Wrong jungle, Mr Pickersgill!
Chairman of the PNP Bobby Pickersgill seems to have entered another wrong jungle in his comment on tainted money that his party is alleged to have received from the ill-fated Olint outfit. He has admitted that in the run-up to the 2007 general elections, the party received US$1 million from Olint's principal, David Smith. The admission was admirable, but then Mr Pickersgill, obviously oblivious of the legal sensibilities demanded by the situation, went on to opine that he did not think there was any moral obligation to repay the money for it was received at a time when Olint was a functioning entity.
What Mr Pickersgill did not seem to be aware of, and if he was, he was being disingenuous, was that Olint had run into problems with the Financial Services Commission (FSC) as serious questions were being asked about its operations. As events subsequently revealed, Mr Smith was running a Ponzi scheme - a matter for which he was convicted both in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in the United States.
Jamaica has a serious question to answer why it was left to those jurisdictions to convict Smith and not Jamaica where the scheme originated and operated for a considerable period. Are the elaborate gifts that are alleged to have been given to the political parties a part of the answer here? Was Smith successful in buying loyalty until it became untenable for him to continue to operate in Jamaica? These are questions that should trouble us, but it is clear that we will not get any answers any time soon.
Already there seems to be some prevarication from both parties as to how they will treat with the tainted gift. The PNP now in government has at least admitted that it has received money from Smith. The JLP is still investigating, but I sense some hedging here and a seeming reluctance to robustly get to the bottom of the matter and let the people know their findings. Mr Pickersgill's opinion as to whether there is a moral obligation to return the money is disturbing, and is an opinion that is unworthy of someone with an impeccable reputation in politics as Mr Pickersgill's.
As events now reveal, the money was not Mr Smith's to give. It was tainted when he gave it and tainted when received by the recipients. Mr Smith hurt a number of people when he doled out money that did not belong to him to various organisations and people. This was corrupt philanthropy because Mr Smith knew that he was giving away money that was not his to give in the first place. Whether Mr Pickersgill knew that this was the case earlier or later is a moot point. The fact remains that his party was a recipient of stolen money. Is he now telling the nation that there is no moral obligation to return stolen money? Is there not a law on the books in Jamaica that if you receive and accept stolen goods you could be in trouble with the law?
But let's put that aside. We allow our MPs and Cabinet ministers to wear the title "honourable" before their names. We do not do this for cosmetic reasons or to enhance privilege, but to make a statement to the wearer that as a representative of the people they have a sacred responsibility to behave decently in government or in Opposition at all times. When we insist on accountability and transparency, this is what it all comes down to. There can be no question that the tainted money from Olint has to be repaid by those who received it, however big or small the amount.
Understandably, it is going to be difficult for those who received it to match the alacrity with which it was given. But the first order of business is to acknowledge that it was received and then begin the torturous process of seeking accommodation for its repayment. No person or entity boasting of high moral sensibilities should allow himself or itself to be forced to do what is right. In fact, even before the claw-back request came from the TCI authorities, those who knew that they had received money from Olint should have anticipated returning it. To now receive the request, and to prevaricate about it by suggesting all kinds of specious arguments why one may not be obligated to return it, is unworthy and downright immoral.
The OCG and the IOP
In keeping with its mandate, the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) has written to the Independent Oversight Panel (IOP) requesting accounting with respect to the North-South link of the Highway 2000 project to be undertaken by China Harbour. This request has brought into sharp relief the simmering discontent between the OCG's office and the transportation minister. The three eminent persons of the panel have indicated that they will not be giving such reports, and the Attorney General's Department is seeking to test Mr Christie's request in the courts.
As I have written in a previous piece, it is within the remit of the OCG's office to request information with regard to this and other infrastructural projects to be undertaken by the government. But I believe in this instance that his request for reports should be sent directly to the ministry of transportation to provide the OCG with the details of accountability on the project. Technically, and especially since their work is voluntary, I do not believe that the three wise men have to answer directly to Mr Christie. But the ministry, any ministry for that matter, is duty-bound to respond in a timely fashion to any reasonable request of the contractor general in the pursuance of his duties. The OCG must ask the relevant authorities at the ministry to furnish him with the information he requests. If they do not, then Mr Christie knows what powers he has under the law to enforce compliance. It will be interesting to see how the courts rule in this matter.