Columns

OCG's Greg Christie: courage and complaints

KEN CHAPLIN

Tuesday, October 02, 2012    

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Prior to lawyer Greg Christie's appointment as contractor general in 2005, it was open season for corruption in the award of government contracts and licensing. After almost seven years he has brought a great deal of probity to the system, but it was not an easy job as some Jamaican contractors are insatiable and stubborn. Jamaica ranks high on the international list of most corrupt countries.

After a job which many Jamaicans consider well done, Christie is now packing to retire in another two months when his contract ends, leaving behind an outstanding record in preventing corruption in government procurement and contracting, ensuring compliance with procurement procedures and guidelines, as also significantly enhancing transparency, accountability and probity in the public sector contract and licensing issue processes.

Although his standard is high, he wanted to do more - banish corruption from the face of Jamaica, but felt himself placed in a straitjacket.

Previous contractors general tried hard to improve the system and they succeeded, but not to any significant extent. In many ways, his predecessors were no match for the country's greedy state contractors and some of the corrupt state entities. It took Christie's determination, strategic encounters, fearlessness, commitment to transparency and crusading spirit to plug a myriad of loopholes in the system. True, he had to use sledgehammer methods sometimes to conquer corruption but this was not always appreciated. However, he endured criticism and threats and moved on each time.

Few people have recognised his enormous powers as contractor general. The Office of the Contractor General is mandated by the Contractor General Act to monitor the award of government contracts, to ensure that they were awarded impartially, on merit and in circumstances which did not invoke impropriety or irregularity. The issue of government licences and permits was also embraced under his jurisdiction. In addition, the contractor general was also vested with discretionary power to conduct formal investigations into a range of associated matters. To facilitate the effective discharge of his functions, the contractor general was, among other things, accorded the powers of a judge of the Supreme Court with wide quasi powers of inquiry, search and subpoena. And he wants more power to make his authority unchallengeable. But in a country where law is supreme, this is not likely to happen.

In fact, some of the powers the contractor general believes he has are being challenged in the Supreme Court. Transport and Works Minister Dr Omar Davies is challenging the powers of the contractor general to monitor the pre-contract phases of the award of government contracts. And a private sector company, Gorstew, wants a ruling from the court to decide on the powers of the contractor general to probe the divestment of the Sandals Whitehouse Hotel, saying his proposed investigation was based on a spurious newspaper claim about "secret talks" on the sale of the resort.

The Jamaica Observer, in an editorial last Friday, while praising Christie, urged him not to try people or entities he intends to investigate in the court of public opinion, as that could destroy well earned reputations, and pointed to the manner in which he conducted - privately, a corruption case within the OCG.

Christie has vowed to fight the Davies and Gorstew cases with all his resolve. The country is awaiting the outcome.

In a document specially requested by me, the OCG says that the corporate profile of the Commission of the Contractor General is currently constructed upon the foundation pillars of:

*Strong corporate ethical principles and values

*Commitment and support of a specially recruited cadre of highly qualified and apolitical staff

*Rigidly enforced and documented workplace policies, procedures and processes

* Utilisation of technology as a cutting-edge and cost reduction platform to enable and to support the maximisation and optimisation of the commission's statutory mandates as well as its strategic and business operating objectives.

The magnitude of the work of the OCG is challenging. With a staff of 59, the OCG covers the activities of about 200 ministries, agencies, departments and 600 different categories of licences, permits and awards in excess of 11,000 high-valued construction, goods and services and asset divestment government contracts each year. All this is valued at an estimated $110 billion, or an amount of one-fifth of the overall annual expenditures budget of government. Given the characteristics and capacity of corruptors in Jamaica both in government and the private sector, no other approach but the uncompromising, unwavering and aggressive approach of the contractor general could work. One area of success deserves special mention. Before he came on the scene there was hardly any reporting on the award and monitoring of contracts by the entities. Many contractors and entities used and abused this weakness.

So in May 2006, the OCG implemented an effective special "in-house" designed computer-based Quarterly Contract Award (QCA) report regime system, the highest public body. The system has provided the OCG with the unique ability to monitor, for the first time in Jamaica, government contracts which are awarded by the procuring public bodies under the National Contracts Commission's contract endorsement value threshold of $10 million and above the value of $250,000. The regime requires all of the country's 200 procuring public bodies to submit to the OCG its arrears within one month of the end of each calendar year, on specially designed QCA report forms.

The regime served as a major plank of Christie's strategic plan to secure marked improvement in probity, compliance, transparency and accountability in the government contract award process. Between the start of the QCA reporting process in May 2006 and the beginning of the OCG's Zero Tolerance Policy in October 2006, the QCA reporting compliance rate recorded by the OCG was 13 per cent.

However, the rigid enforcement of the Zero Tolerance Policy by the contractor general, who has never once allowed an exception to the policy in the more than five years that it has been in force, has since resulted in an unprecedented and record 100 per cent compliance rate, among the country's 200 public bodies for 13 consecutive quarters .

The government is now searching for a contractor general to replace Christie. No one below Christie's ability, commitment and perseverance will do.

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