BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor — Special Assignment email@example.com
WITH an unlikely coalition of special interest groups baying for blood, embattled Richard Azan was given strict party orders not to speak publicly on the Spalding Market issue.
When the North West Clarendon Member of Parliament — stung by criticisms of political corruption — disobeyed the orders, the party had no choice but to throw him under the bus, highly believable Jamaica Observer sources said.
The case of Richard Azan is one to be studied for its implications. Not even the contractor general could find any evidence that he gained any personal benefits from the construction of 10 shops on the Spalding Market premises.
The only one who seemed to have initially pocketed money was contractor John Bryant, and even then he appeared to have been just trying to recoup the $1.8 million he spent to build the shops at the behest of the vendors.
Up to February this year, he had collected only $213,000 as rental income, which he handed over to the Clarendon Parish Council after the issue became a media feeding frenzy. Bryant also indicated to the council that he was willing to cut his losses and wash his hands of the whole affair, since he was wrong to construct the shops without the formal approval of the council.
Azan, the records will show, did not wait on the slow and tedious pace of the Clarendon Parish Council. He spoke to the May Pen mayor about the need for the shops and grew impatient as the matter was shifted from committee meeting to committee in the council. Lack of funds to construct the shop was the explanation given by the mayor.
Prodded by Spalding town street vendors claiming they were tired of the sun and police harassment, the MP facilitated the construction of the shops by John Bryant. But Azan further muddied the water by allowing his constituency office to be used to collect rent for the shops, again because no formal arrangement was in place at the parish council.
Ironically, Azan resigned last week in the midst of an outpouring of support by his constituents who believe that he was paying the price for helping the 'small man'.
"Dem people who calling for the MP to resign nuh business 'bout wi," one vocal shop operator said.
Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) beneficiaries of the shop were among the strongest supporters of Azan. A highly placed party functionary suggested that there was dissension among Labourites over Opposition Leader Andrew Holness' threat to boycott Parliament if Azan did not resign or was not fired.
Several felt that what happened to Azan could have happened to them, because they, too, had been frustrated by the red tape and tedious nature of the business processes in the parish councils and even at central government level.
One senior Comrade questioned the motive of the coalition of interest groups calling for the MP's head, suggesting that some of them had "private agendas" and "an axe to grind against the Government".
"Like frenzied sharks maddened by the sight of blood, they circled Azan and went for the jugular," said another.
Not finding any evidence that Azan had dipped his hand in the till, after months of investigations, Contractor General Dirk Harrison appeared to have strayed into uncertain territory in the use of the term "political corruption".
Harrison might have been constrained by the fact that this was his first big case since taking office, and he apparently wanted to appear no less strident that his predecessor Greg Christie.
Undeterred by the fact that, in his own words, "the Jamaican legislative framework and regulations do not make reference to the issue of political corruption", Harrison reached for a definition of the term by Amnesty International, which calls it "a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth..."
Harrison added that as such, "careful consideration must then be given to the incidence of the perception of political corruption and the degree of political interference which forms the basis of the erection of the shops at Spalding Market".
But even using the Amnesty International definition, the OCG report did not specify any instance in which Azan had abused his office to "sustain power, status and wealth".
The MP and former junior minister for transport, housing and works has said he was defamed by the contractor general and sections of the media and would be taking legal action to protect his reputation and good name.
Sections of the media have sensationalised the story saying, for example, that the CG had recommended that the director of public prosecutions (DPP) act against Azan for "criminal actions". What the CG asked the DPP to do was consider "whether the conduct of Minister Richard Azan... gives rise to a conspiracy to defraud the revenue of the Clarendon Parish Council and/or any other criminal acts".
In libel actions, the media can claim "qualified privilege" as a defence when quoting official bodies, but it is incumbent on the medium to quote accurately or lose that right.
CG Harrison, himself, seemed to have been wary of the media, and included a paragraph in his report cautioning: "Investigative journalists need to exercise greater care in the issuance of published material (articles) which have the potential to expose persons. The disclosure of names and/or sensitive information ought to be avoided."
In his conclusion, Harrison also seemed to concede that nothing was in place to guide MPs and government ministers — which would include Azan — in matters like the Spalding market saga.
"Given the circumstances which have surrounded the entire Spalding affair, the OCG is recommending that a legislative and/or governance framework be established to guide ministers of government and MPs as it concerns their roles, functions, responsibilities and involvement in the decision-making processes of public bodies.
"The legislative and/or governance framework should detail the appropriate sanctions which can be adopted should a minister and/or MP overstep his/her authority as it concerns the functions of a public body," he said.
Harrison was careful not to recommend any specific sanctions against Azan and restricted himself to passing the ball to the DPP and the auditor general.