Dealing with the cesspool of corruption at public agencies


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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Jamaicans seem to have become inured to the yearly revelations of corruption emanating from the Auditor General's Department (AGD) concerning the operations of government entities. Does anyone remember Adrian Strachan, that veritable public servant who was succeeded by the present, very competent Pamela Monroe Ellis? She has followed on a good track record of reporting malfeasance at these bodies, but to what effect? It has to be very frustrating making these reports and knowing that nothing of any merit will be done about them by those in charge.

But if previous reports have not woken up a country punch-drunk on corruption, the latest on the goings on at Petrojam might. What the AGD has reported in its tight and noteworthy report is mind-boggling and disgusting, to say the least. The report is well documented and it will be difficult for anyone to successfully contest it. It is not that there has not been more than a whiff of scandal at Petrojam as the pricing mechanism used to determine the cost of oil to the consumer has always been a bone of contention. Even when oil on the international market fell to below US$40 per barrel the hapless consumers hardly saw a substantial lowering of the price they paid for fuel. The unconscionable profiteering which has been allowed to go on for too long is the kind of stuff that corruption feeds on. This is especially so when combined with poor oversight and management of a company which seemed to operate as a law unto itself.

Now we are being told that over recent years the country has suffered an estimated loss of some two million barrels amounting to approximately $18 billion. Furthermore, the company cannot account for over 600,000 barrels valued at almost $5.2 billion. Even when you allow for benchmarked losses, this is staggering.

When a monopoly is awash with petro dollars as Petrojam, obviously it is easy, with the accompaniment of poor board oversight, to spend money on contracts to connected parties, indulge cronyism and nepotism at an alarming level, and spend recklessly on trivial things like a birthday party for a former minister, with a cake for US$1,000 to boot. Former Minister Andrew Wheatley has since lamented the sum spent and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he had no knowledge of this kind of spending. But this is what we get from monopolies that do not believe they have to be accountable to anyone.

It should be a signal lesson to Wheatley and other government ministers that they should exercise the greatest care when appointing or causing to be appointed people to serve on public boards. It is not everything that goes on in a ministry that will be reported to a minister. And neither can this be the case. But ministers must be careful to have around them trusted people who can give a good account of their work to the Jamaican people who are their ultimate bosses. Friends, family members and assorted party hacks will not necessarily have your interest at heart. They will do things to undermine you and often will be the first to scuttle like rats from a sinking ship.

I know we are approaching Christmas, but the People's National Party (PNP) would be well advised to go easy on the champagne bottles if they believe they now have a scandal with which they can nail the Government to the cross. What the report has highlighted is a culture at an institution that has spanned successive administrations. We cannot forget too soon the Shell waiver scandal of an earlier era. It has been a culture of inefficiency in which necessary oversight and accountability have been deficient. Petrojam, like so many other public bodies, has suffered at the hands of decadent politics that has been the bane of this country since Independence. Both political parties have wallowed in this mud and nothing but radical constitutional change which can punish wrongdoers will harden the mud pool.

Andrew Holness is now the man on the bridge. What will he do? He has described the report as a watershed moment for transparency and accountability in Jamaica. What does that really mean and what does he intend to do about it? Will he be able to satisfy the Jamaican people that, as a young leader, he can be transformational and take the decisions that such egregious if not felonious behaviour demands? If he does not come down decisively on this, and allow the chips to fall where they may, he will be fomenting what ordinary Jamaicans have always believed — that in Jamaica we operate a two-tiered justice system.

It is one that favours the rich and well-heeled and one that mercilessly punishes the poor who have no influence. It is one in which those who have access to the wielders of power can get away with almost anything, yet a magistrate can deny a person his freedom for stealing a few dozen ackees. The poor will dutifully vote in elections hoping that something will be done on their behalf, but the reality is that they are likely to get shafted by a system that is heavily stacked against them. It is a system that aids and abets functionaries of the Jamaican “Deep State” — those who have business clout and influence and who give equally to both political parties to ensure that they always have a seat at the table.

This is indeed a watershed moment for you, Holness, to demonstrate to the Jamaican people that you have the fortitude and strength of character to deal resolutely, not only with Petrojam, but corruption throughout the entire governmental system. No tinkering at the edges will suffice. We expect a radical shake-up of procedures and processes that have benefited a failed politics and set back the country's growth to prosperity.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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