Tuesday 31 March, 2020

Year in Review: Biggest stories of 2018

The year 2018 will long be remembered for the three separate states of emergency (SOEs) that were imposed across several parishes to rein in rampant crime, particularly murders.

It will also be remembered for the Petrojam saga which Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips described as the ‘mother of all scandals’.

While those were the big news items in a year which also saw the historic qualification of Jamaica’s Reggae Girlz for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals in France, Jamaicans will also remember 2018 for the bizarre news item that greeted them on January 1…

 

PALIOSADOES GRIDLOCK

On January 1, 2018, patrons attending the ‘Sandz’ New Year’s party on the Palisadoes strip created a gridlock that literally shut down the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston.

The police did not get a handle on the situation for several hours by which time even flight crews had missed their flights as they could not reach the airport. Some persons hopped onto motorbikes while still clutching their suitcases while others opted to walk to the airport.

Although it drew the ire of then Transport Minister Mike Henry, as well as then National Security Minister Robert Montague, especially after Jamaica was portrayed in a negative light on social media, no one was held accountable, at least not publicly. However, the embattled Commissioner of Police, George Quallo promptly retired after just nine months as the country’s top cop and speculation was rife that the Palisadoes debacle was the ‘nail in the coffin’ for the police chief amid the spiraling crime rate. Quallo was replaced by army man, former Chief of Defence Staff, Major General Antony Anderson.

 

STATES OF EMERGENCY

With 1,616 murders recorded in 2017, and with the trend continuing into 2018, particularly in St James where there were 336 murders the previous year, the Andrew Holness administration imposed the first state of emergency (SOE ) in that parish on January 18.

On March 18, a second SOE was imposed in the St Catherine North police division, targeting the notorious Clansman gang responsible for a number of murders, robberies and extortion in and around the old capital of Spanish Town. The police said intra-gang violence have led to hundreds of murders there over the past few years as gang members battle each other for control of the lucrative extortion spoils extracted from the business community including transport operators at major centres in Spanish Town and Linstead.

A third SOE was imposed on September 23 and covers sections of three police divisions in the Kingston Western, Kingston Central and St Andrew South police divisions.

However, despite police crime statistics showing murders down by 21 per cent in 2018 compared to 2017, the SOE train hit a roadblock at the end of the year, when the parliamentary Opposition withdrew its support (under the constitution, a two-thirds majority is needed in both houses of the parliament for a SOE to remain in effect). In withdrawing its support during a marathon debate in the House of Representatives on December 11, the PNP argued that it was a breach of individuals’ constitutional rights with some persons being detained for extended periods without charge. The PNP also argued that the SOEs had lost their effectiveness as, since June, murders have been trending upwards across the island.

Various interest groups have come down on opposite sides of the arguments and there have been frantic efforts to facilitate talks between the leadership of the two main political parties to determine the way forward.

With efforts still underway to organize a meeting between Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips and Prime Minister Andrew Holness on the matter, only time will tell where this one will end up.

 

                                                             

PETROJAM - ‘THE MOTHER OF ALL SCANDALS'

Outside of the SOEs, the biggest news story for much of 2018 surrounded the ongoing scandal at the state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam.

The scandal, which was described by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips as the “mother of all scandals” also enveloped National Energy Solutions Limited (NESoL) and the Universal Access Fund (USF). All three entities fell under the Science, Energy and Technology Ministry for which former Minister Andrew Wheatley had oversight responsibility.

A damning 114-page report from Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis into the operations of Petrojam and its parent company, the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) in early December laid bare the happenings at the scandal-hit entity. The findings confirmed much of what was first exposed by parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) since May, when the Petrojam scandal first broke. It painted a picture of recklessness with taxpayers' money to include numerous breaches of Government’s procurement guidelines. Among these were lavish ‘surprise parties’ for Wheatley and former board chairman, Perceval Bahadoo-Singh, which cost millions, including a chocolate covered ‘topsy-turvy’ cake for US$1,000 (J$130,000) for the former minister; cases of nepotism involving members of the senior management team who employed their unqualified relatives; questionable contracts and decisions without board approval which cost tens of millions of dollars without value or even proof of work being done; and inefficiencies or lack of oversight which led to the "loss" of over 600,000 barrels of oil costing $5.2 billion over five years dating back to 2013.

As it relates to the oil losses, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has ordered that a forensic audit be done to determine what went wrong. The audit will date back to 2013 when the PNP formed the Government and Phillip Paulwell was Energy Minister.

