This newspaper insists that the Speaker of the House, Pearnel Charles, comply with the Constitution and have tabled forthwith, and no later than Tuesday’s sitting of the House, the auditor general’s special report into the operations of the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU). And since we suspect that Mr Charles, despite the authority of position, isn’t acting entirely of his own accord, we urge Prime Minister Andrew Holness to ensure that it is done.
The point here is that some things are larger and more important than the embarrassment that may be caused to a government and the impact that this may have on an election, not least among these being respect for constitutional order and the fight against corruption. These latter two ideals are ones which Jamaica’s government, of whatever political stripe, must always be aligned.
The CMU, which had an enviable reputation for the training of merchant mariners and people with a raft of related skills, as well as for the discipline with which its students comported themselves, has more recently been in the public eye for something else. The university has been at the centre of a scandal for alleged cronyism, nepotistic hirings and the siphoning of monies to the benefit of the family of former education minister, Ruel Reid, and others.
Indeed, Mr Reid, his wife, Sharen, and daughter, Sharelle, as well as CMU’s president Fritz Pinnock, and a St Ann municipal authority councillor, Kim Brown, are facing corruption-related charges on the basis of probes conducted by the Financial Investigations Division (FID), which is a part of the Ministry of Finance. Much of what was apparently unearthed by the FID has, to varying degrees, been the subject of hearings by Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee.
In the midst of the controversies, a separate audit of the CMU was conducted by the Auditor General’s Department, a constitutionally mandated body charged with annually reviewing government ministries, departments and agencies and which can, otherwise, on its own accord, or upon request, conduct special audits to determine whether agencies are compliant with rules and regulations, and if taxpayers’ resources are being efficiently utilised.
Under Section 22 of Jamaica’s Constitution, reports of the auditor general are to be submitted to the Speaker of the House, “who shall cause them to be laid before the House of Representatives”. Or, as the eminent constitutional scholar, Lloyd Barnett, advised this newspaper, there is no discretion on the part of the Speaker that these reports be tabled.
However, once reports are tabled, Parliament, if it so wishes, can place limitations on how widely they are published, especially if, in a circumstance such as with the CMU probe, there is concern that information therein could be prejudicial to the persons facing criminal charges.
We do not know that Speaker Charles has, up to now, considered these issues, What we, however, are aware of is that three reports of audits were presented to Parliament towards the end of 2019, and two have been tabled. Not the one on the CMU.
Last week in the House, in response to queries by the political Opposition about the status of the report, Speaker Charles suggested that he was not in possession of the report, although a private conservation with a government colleague, caught on mic, indicated the contrary.
NOT A GOOD STRATEGY
This newspaper’s independent reporting on the unpublished report shows that the auditor general discovered information that highlights additional poor governance and financial practices at the CMU and, seemingly, at the education ministry, that will probably be of further embarrassment to the Holness administration.
Moreover, the CMU-education ministry scandal was broadly contemporaneous with similar events at the Petrojam oil refinery and other agencies of the energy ministry, which was the subject of a report by the auditor general.
Understandably, Mr Holness and his administration would prefer not to have to face this kind of information as it begins to prepare for a general election, which most people expect to take place this year, though constitutionally due in early 2021.
So, delaying the tabling of the CMU report, which has echoes of what happened with the 2017 Integrity Commission report which disclosed that Mr Holness was not compliant with his assets and liabilities filings, may seem like a good strategy. It’s not.
What it will do, if the public perceives a ruse, is further undermine confidence and trust in the political leadership and public institutions. That can’t be good for a country, 70 per cent of whose people say is corrupt.