Sat | Sep 21, 2019

Editorial | PM should insist on transparency by CMU

Published:Thursday | June 27, 2019 | 12:38 AM

Since he fired Ruel Reid three months ago, Andrew Holness has been the de jure education minister. Karl Samuda, the day-to-day man at the ministry, acts on Mr Holness’ behalf.

More important, Mr Holness is Jamaica’s prime minister. He wields enormous constitutional powers. He shapes policy and can direct ministers and public officials. Which is why we find strange Mr Holness’ silence on recent developments at the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), including the CMU’s efforts, initially, to stave off an order to hand over documents to investigators, and now, to question the legal basis upon which that order was made.

With his Government facing an avalanche of corruption allegations, the prime minister would, we’d expect, want to confront these accusations head-on, demonstrating his personal commitment to an aggressive fight against theft, graft, kickbacks, and any other form of malfeasance or misbehaviour by officials who are supposed to be guardians of the public’s interest.

The CMU is an institution of which Jamaicans had reason to be proud. Established four decades ago with the help of the Norwegians, it was the only one in the English-speaking Caribbean that prepared students with modern seafaring skills. It produced outstanding graduates.

PINNOCK’S LEADERSHIP

There is little doubt that the CMU has, over the past decade, benefited from the tireless energy of its executive director, Professor Fritz Pinnock, who led its transformation to a university and the rapid expansion of the scope and depth of its academic offerings to meet the demands of a modern economy. The quasi-military structure Professor Pinnock established, and the discipline displayed by CMU cadets, has won the public’s respect and made the institution one of envy among its peers.

The CMU’s reputation, however, has taken some hard knocks recently. Allegations have dribbled out about questionable hirings and inappropriate spending, some of it linked to the disgraced former education minister, Ruel Reid. Professor Pinnock’s circumlocutory and opaque responses to questions about them at Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) have been painful to observe. Parliamentary hearings apart, the CMU has found itself in the cross hairs of investigators, including the Financial Investigations Division (FID) probing allegations of corruption against Mr Reid.

Under Section 17 of the FID Act, where its boss, the chief technical director, “has reasonable grounds for suspecting that a person has possession or control of any information, book, record or document which is relevant to an investigation of a financial crime, an authorised officer may apply to a judge in chambers or resident magistrate (parish judge) in accordance with Subsection (2) for an order under subsection (3) in relation to the person suspected of having possession or control of the information, book, record or document”.

Subsection (2) allows for the application to be made without notice but requires it to be in writing, supported by an affidavit stating the grounds on which it is made. Under Subsection 3, if the judge is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for the order, the target of the request is commanded to hand over the documents.

The CMU, and some of its executives, including, it appears, Professor Pinnock, initially resisted handing over documents, arguing that the court order upon which the demand was based was defective. Professor Pinnock lamented to the PAAC that “people’s rights”, presumably including his own, “are being abused”.

According to the CMU lawyer, all requested documents have since been delivered. The university, however, is still pursuing the challenge, which, in the circumstance, would be only of academic interest. We make no comment on the specifics of the legal arguments, how the order applies to individuals.

We are, however, clear that in relation to the CMU as an institution, no profound issue of public law is at stake. The larger issue with regard to the university ought to be a commitment to transparency and to ensuring that the interests of taxpayers, who own the CMU, are protected. In that regard, Prime Minister Holness, as a matter of policy, should instruct the university to share all requested documents with the FID, and other investigators, whether on the basis of the current or future requests. If the CMU’s faculty, on their own accord, and their own account, wants to challenge the court’s order, that is their right. Go straight ahead.