Wed | Dec 2, 2020

Editorial | Holness missing bigger opportunity on Petrojam

Published:Sunday | July 5, 2020 | 12:57 AM

Born a decade after Jamaica’s independence and having come to adulthood long after the ideological skirmishes of the 1970s, Prime Minister (PM) Andrew Holness often portrays himself as a post-independence leader who doesn’t carry the baggage of the past and is, thus, free to do big and transformative things.

Fighting corruption – even if at the risk of fallout with his political colleagues – is one of the issues, Mr Holness has suggested, he has the licences to tackle. If he wishes to translate those declarations from ideal and sentiment to concrete action, Mr Holness has to be willing to spend real political capital.

For, while he generally talks impressively on the issue, the PM parses with circumspection and acts gingerly when confronted with serious tests, as was the case last week over the fate of Andrew Wheatley in a future Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration. He left no doubt that Dr Wheatley will be on the party’s ticket for the next general election.

For the first two and a half years of Mr Holness’ Government, until the end of July 2018, Dr Wheatley served as his science and technology minister. But for a few weeks of that period, he also held the energy portfolio, which included the state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam.

Last week, in a report on the goings-on at the refinery during Dr Wheatley’s tenure, David Grey, the Integrity Commission’s chief investigator, urged the agency’s director of prosecutions, Keisha Prince, to consider prosecuting the former minister for lying during the probe about his familial relationship with one of the people who slurped from the Petrojam gravy train.

GRAND CONSPIRACY

But that is the small-bore stuff. In fact, Mr Grey questioned whether several persons connected to Dr Wheatley may have been “strategically” placed in “key positions at Petrojam Limited … as (a) corruption enabling mechanisms”. The cleaner imputation is that Dr Wheatley was the orchestrator of a grand conspiracy to defraud Jamaica’s taxpayers.

It is notable that the three most critical persons in this presumed ring, Petrojam’s former chairman, Perceval Bahado-Singh, the former general manager, Floyd Grindley, and the human resource and administration manager, Yolande Ramharrack, were recommended by Mr Grey for a swathe of fraud and corruption charges. These range from Dr Bahado-Singh being reimbursed for trips he reportedly didn’t take, to Mr Grindley and Ms Ramharrack colluding to have Petrojam paying for expensive fêtes to entertain bigwigs, including Dr Wheatley and Dr Bahado-Singh. These fêtes featured green-coloured US$1,000 cakes and US$250-a-bottle brandy.

Perchance Mr Grey is right, and what Dr Bahado-Singh and Mr Grindley displayed was more than egregiously bad judgement, they, in the normal course of events, might not have been out of place at Petrojam. They came, respectively, with impressive track records in academia and the private sector.

The same might not be said for Ms Ramharrack, who, it appears, somebody badly wanted at Petrojam. The advertising for the job was seemingly surreptitious; and though she was catapulted to the head of Petrojam’s HR stream from a previous mid-level position, Ms Ramharrack, on the same day, had two contract offers – the second with a pay offer 23 per cent higher than the first. Further, when she was employed, her three-month probationary period was waived, allowing her to enjoy a healthy company bonus.

Worse, no one seemed to care enough to have reviewed and discussed with Ms Ramharrack a psychometric test, whose results might have foreshadowed many of the complaints and accusations subsequently made against her.

Said one of the findings quoted by Mr Grey: “On the manageability scale Miss Ramharrack is below the designated Performance Model for this position. This suggests that her willingness to follow standard procedures is less than the position typically requires and that she could have a problem with the capability to perform in this area. Discussions with her should determine her potential for frustration within the constraints of this position.”

ALERT TO LOSING TRUST

Although Ms Ramharrack was eventually fired, ostensibly with cause, she received a severance package of more than J$12 million, which was nearly a third higher than the amount initially disclosed. At that time, 16 months ago, this newspaper advised Mr Holness that he needed “to be alert to the danger of people losing trust in his government to the point where no one believes, or at least weighs very warily, anything it says”.

“When it gets to that point, it usually matters nought what a government achieves, no matter how good,” we said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that a government loses an election. It, however, erodes people’s confidence in the decency of the State, and, therefore, weakens the government’s capacity to mobilise the citizenry around the big issues for which consensus is necessary, like fighting crime and achieving economic growth.

So, when Mr Holness talks about paying “attention to public opinion” and believing in “second chances” with regard to Dr Wheatley’s place in a future cabinet, it suggests a focus-group approach to politics and governance, rather than a stance anchored in principle. Potentially, this breeds cynicism.

Indeed, Mr Holness’ political stock is high enough in his party and the country for him to have signalled that Dr Wheatley should sit out this election while he undergoes rehabilitation. There was the same soft-pedalling when, in the face of the recent scandal over Daryl Vaz’s attempt to lease government land in the Blue and John Crow Mountains, Mr Holness removed the land and environment portfolios from the minister but left his other subject matters and made a public statement about the action.

Perhaps the PM will now review his options.