Juliet Holness says former HEART/NSTA chair treated unfairly
HOLNESS... we have tried the man in the court of public opinion and found the man guilty unfairly

MEMBER of Parliament (MP) for St Andrew East Rural Juliet Holness has demanded an apology for former chairman of the HEART/NSTA Trust Edward Gabbidon for what she believes is the injustice meted out to him in the court of public opinion, forcing him to quit in December under a cloud of suspicion.

The MP, in a staunch effort to dispel public perception of wrongdoing on Gabbidon's part, made the case at Wednesday's meeting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) with officials of the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Ministry of Education. The committee delved into the controversial findings of an auditor general's report into the operations of the national training agency.

Gabbidon gave up his position amidst increasing questions from the Parliamentary Opposition about a conflict of interest between his technology consulting company, Sychon, and the Trust. Sychon was awarded 196 HEART Trust contracts between October 17, 2006 and March 4, 2021, amounting to $302,912,148. Gabbidon became chairman in April 2017.

“It now appears that the procurement department had no issue at all with the relationship [or] any of the contracts bid for by the chairman, except one contract, and we have tried the man in the court of public opinion and found the man guilty unfairly. Somebody owes Eddie Gabbidon an apology,” Holness declared, after representatives of the Trust's procurement committee said Gabbidon had followed established procedure in declaring his affiliation with the Port Authority of Jamaica, and ownership of Sychon, a company which has a long-standing business relationship with the institution.

“Listening to the responses now, I am of the firm view that the man was unfairly treated, and unfairly in a very public way, made to look as if he did something dishonest when he did not,” the MP insisted.

“... The public went off of the report of HEART itself,” PAAC Chairman Mikael Phillips pointed out.

Holness drew support from Tova Hamilton, and Dwight Sibbles, MPs for Trelawny Northern and Clarendon Northern, respectively, with Sibbles arguing, “it appears that no one is in charge at HEART Trust”.

According to head of procurement for the HEART Trust William Malabver, the question of conflict of interest had arisen over a single 2019 tender. Based on Malabver's explanation, the question surfaced because those particular tender documents bore Gabbidon's signature, while previous submissions were signed by other officers of his company.

He pointed out that the tender was aborted in February 2020, prior to the publishing of the auditor general's report. However, there appears to be some discord between the HEART Trust's head of human resources, and its legal officer over Gabbidon's declaration document.

Corporate counsel Desrene Pearson told the committee that up to this point, she had not received the document, having requested it in order to give a legal opinion about possible conflict of interest, but Malabver said the HR director had advised him that the form was e-mailed to the legal officer.

Pearson insisted, pointing to her opinion offered in the report, that she had not been able to form a legal opinion as to whether the information provided in Gabbidon's declaration of interest absolved him of having a conflict of interest because the information given to her by the procurement chairman had fallen short.

“I have not been furnished with anything since that opinion was written. The question of sufficiency goes to what it is that the organisation is asking to declare, so that persons can know what you are about when they engage with you. There was just nothing on the form that gave me information,” she stated.

St Catherine South MP Fitz Jackson emphasised that the perception of conflict of interest in Government can be remedied by board members declaring their interests not only to parent ministries, but the public bodies to which they are assigned.

Permanent secretary Audrey Sewell said, given that the tender was aborted, the matter of the declaration form wasn't pursued. “It was not that it was a general concern, in terms of relationship with procurement and the CEO at that point, it had to do with one procurement opportunity,” she said.

Sewell also told the committee that, based on the information she had been given, and the contract value limits for board reporting at HEART, Gabbidon had nothing to do with the procurement opportunities in question, as she had been assured that they all fell below the $30-million threshold that would have called for approval from the board. She said he had declared his affiliations to both the education ministry, and later, the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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