Former permanent secretary denies knowing Petrojam funded Venezuelans’ overseas trips
A view of Petrojam

HILLARY Alexander, a former permanent secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Science Energy and Technology (MSET), on Wednesday denied having knowledge that between 2008 and 2018 overseas trips by Venezuelan board members of Petrojam to meetings held in Jamaica were funded with taxpayers’ dollars.

Wednesday was Alexander’s second day in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court as a witness in the Petrojam fraud trial of former Chairman Perceval Singh and former General Manager Floyd Grindley. Singh is accused of making travel claims of over US$73, 000 for trips he did not undertake, between 2016 and 2018. Grindley, meanwhile, is accused of aiding and abetting the process.

Asked by attorney-at-law Bert Samuels, who is representing Singh, whether she played a role in the approval process for Jamaican Petrojam officials to travel outside of Jamaica, Alexander admitted that she was part of the process. When asked if she ever saw an application for approval from any of three former board members from Venezuela for any trips to meetings, Alexander pointed out that she did not recall seeing any application.

“There were Venezuelan representatives but I do not know those trips were paid for by Petrojam,” she said.

Samuels clapped back with a suggestion that she knew of the arrangements to have those trips funded by Jamaican taxpayers.

“I have never been asked to approve travel for any Venezuelan member of the board. I do not accept your suggestion, Sir. I do not know who made Mr William Martinez’s [former Petrojam board chairman] travel arrangements. I can say that the ministry has never been called on to approve travels for the Venezuelans,” she said.

Queen’s Counsel (QC) KD Knight, who is representing Grindley in the trial, probed to ascertain whether a PS had any authority to vary the rules laid down by the Ministry of Finance and Public Service regarding overseas travels. Alexander said varying the rules was not allowed.

If variations are made to the document, she said she did not know whether the person receiving instructions to act based on the varied information, had the option of refusing to follow. She pointed out that the person who is being instructed wrongfully had a duty to report it in writing.

Alexander said that as PS of MSET, she gave general oversight of Petrojam, an entity which falls under that ministry’s governance. She said where there were policy implications, she would bring it to the attention of the minister, to ensure there was compliance.

Knight pressed to find out if a chief financial officer of Petrojam could seek advice from her as PS, would she grant it and whether she had the power to recommend an investigation into financial matters.

“Yes, I would advise him as best as I can within the regulations, but I don’t know that I can cause an investigation,” she said.

Knight then quizzed Alexander on her knowledge of a Petrojam refinery upgrade project that was in the pipeline from as early as 2008, which she admitted having knowledge of. The QC pointed out that up to 2017, the upgrade to the refinery was not advanced and suggested that it was Grindley, as general manager, who advanced the project.

At her response, “Yes, Sir, I believe work was done”, Knight criticised her for seeming to not have known about such an important aspect of the operations at the oil refinery.

“You were permanent secretary?” asked Knight.

“Yes, but the permanent secretary does not get involved in the day-to-day operations of Petrojam,” Alexander stated in response.

Knight continued: “Wasn’t it part of your job? And did the minister have a role to play in the upgrade?”

The former PS said, “Not really. We have general oversight of the entity to ensure they operate in accordance with the policies and programmes of the Government of Jamaica. The board of directors and the general manager has the responsibility”.

The Queen’s Counsel then asked Alexander whether the upgrade to the refinery was strategic to the viability of Petrojam. He said that in order to achieve objectives, it was important for her to know the status of what the upgrade programme was.

Alexander told the court that the upgrade project started before Grindley assumed the general manager position and continued during his tenure. She described Grindley as an active general manager who was committed to the organisation.

Alexander, however, could not say whether profitability of Petrojam had increased under Grindley but told the court that down time at the oil refinery was reduced while critical areas of the operations improved.

Jason Cross

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