Peter Espeut | Quid pro quo
Next month will make 26 years that I have been writing this weekly column, and I would like to be able to say that the number and seriousness of political scandals have declined over the period. Regrettably, I can't.
Whether the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) or the People's National Party (PNP) is in power, the scandals just keep on coming - involving the mismanagement and waste of millions and billions of taxpayers' dollars.
It is a systemic problem, convenient for both political parties, who take turns feeding at the trough and who make no real effort to increase transparency. They will try their best to embarrass the other side, but will make no effort to put systems in place to prevent and expose malfeasance.
Sadly, many Jamaicans have developed a high level of tolerance for corruption, either because they gain some benefit from it, or their moral sensibilities have become numb and deadened because of its frequency.
Take, for example, the ongoing Petrojam scandal.
You will recall that it was a report from the auditor general of Jamaica that exposed serious impropriety at Petrojam. The AG's report revealed that General Manager Floyd Grindley had approved payments for invoices totalling $2.6 million in relation to two birthday parties - one for then board Chairman Dr Perceval Bahado-Singh, and the other for then Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley - which were of "a personal and private nature".
Who is guilty of impropriety here? The minister and the board chairman, or the general manager? Or all three? It would seem to be the latter, for all three subsequently resigned their politically appointed posts.
Putting aside criminal liability for the moment (for that has not been determined), is resignation enough? Who is responsible for replacing the improperly used funds?
The Gleaner reported on December 9, 2018: "Stung by the public criticisms that followed a disclosure that some $1.5 million was spent by Petrojam to throw him a surprise birthday party, former energy minister, Dr Andrew Wheatley, is in talks with friends and backers about paying back the money to the state-owned oil refinery".
The Observer reported on January 12, 2019 that: "In a brief statement Thursday (i.e., January 10, 2019), Petrojam said that on December 31, 2018, a cheque valued at $1,370,850 was received under cover of a letter from an Elizabeth Moyston. The letter, the state-run oil refinery said, indicated that the cheque was reimbursement for amounts expended on Wheatley's surprise birthday party. 'The amount received represents reimbursement for the total cost of the birthday party,' Petrojam said."
Several questions remain to be answered: (1) Is this really the total cost of Dr Wheatley's birthday party? (2) On whose account was the cheque drawn? (3) What is the source of the funds used to reimburse Petrojam? (4) Is this matter now closed? (i.e., does repayment of misappropriated funds exonerate the person who did the misappropriation?) (5) What about the million-plus dollars inappropriately spent on the chairman's birthday party?
By turning to "friends and backers" to repay Petrojam for the money spent on his birthday party, Dr Wheatley is clearly soliciting political donations. Under present Jamaican law, he does not have to disclose who his "friends and backers" are.
Does it matter who they are? Of course, it does! There are only a very few people who will put out the "Quid" without there also being a "Quo". Petrojam awarded so many contracts that were not put to tender; it would matter if some or all of Wheatley's political donors turned out to be contractors to Petrojam, or beneficiaries of Petrojam donations; or persons who might have benefited from the missing 115,793 barrels of oil valued at $5.2 billion.
But neither the PNP nor the JLP will support legislation requiring campaign donations and their donors to be made public, which aids and abets corruption.
If Andrew Holness wants to leave a lasting legacy, he should introduce meaningful political funding disclosure legislation. Otherwise, he will be judged as supporting political corruption like so many others before him.
- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a development scientist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.