Sat | Feb 16, 2019

Editorial | The PM needs a better act on Petrojam

Published:Sunday | February 10, 2019 | 12:19 AM

Andrew Holness’ contortions in responding to questions in Parliament last week about the Petrojam scandal might, in other circumstances, have been deemed heroic. This, however, is a serious issue about governance. What the prime minister accomplished was to raise suspicions that he has something to hide and that his Government may be committed to neither transparency nor the fight against corruption.

The irony is that these are precisely the platforms to which Mr Holness committed his premiership when his party won the government nearly three years ago, and to which he repeatedly declared himself bound during that shambolic parliamentary performance.

Since we, and we believe most Jamaicans, want to believe the PM, we urge him to act urgently, and decisively, in reversing these doubts before they calcify.

The specific issue on which Mr Holness faltered relate to questions by opposition House member Julian Robinson about the separation agreements between Petrojam, the state-owned oil refinery, and its former general manager, Floyd Grindley, and its former human resources and administration manager, Yolande Ramharrack.

Both persons, if not by name, certainly by office, figured prominently in last December’s report on Petrojam by the Government’s auditor general, that found evidence of seemingly reckless management, nepotism and cronyism, if not outright corruption. Indeed, the Government now plans a forensic audit into over J$5 billion in unaccounted-for oil at the refinery over a five-year period.

Ms Ramharrack was employed in early 2017 without, it was revealed, having the higher degree, which was advertised as a requirement for the job. Within six weeks, her annual salary of J$10.5 million was raised to $12.9 million, a jump of 23 per cent. Moreover, Mr Grindley had already waived her four-month probation period.

Further, the auditor general found that Ms Ramharrack had hired her sibling for a job that was advertised only internally, and for which the sibling did not meet the specific qualifications.

In another instance, a person who an interview panel had rejected for a senior technical post was reinterviewed by Ms Ramharrack and other officers, to head the unit for which he had been rejected.

In the face of the emerging scandal at the refinery, Mr Grindley, the general manger, swiftly disengaged. Ms Ramharrack, against whom disciplinary charges were laid by the new governors, eventually left – but with a compensation package that was accompanied by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). That NDA is now an issue.

TRANSPARENCY SHOULD BE PARAMOUNT

Ms Ramharrack package, before taxes and other deductions, was J$9.2 million, a figure we know because Sancia Bennett Templer, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, was pressured into disclosing it to select members of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, during a closed session.

She was constrained from telling, Mrs Bennett Templer said, based on advice from government lawyers. Mr Holness echoed the same argument in his parliamentary wiggles on the matter.

Yet, that settlement, with its NDA, was despite Ms Ramharrack facing disciplinary charges, relating, Mr Holness confirmed, to “negligence of duty (and) things to do with breach of hiring policy, compliance with the policies of the company in procurement (and) not meeting certain corporate social responsibilities”.

It was easier, and cheaper, based on Petrojam’s cost-benefit analysis, just to settle with Ms Ramharrack rather than pursuing the hearings, Mr Holness said. Except that there is no good explanation for the NDA, especially when none accompanied Mr Grindley’s terms.

Further, Petrojam is not a private company. It is taxpayers’ money that is at stake, and in the circumstance of a scandal such as this one, transparency should be paramount if the Government is serious about building trust in a population, more than 80 per cent of which believes public officials are corrupt.

Additionally, Prime Minister Holness, who now has responsibility for the energy portfolio, is aware of Jamaica’s recent two-place slippage on Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perception Index. The Petrojam matter was highlighted by TI as symptomatic of corruption in the Americas. That isn’t a reputation Jamaica needs and should want, and why openness from the PM should be forthcoming.