Wheatley was the biggest of eight high profile casualties across the three entities as persons were either forced out or resigned voluntarily as the scandal mushroomed. At Petrojam, the board chairman, Bahadoo-Singh, who on several occasions billed the oil refinery for trips he did not make, resigned. So too the other two board members – businessman Richard Creary and attorney-at-law Harold Malcolm. Other casualties were the general manager, Floyd Grindley, who stands accused of numerous breaches of Government’s procurement guidelines and questionable spending, as well as human resource manager, Yolande Ramharrack, who was accused of hiring her unqualified brother who was earlier rejected by a three-member interviewing panel. Her own employment was shrouded in controversy, and the audit found that neither Ramharrack nor Grindley had a master’s degree which was a requirement for their various positions.

The Petrojam scandal will continue into the new year as the Integrity Commission and the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) are still conducting probes.

Meanwhile, at NESoL, General Manager Carolyn Warren was forced to resign after admitting to several drug convictions while an operations engineer, Lawrence Pommels is before the courts on multiple charges including money laundering, after he and a mechanic were held with $85 million in cash at their Old Harbour homes.

At the USF, it was revealed that a grossly under-qualified Camille Buchanan was employed as CEO of the entity while 24 persons more eminently qualified than her, some with double masters’ degrees, were not even shortlisted for the position. This led the Opposition to cite nepotism and cronyism on the part of the Government in its hiring practices. Buchanan was forced out in August ostensibly for showing “poor judgement” in hiring her daughter at the entity, in contravention of the relevant Government guidelines.

 

NIDS COURT BATTLE

In October, the Opposition made good on its threat to take the Government to court over aspects of the National Identification System (NIDS) Act which it argued were unconstitutional.

While the Government has kept up a brave face and has continued to run advertisements about the NIDS, the Constitutional Court, after several days of hearings, reserved judgment for six months, until next April. At that time it is expected to hand down its ruling on the arguments made by both sides. Whether all or any part of the Act will be deemed unconstitutional, will be known then.

But, what was clear from three days of hearings in October was that Chief Justice Bryan Sykes, who headed the three-member panel that heard the arguments, was relentless in his questioning of Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte. At times, the Government’s chief lawyer was left clearly embarrassed as she struggled to respond to the justices.  

The controversial law will make it mandatory for all Jamaicans to register, be fingerprinted and even state their blood type or face the risk of a huge fine or custodial sentence if they fail to do so. The NIDS will also replace several pieces of identification now used by Jamaicans. Persons not registered under the NIDS will be unable to access certain government services. The Chief Justice has questioned whether the law breaches individuals' constitutional rights.

The court action was brought by PNP General Secretary Julian Robinson on behalf of himself, his constituents and the party.

 

OBJECTIONS TO TEMPORARY APPOINTMENT OF CHIEF JUSTICE FORCES PRIME MINISTER’S HANDS

The decision by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in February to appoint Bryan Sykes to act as chief justice following the mandatory retirement of Zaila McCalla, did not go down well with the legal fraternity and the parliamentary Opposition.

The objections grew louder when Holness suggested that, as a post-Independence prime minister, he was prepared to do things differently like, for example, putting the chief justice on probation. Holness had argued that there needs to be an improvement in judicial accountability and, as such, the person holding the office should first prove himself before being appointed.

At one point, Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, while defending the prime minister’s decision to put Skyes on probation, was forced to state that the temporary appointment was not with a view to ushering her into the position.

As the objections grew, to include from the influential private sector, and the Jamaican Bar Association and with suggestions that the prime minister was interfering with the Judiciary, one of three independent branches of Government, Holness relented. On March 1, Justice Skyes was appointed chief justice by Governor General Sir Patrick Allen during a ceremony at Kings House.

 

REGGAE GIRLZ BOOK WORLD CUP TICKET

Twenty years after their male counterparts became the first English-speaking Caribbean team to participate in a World Cup, the national senior  women’s football team created history in October by becoming the first side from the region to ever qualify for the Women’s World Cup. The Reggae Girlz achieved the feat by defeating Panama  4-2 on penalties in their third-place playoff match at the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship at the Toyota Stadium in Texas. The euphoria that overcame the nation brought back memories of France 1998.

 

THE DEATH SQUAD TRIALS

On November 15, police Constable Collis ‘Chucky’ Brown was found guilty on three counts of murder in the so-called death squad trial which had the country spell-bound for nearly two months.

