Spotlight on NEPA board
Veteran trade unionist questions role of directors in officer’s interdiction
Senior trade unionist Vincent Morrison has questioned the role of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) board during the initial discovery of breaches at the housing development owned by National Water Commission President Mark Barnett and his wife Annette Francis-Barnett, charging that NEPA’s interdiction of the inspector, who was the first to highlight the irregularities, is suspect.
The officer — who the Jamaica Observer was told had responsibility for monitoring the development to ensure compliance with the permit — had, during a site visit in 2020, found discrepancies with what was approved initially.
The officer, in accordance with his duties, compiled a report which he submitted to a supervisor with recommendations that a warning letter be issued to Barnett to come into compliance within seven days.
Subsequently, another officer went on site and made similar observations and recommendations. The reports of both individuals were factored in the investigation of the Integrity Commission, and both were interviewed. However, only the officer who compiled the first report has been placed on interdiction, the Observer has learnt.
The officer was last Wednesday served a notice of interdiction and ushered from the entity’s Caledonia Avenue premises in the Corporate Area.
Reacting to the action reported in this week’s Sunday Observer, Morrison, president of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Supervisory Employees, said “The question I would ask in this whole exercise is, where was NEPA’s board, where were the senior managers in the whole exercise?”
“Because, to now interdict the officer, don’t tell me that that development, or the other developments across the country, are just left solely to the officers on the ground. Senior management is actually supposed to be reporting to the board; the board has something to say in these exercises,” Morrison noted further.
According to the veteran trade unionist, NEPA’s board should be pinpointed in the entire saga.
“I think that is where the spotlight should be thrown in the whole exercise. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to get reports and whatever. So it is a situation where the employee has done their job, where the employee has made reports to the relevant authority, and the relevant authority turns a blind eye. I am not saying that this is the case, but if this is the case, then I think it is unfair at this time to put pressure on the employee,” he stated.
Morrison went further to compare the NEPA scenario to the unfolding saga between regulator, the Financial Services Commission (FSC), and fraud-hit Stocks and Securities Limited which are locked in a court battle following the discovery of a multi-billion-dollar fraud racket at the investment house.
“As the officer who organised the FSC workers years ago, my information is that the workers had done their duty, made their report to the relevant authorities, and the relevant authorities didn’t do what they had to do. I am saying if that is the case, then it is unfair, unjust, not right, to use the workers at this late stage as scapegoats,” he declared
The Integrity Commission, in a report on its investigations into the residential development at 11 Charlemont Drive, Kingston 6, which was tabled in Parliament last October, said the couple breached building, planning and environmental permits, and sought the ruling of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Paula Llewellyn on the allegations of irregularities in the approval and post-permit monitoring processes.
The DPP, however, in her ruling, said that although the allegations support the laying of criminal charges against the Barnetts for breaching the environmental permit, which is an offence under the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act, there can be no prosecution as criminal action is statute-barred, given that the initiation of prosecution is time-sensitive and was not initiated within 12 months of the breach being identified.
Llewellyn, however, agreed with the Integrity Commission that Barnett was in breach of the NRCA Act and the Building Act.
Barnett has been on administrative leave since October, after the commission released its report.
Last Wednesday, eyebrows were raised at NEPA’s offices as the officer, who the Observer understands is employed to the entity for about five years, was called into a meeting with senior management and informed of the interdiction. He was then seen being marched to his workstation and instructed regarding what to remove, with all work-related devices seized. The officer, under strong guard, was allowed to clear his desk, ordered to exit the premises, and instructed not to return unless given an official invitation.
The 2016 public bodies disciplinary policy states that, depending on the allegation of misconduct reported, it may be necessary to remove an employee from the immediate work area in order to conduct the investigation. This removal may be in the form of a temporary transfer, or interdiction/suspension with pay, or part thereof. It, however, says suspension/interdiction should not be done without considering and discussing alternatives, and should be for the shortest possible time. It further says removing an employee from office should not be used unless it is extremely necessary, and should not be seen as a penalty but as a measure to ensure that the public interest is served and the investigations are carried out in a manner with the least likelihood of interference. It also says an employee who has been removed from duty for investigation purposes shall be deemed to be properly served if the notification:
* is sent in a prepaid, registered letter properly addressed and posted to the address on record;
* is sent by a bearer/courier and there is a signature of receipt.
Additionally it says, based on the nature and circumstances of the charge, employees may be removed from duty with pay or part thereof. The amount is determined by the circumstances of the allegations/charge — that is, the more serious the charge, the less is paid. The general principle is that an employee should not be paid less than half salary.