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The unwavering stench of possible corruption

...and another damning auditor general audit report

CANUTE THOMPSON

Sunday, July 28, 2019

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Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis has issued another damning audit on the operations of yet another ministry and agency; this time the beleaguered and clearly out-of-control Ministry of Education. Some of the findings of this audit concern the apparently law-unto-itself entity the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). But, contrary to reports that the audit was about the CMU, the auditor general's report has stated that the audit of the CMU itself is yet to come. This audit report was about the Ministry of Education, but it was impossible to do an audit of this ministry and not mention the CMU.

Watershed moment for accountability?

When the unprecedented damning audit report on Petrojam was issued, Prime Minister Andrew Holness described that report as “a watershed moment for accountability”. That was in late 2018, but the prime minister was most likely aware of the goings-on at Petrojam from at least May 2018 and he did nothing which reflected a consciousness of the assessment he made when the report was issued.

This audit report on the Ministry of Education has been preceded by unprecedented action by the prime minister in his in effect sacking of Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid in March 2019. But to date the country has not been told the reasons for this decision. But, while the firing of Reid was unprecedented in some respects, there is still good reason to believe that the Prime minister knew of the goings-on under Reid's watch, long before March 2019.

So, the questions which arise are:

(1) If the Petrojam audit report was a watershed moment, what is this Ministry of Education audit report?

(2) Given that the prime minister knew, or ought to have known, what was taking place at both Petrojam and the Ministry of Education long before the matters became public, and before he acted to sack the respective ministers, what do these facts say about his own accountability and culpability?

The prime minister's culpability in the Petrojam matter includes the fact that he misled — or lied to — Parliament concerning the terms of the golden handshake/separation package for the former human resource manager. This occurred not once, but twice. What should this mean for watershed accountability for the prime minister?

There are several elements in the sacking of Reid which raise concerns, one of which is the fact that, despite having resigned as minister and as a senator, he was still serving as caretaker in the St Ann North Western constituency. So, we ask the critical watershed question: What does it say about Holness's reason for the removal of Reid in March 2019 (coincidentally a few weeks before a by-election), given that as late as early July 2019 Reid was still serving as caretaker.

The overall picture is not only one of misleading statements, but mixed messages about watershed accountability, and I submit that we are yet to see real watershed action.

Perhaps the report on CMU, which is yet to come, may lead us there. That report could well be the accountability equivalent of the Robert Mueller testimony in the US. But, while we await that report, there are some highlights from the auditor general's report on the Ministry of Education which warrant attention.

There are two categories for major findings which this report signals significant breakdown in the management of the affairs of the ministry, as well as carrying the scent of corruption. The first of these relate to the contract with CMU to repair nine schools and the second the ministry's practice of using the emergency procurement methods.

School repairs

A few questions arise on this item, namely:

(i) Does CMU possess the technical competence to undertake repairs of the sort?

(ii) Where are the schools located?

(iii) What accounts for 78 per cent on the original contract sum paid over to CMU, even though only one of the nine projects has been completed?

(iv) Did the former minister authorise the $59-million cost overrun?

(v) What led the ministry to bypass “the due diligence of the Procurement Committee and further breached the procurement guidelines by its failure to obtain the approval of the NCC [National Contracts Commission] for seven of the contracts, based on the values”

(vi) Was the former minister aware of the bypassing of the Procurement Committee?

The foregoing questions are for the ministry to answer. But there are questions which the leadership of the schools involved should answer, namely:

(i) Were the schools consulted concerning the variations, and, if so, did they give assent?

(ii) What percentage of the work that was supposed to be undertaken at these schools has been completed?

(iii) Was the work satisfactorily done?

I also call on the Opposition spokesmen on education to press these issues and, at a minimum, seek to establish the status of the repair works in the nine schools.

Emergency procurement?

The auditor general's audit found that the “MoEYI awarded contracts for school repairs, maintenance, and construction using direct and emergency methods, which under many circumstances did not constitute emergencies and bypassed regulations”.

There was a similar finding in the audit on Petrojam, wherein a significant chunk of the procurement done was via the emergency route in instances which did not satisfy an emergency. The most infamous of these was the $90-million wall. It is to be recalled that the National Works Agency had provided an estimate in November 2016 that the wall would cost $29 million. But, in January 2017 the general manager set aside that estimate and used the emergency procurement route and gave a contract for the wall at $90 million.

On page 9, a section of the first paragraph reads: “…We reviewed a total of 306 contracts each with values over $500,000 for construction, repairs, and maintenance of schools costing $3.5 billion and noted that more than a third of this expenditure, $1.3 billion, was used for 122 contracts that were awarded through direct and indirect emergency procurements.”

An even more troubling finding is reported in the second paragraph on the said page 9:

“...In planning for major repairs and constructions, to allow for the completion of works in time for the start of the school year, we expected MoEYI to take into consideration the required lead times for each step: preparation, bidding, evaluation, and contracting. However, the MoEYI was deficient in this basic approach, as it did not comply with the procurement guidelines. MoEYI did not demonstrate that the procurement process was fair and transparent, particularly where MoEYI signed the six contracts with the same contractor on the same date, which could suggest splintering. Additionally, we found that for 13 other contracts, each valued in excess of $10 million, 'increased scope of work' was the dominant factor accounting for a combined $32 million in excess expenditure.”

Corruption weary

The country has become corruption-weary, it appears, but this is only serving the interests of the Government which does not wish to be held accountable. Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck, in one of his many irrational tweets, has said that his party and Government has no intention of listening to the PNP on matters of corruption, and that it will only listen to the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) and the Church. The PSOJ has spoken in a sharp and comprehensive a manner, as could be expected. I hope Minister Chuck will now honour his office of minister of justice. We are waiting.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer orcanutethompson1@gmail.com.


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