Brown was also found guilty on one count of wounding with intent and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. A six-member jury returned the verdict nearly four hours after they retired on the instruction of High Court Justice Vivienne Harris.

The 16-member death squad operated out of Clarendon between 2009 and 2012 during which they reportedly carried out several extrajudicial killings in their bid to reduce crime in the parish, according to Brown. This was done on the instruction of the senior superintendent in charge of the parish, with the knowledge of the Police High Command, the trial heard.

The year will close with a second so-called death squad trial and the third such since 2017. This as three more Clarendon-based cops - Detective Corporal Kevin Adams, District Constable Howard Brown and Constable Karl Bucknor – are facing murder charges. They are accused of the extrajudicial killing of Andrew Bisson at Cornpiece district in Hayes, Clarendon on September 5, 2011.

 

MICHAEL MCLEAN TRIAL

The other high profile trial of the year involved St Thomas businessman Michael McLean, who was on March 6, 2018, convicted of murdering six members of one family in 2006.

The chef was handed six life sentences.

Among other things, a remorseless McLean was described as a psychopath.

The terms of his sentencing mean that he will serve the rest of his natural life behind bars. Defiant to the end, McLean took the stand during his sentencing in April and descried the court as a “kangaroo court”. He also accused the presiding judge, Justice Bertram Morrison of not being fair.

McLean was found guilty of the February 2006 murders of two women and four children – his girlfriend Terry-Ann ‘Teeny’ Mohammed, her son, eight-year-old Jesse O’Gilvie, along with Mohammed’s niece, Patrice Martin-McCool and her children, six-year-old Jihad McCool, three-year-old Lloyd McCool and nine year-old Sean Chin.

The court heard that during the 12 years that it took for McLean to be brought to trial, he was frequently let out of prison to engage in sexual liaisons with various females. An investigation was launched into that matter.

 

NIGEL CLARKE WINS BY-ELECTION, SWORN IN AS FINANCE MINISTER

On March 5, the JLP’s Dr Nigel Clarke, an economist and businessman, romped to victory over the PNP’s Keisha  Hayles in a by-election called to fill the North West St Andrew seat that was being vacated by veteran Member of Parliament, the JLP’s Derrick Smith.

The win was significant as it gave the JLP a three-seat majority in the 63-member House of Representatives.

Three weeks after his by-election victory, Clarke was sworn-in as Minister of Finance and the Public Service in a mini reshuffle of Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ Cabinet which saw Audley Shaw being shifted to the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries.

At the same time, Fayval Williams was promoted to minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Finance.

The embattled Robert Montague was shifted from the tough National Security portfolio which was handed to Dr Horace Chang who previously served as minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation which is located in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Veteran MPs, Mike Henry and Karl Samuda were relieved of responsibility for Transport and Mining and Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries respectively and placed at OPM.

The by-election became necessary following the resignation of Derrick Smith in January after 29 years as the Member of Parliament for North West St Andrew.

 

PLASTIC BAG BAN

On September 17, the Government announced a ban on single-use plastic bags and straws as well as Styrofoam. The ban will take effect on January 1.

The ban takes effect on January 1, 2019.

Minister with responsibility for the environment, Daryl Vaz, said the ban is aimed at protecting the environment. He said the ban extends to the importation, manufacturing, distribution, and use of all single-use plastic carrier bags commonly called scandal bags.

It applies to bags with dimensions at or below 24 inches by 24 inches. It excludes single-use plastic bags utilised to maintain public health or food safety standards such as those used to package raw meats, flour, rice, sugar and baked goods such as bread.

The ban will apply to the importation of polystyrene foam, commonly referred to as Styrofoam, used as finished goods in the food and beverage industry i.e food and beverage containers.

The local manufacture and distribution of polystyrene foam for use as finished goods in the food and beverage industry will be banned as at January 1, 2021.

 

SUGARY DRINK RESTRICTION

Meanwhile, Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton used his contribution to the Sectoral Debate to announce restrictions on sugary drinks in schools in a bid to cut down on childhood obesity and non-communicable diseases.

Tufton told the House of Representatives in December that effective January 1, 2019, beverages containing more than six grams of sugar per 100 millilitre will no longer be allowed in and around school compounds. As of January 1, 2020, the amount of sugar that will be allowed will be further reduced to a maximum of five grams per 100 millilitre, and a further reduction to a maximum of four grams as of January 1, 2021, according to the approved guidelines.

