Sunday 12 July, 2020

Holness yet to receive full briefing on alleged impropriety at St Ann

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has indicated that he has not received a full briefing of the happenings at the Michael Belnavis-led St Ann Municipal Corporation (SAMC), which has been linked to allegations of impropriety and corruption. 

Holness, however, said he was always been concerned about the issue of corruption, and pledged that once he is fully aware of the situation at the municipal corporation, action will be taken if necessary. 

The SAMC has been the subject of public scrutiny over the $46.8 million that it reportedly spent in a COVID-19 clean-up project in the resort town of Ocho Rios earlier this year.

Additionally, calls were made by the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) for a probe to be conducted by the Integrity Commission into the installation of an electric charging port for St Ann’s Bay Mayor, Michael Belnavis' private Porsche motorcar by the corporation.

On Sunday, a newspaper article alleged that Belnavis is a director of a private company which reportedly captured government land and constructed a building in violation of Jamaica’s Building Act. In light of those allegations, the anti-corruption watchdog, National Integrity Action (NIA) issued a release on Monday, calling for the resignation or expulsion of Belnavis. 

But when asked about his thoughts on the mayor's stewardship of the SAMC in light of the allegations of corruption, the Prime Minister said he has only had a brief discussion with Local Government Minister, Desmond McKenzie on those issues. 

Holness elaborated that "I have not yet received a full brief on all the issues (regarding Mayor Michael Belnavis). I met with Minister (Desmond) McKenzie this afternoon. We had a brief discussion. He is to give me some more information on it and I'm always concerned about any allegations of impropriety and corruption." 

The Prime Minister who was speaking at a COVID-19 press conference at Jamaica House on Monday said his job was to fully brief himself properly on the issues. 

"My job is to brief myself properly, bring the people in who are the centre of any accusation, get full knowledge and then once I'm satisfied that there is something there that requires action then you would know by my past track record that I do act on these matters," Holness added. 

He did not provide a timeline on when he would be fully briefed on the issues plaguing the SAMC and the allegations of corruption involving its chairman. 

Meanwhile, the NIA in its release called on the councillors of the SAMC to put public interest above party and expel Belnavis for misconduct if he did not resign. 

Additionally, the anti-corruption watchdog reminded Mayor Belnavis and the councillors they are sworn to uphold the Municipal Corporation Act which makes the Corporation responsible for good governance.

The NIA underscored that good practice demands that Belnavis do the right thing and separate himself from the high office of Mayor despite the completion of an ongoing probe of the SAMC by the Integrity Commission.

Earlier this month, representatives of the Integrity Commission conducted a raid at the offices of the SAMC on Friday, June 12. It was said to be in relation to the multi-million-dollar COVID-19 clean-up of Ocho Rios and the charging port installed for the mayor's Porsche.

Reports are that several individuals wearing branded shirts which identified them as operatives of the Integrity Commission descended on the SAMC's offices and searched several areas, including the accounts department and the mayor's chambers.

Several documents, computers and the cell phones of some corporation officials were reportedly seized by personnel from the commission.

No information had yet been released on the purpose of the raid and the reported seizure of the items, but a week prior, the Integrity Commission had given notice to several state agencies that it would be embarking on a probe of the Government's COVID-19 programmes and the related contract awarding.

But Loop News understands that several officials of the SAMC have since been questioned by representatives of the Integrity Commission.

At a press conference on Tuesday, June 9, Belnavis described the criticisms that have been levelled against him over the decision by the SAMC to install the electric charging port as "old fashioned bad mind" and "high-tech lynching."

Belnavis also hit back against calls by the PNP for his impeachment, dismissing that call as being partisan and baseless.

“Because of the frivolous and partisan nature of these charges I was just going to allow all the relevant investigations to take, place where I know I would be vindicated,” Belnavis stated during the press conference at the corporation's office.

“I am now forced to act based on that ill-advised, defamatory and libellous release that was sent out a few days ago by Opposition Spokesperson on Local Government and Community Development, Natalie Neita, calling for my impeachment,” he continued, adding that “It’s almost laughable for someone of the stature of the Opposition spokesperson on local government not to know that a mayor cannot be impeached, but can only be removed by a no-confidence vote.”

Through a press, the PNP said an impeachment of Belnavis is provided for under "Section 18 of the Local Governance Act of 2016, for gross misconduct in office and bringing the municipal corporation into disrepute."

It was revealed at Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) on Wednesday, June 3 that the charging facility that was installed at public expense to power up Belnavis' Porsche had since been removed as a matter of "ethics".

Providing further details, CEO of the SAMC, Rovel Morris, told PAAC members that it cost the municipal authority over $80,000 to install the charging facility, but "all costs that were associated with the installation will be recovered".

Morris rejected suggestions that the municipal authority’s electricity bill had escalated due to the usage of the charging port by the mayor.

But Neita hit back, saying "paid electricity bills for vehicle charging is a violation of public trust and gross abuse of the office of mayor."

According to her, "It is to be noted that this (the charging facility) is an addition to the SAMC providing an official mayoral car for his (Belnavis’) daily commute."

With the dismantling of the charging port, Neita suggested that the action was "proof of a cover-up, and does not remove the stain of abuse of Jamaican taxpayers’ money in general, and the people of St Ann in particular."

She added that “The dismantling cannot repair the breach of rules or repay expended council funds”.

But at the press conference, Belnavis denied any wrongdoing.

He argued that no vehicle was provided for him by the SAMC, and said he used his personal funds to purchase the Porsche, which he claimed he has been using to conduct his mayoral duties.

"No vehicle has been provided to me, which is not the norm for mayors. The municipality is saving taxpayers millions and millions of dollars; (this) is what has really been the situation. I have not applied for travelling for the last three years. As a matter of fact, this has only happened once, which I have been really entitled to," he stated.

While maintaining that there was nothing unlawful about the installation of the charging port, Belnavis said due to the allegations of impropriety and the related controversy, he had the facility removed.

"I categorically and unequivocally deny this (impropriety) and any other allegations raised. These are simply impressions, innuendos and self-serving allegations that are not based on anything but partisan overreach. As a matter of fact, this is nothing short of high-tech lynching and good old fashioned bad mind," he argued.

The mayor said on the other matter of the cost of sanitising the resort town of Ocho Rios, he is looking forward to the completion of any and all investigations, stating that there was a bi-partisan procurement process that involved pricing, and which “I had absolutely nothing to do with”.

 

He added that “This is all a smokescreen and a great big red herring”, stating also that “This is what you would call a great big nothing burger.”

 

Parliament's PAAC membership, in general, suggested that the Integrity Commission or another Government agency with expertise on contract-related matters should be asked to examine the $46.8 million contract that was awarded to the St Andrew-based cleaning company, Rahim Cleaning and Trucking Limited, by the SAMC.

The money that was said to have been spent to clean and sanitise several locations in Ocho Rios under a COVID-19 clean-up project, was described as being "quite inflated" by PAAC Chairman, Dr Wykeham McNeill.

 

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