Sunday 29 March, 2020

Phillips says PM should fire Wheatley for 'mother of all scandals'

Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips

Opposition Leader, Dr Peter Phillips

Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips is urging Prime Minister Andrew Holness to fire Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley, describing the alleged irregularities at the state-owned oil refinery Petrojam as “the mother of all scandals.”

Phillips, who was addressing People’s National Party (PNP) supporters at a National Executive Council (NEC) meeting at The Cedar Grove Academy in Portmore, St Catherine on Sunday, asserted: “It is clear that the Minister of Energy has breached the public trust and his position in that office can't be sustained.”

As minister, Wheatley has oversight responsibility for the country’s lone oil refinery that has been rocked in recent weeks by allegations of improper spending to include massive cost overruns, questionable contracts and serious charges of nepotism and cronyism.

There have also been reports of numerous breaches of the Government’s procurement guidelines.

Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley delivers an address at a function.

The six-member Petrojam board comprising three Jamaicans and three Venezuelans had not met in nine months. With almost daily revelations of breaches and staff discontent, the three Jamaican members of the board tendered their resignations to Wheatley last Monday after they had met with him the previous Friday.

And the Permanent Secretary in the Energy Ministry, Hillary Alexander was last week tasked by the Office of the Prime Minister to prepare a report on the happenings at Petrojam, specifically on what is “in the public domain.” She and the senior management of the oil refinery are to report to Cabinet on Monday.

However, these developments have done little to satisfy the Opposition, especially in light of the failure of both the Prime Minister and Wheatley to publicly address the matter. Phillips is also concerned about the reputational damage being done to Jamaica.

“A country with a reputation for corrupt behaviour does not attract investment, and this is not helping the country. I wonder if the prime minister is unaware that the whole Government is getting a reputation for corruption, and that it is not possible for him to remain silent in this matter. The country needs to know and to hear from him,” Phillips stated.

Phillips also asserted that there was victimization of employees at the state refinery, a feature which he said had become typical of the JLP Government. He noted that the previous human resource manager was fired in December and now has a case before the Industrial Disputes Tribunal, as reported by Loop News last Monday.

While piling the pressure on Holness, Dr Phillips noted that the Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet which appointed the “absentee” Petrojam board.

"Someone has to answer for the issue of how did such a board become appointed,” Phillips said.

He also made a link between the scandal engulfing Petrojam and the more than $600-million bushing scandal that rocked the Jamaica Labour Party administration during its first year in office.

“The PM chaired the Cabinet meeting that approved the contractor of the (perimeter) wall (for Petrojam) where there was massive payments in excess of the estimates, in a situation where that same contractor was already implicated in the previous bushing scandal, as reported on by the contractor general,” Phillips told the meeting.

It was revealed at Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee meeting two weeks ago that the state-run National Works Agency had given an initial estimate of just under $30 million for the construction of the perimeter wall at the refinery. However, following several adjustments to the scope of work the final cost was $96.8 million.

In describing the deepening controversy at Petrojam as the mother of all scandals, Phillips said: “It has all the ingredients of all the other scandals put together.

"It has nepotism; the appointment of people simply because of connections to the ministerial ranks of the Jamaica Labour Party, and the appointment of people at pay levels in excess of what was present in all the other government corporations, at pay levels in excess of what was offered in the private sector, in excess of what was paid to the previous managers in those positions. That one element is a scandal in itself,” he said.

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