Tufton also told the House that the amount will be reduced to a maximum of 2.5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitre on January 1, 2023.

“The approval of these guidelines is an important milestone in what has, of necessity, to be a comprehensive multi-stakeholder approach to beating NCDS (non-communicable diseases), and in the best interest of all Jamaicans, and in particular our children,” Tufton said.

 

CORNWALL REGIONAL HOSPITAL

The sick building issue at the Cornwall Regional Hospital dominated the news during the summer before it was overtaken by the Petrojam scandal. Things have largely settled down on that front since CEO at Kingston Public Hospital, Errol Greene was transferred to the Western Regional Health Authority and tasked with overseeing the efforts to restore western Jamaica’s biggest hospital to full operation.

 

LEGACY PROJECTS AND TRAFFIC CONGESTION

Jamaicans, while happy to see much needed improvement works taking place along major thoroughfares, in particular in the Corporate Area, voiced concerns throughout the year about being stuck in traffic. This is due to the so-called legacy projects which see major road works taking place simultaneously along Constant Spring Road, the Mandela Highway and Hagley Park Road, including in the vicinity of Portia Simpson Miller Square at Three Miles where two flyovers are being constructed to ease congestion at an intersection through which some 70,000 vehicles pass daily. The Government has appealed to Jamaicans to exercise patience while using the roads, while highlighting that the improvements will significantly improve commute once the works are completed.

 

THE ECONOMY

On the economic front, the Jamaican economy experienced record high business and consumer confidence during 2018. The Statistical Institute of Jamaica pointed to record low unemployment with growth in the BPO sector largely responsible. Director General of the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ), Dr Wayne Henry said in October that the economy was experiencing a level of economic growth not seen in the last 10 years. Henry made the observation as he appeared before the parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee which examined and approved the First Supplementary Estimates for the 2018/19 fiscal year. He noted that the 2.2 per cent growth that was recorded in the April to June quarter was the largest such quarterly growth rate since 2009. This was followed by 1.9 per cent growth in the July to September quarter.

 

RETURNING RESIDENTS

With at least 11 of them murdered, including the sister of retired Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, returning residents were news makers in 2018, albeit for the wrong reason. Their plight gained international attention when Percival LaTouche, President of the Jamaica Association for the Resettlement of Returning Residents, urged Jamaicans overseas not to return home, to avoid being killed in Jamaica. He was speaking during an interview with Loop News following the gruesome murder of 44-year-old Karen Cleary-Brown, whose body was found, buried in a shallow grave on her property in Boscobel, St Mary. LaTouche charged that the police were not doing enough to protect returning residents.

However, both National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang and Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP), Selvin Hay said the majority of the eleven killings this year were of a domestic nature – done by someone known to the returning resident and one of the most difficult crimes to prevent.

DCP Hay told Loop News that six of the eleven murders were cleared up, meaning a suspect was arrested and charged. This is a cleared up rate of roughly 55 per cent in comparison to the JCF’s normal cleared-up rate of approximately 43 per cent for major crimes, including murders.

 

INSIDE PARLIAMENT

It may not have been one of the busiest years for the legislature but significant legislations were passed.

 

Road Traffic Act

The new Road Traffic Act will replace the 80-year-old law as the authorities move aggressively to reduce road fatalities that topped 360 this year. The new law comes with big fines for traffic breaches which could include jail time. It also makes it possible for vehicle owners - when a breach is captured electronically - to be ticketed, regardless of whether they were the ones behind the wheels. This provision led to brief protests by taxi operators, many of whom thought they were being unfairly targeted. The provision applies to all vehicle owners.
 

Child Diversion Bill

The Child Diversion Bill was passed in the Senate in July and the House of Representatives in May.The main objectives of the Bill are ensuring that every child in conflict with the law is treated in a manner that recognises and upholds human dignity and worth; diverting the child away from engaging in deviant and delinquent behaviours; and instilling in the child respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

The Bill will also see to the establishment of a Child Diversion office; Child Diversion Committees; and a Child Diversion Oversight Committee. It also addresses the structure of the Child Diversion programme, the circumstances under which a child is to be referred, among other things.

 

Building Act

The new Building Act which seeks to strengthen the country’s building code was also passed in the parliament in 2018.


 

Get the latest local and international news straight to your mobile phone for free: