces, the 1995 Operation Pride scandal under the P. J. Patterson administration comes readily to mind.

Blythe cleared

Then Water and Housing Minister Dr Karl Blythe resigned amid the controversy which engulfed the programme, following allegations of millions of dollars in cost overruns on some PRIDE schemes. Blythe was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing in the programme.

Other persons were charged in connection with the project but no one was convicted.

Following the allegations, Prime Minister Patterson established the four-member Angus Commission to assess more than 100 Operation PRIDE sites islandwide to determine their status, and the amount and quality of work done by contractors, and to find out whether they had delivered value for the funds paid out.

PRIDE had been beset with problems from the outset, with the then opposition Jamaica Labour Party charging that the programme primarily benefited persons aligned to the PNP.

Those charges led to a probe in 1997 by the auditor general on the instruction of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee.

Several weaknesses were uncovered, which precipitated changes in the management of the programme.