Sunday 20 October, 2019

Public servants warned of 7-year jail time for misleading Parliament

The Petrojam scandal took a new twist on Wednesday when senior public servants were warned that they could face criminal prosecution if they deliberately or otherwise provide misleading information to any parliamentary committee.

It could see public servants guilty of the offence spending up to seven years behind bars or be hit with hefty fines, or both,

The warning was issued by chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Mark Golding, as the committee continued to examine the findings of the special audit of Petrojam that was conducted by auditor general Pamela Monroe Ellis.

The unprecedented warning was given after opposition members of the PAC questioned how two separate letters with vastly different figures representing the salary of the former human resource manager at Petrojam, Yolande Ramharrack, had the same date of January 30, 2017.

This led opposition members of the committee to question whether they were presented with false or backdated documents.

The matter was raised by Central St Mary Member of Parliament Dr Morais Guy. The PAC member pointed out that the ministry paper that was tabled in the House of Representatives on Tuesday by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, detailing Ramharrack's contractual arrangements with Petrojam, had an employment letter for her which was dated January 30, 2017 and which had a salary figure of $12.97 million.

Guy pointed out that the sum was vastly different from the $10.58 million figure that was contained in an employment letter with the same date, which was presented to the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) last July.

“Which of the documents are we really to deal with?,” Guy asked.

He pointed out that the PAAC had been told last year that Ramharrack had been employed at the $10.58 million salary before her four-month probationary period was cut after only six weeks and her salary increased to $12.97 million by then general manager Floyd Grindley.

However, Guy noted on Wednesday that, based on the ministry paper, Ramharrack was confirmed in the job on her first day of employment on February 14, 2017 as the probationary period was in fact waived.

“This document tabled by the prime minister …dated the 30th of January suggest that we have some PHDs working at Petrojam who are good at spin because this particular document appears to have been doctored and presented to the parliament,” Guy charged.

“I’m flabbergasted, I’m disoriented. I do not know where and who to believe now,” Guy said, to which Golding added: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.”

It was at this point that Golding said it was appropriate for him to brief the committee on the legal information that was provided by the counsel to the parliament on the penalties for persons who mislead the parliament.

Section 16 of the Senate and House of Representatives Powers and Privileges Act states that: “Any person who, before either house, or any committee or any joint committee, intentionally gives a false answer to any question material to the subject of inquiry which may be put to him during the course of any examination shall be guilty of an offence.”

It also states that if the answer was given under oath against section 5 of the Perjury Act or if given otherwise than on oath against the said act, the individual commits a misdemeanor and on conviction is liable to imprisonment at hard labour for a term not exceeding seven years or, to a fine or both.

Section 8 of the Perjury Act states that where the false statement is made otherwise than under oath, if found guilty, the individual is liable to a term of imprisonment with hard labour not exceeding two years or, to a fine or both.

Golding said it was perhaps time to make sure all persons appearing before  parliamentary committees are sworn “to raise the stakes even higher.”

And, despite all the information in the public domain, committee members appeared to be uncertain on Wednesday as to the exact sum Ramharrack was paid in the settlement she arrived at with Petrojam last November. A week earlier, the country was told that she had received a gross package of $9.2 million. The ministry paper said the amount was a gross figure of $13.4 million, but Guy questioned whether the salary that was used to arrive at the settlement was closer to $16 million.

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