Mon | Aug 10, 2020

PM stands by his man - Scandal-plagued Wheatley may get second chance as minister

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2020 | 12:26 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Dr Andrew Wheatley, MP for St Catherine South Central, trails Prime Minister Andrew Holness at the handover ceremony for National Housing Trust units at the SilverSun Estate in Wheatley’s constituency on Wednesday. Despite a damning Integrity Commission
Dr Andrew Wheatley, MP for St Catherine South Central, trails Prime Minister Andrew Holness at the handover ceremony for National Housing Trust units at the SilverSun Estate in Wheatley’s constituency on Wednesday. Despite a damning Integrity Commission report detailing a web of corruption-enabling mechanisms, Holness said that he saw no reason for Wheatley not to run for his Jamaica Labour Party.

Despite adverse findings against Dr Andrew Wheatley by the director of investigation at the Integrity Commission, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has hinted that he would not rule out appointing the embattled former energy minister in a future Cabinet.

Asked by Radio Jamaica’s Dionne Jackson Miller during Wednesday’s digital press conference if he would return Wheatley to a new Cabinet after a general election, the prime minister suggested that his position on that issue remained unchanged from yesteryear.

“My answer then would be an excellent answer for your question today (Wednesday),” said Holness, referencing a similar query asked in 2018 after Wheatley resigned in the wake of the then auditor general’s findings into allegations of malpractices at Petrojam.

“I have paid close attention to public opinion. I’m always a believer in second chances, reforming, and redemption, but at this moment, there are still things to consider before that can happen,” said Holness in 2018.

On the question of Wheatley’s candidacy in the next general election, Holness said that there would be no “moves at this time not to have him run as a candidate”.

“MPs are obviously elected by the people. I can’t remove an MP from his position. There are processes in law for that to occur as it relates to whether or not Dr Wheatley continues as a candidate. From what I have seen and what I have observed and my own analysis of the situation, I don’t think there will be any move at this time not to have him run as a candidate,” he said.

The embattled former energy minister, who is a Holness loyalist, has been referred to the director of corruption prosecutions in the Integrity Commission in a damning report released on Tuesday.

The director of investigation said that Wheatley was “dishonest in his representations concerning Ms Sophia Deer and whether he sought to mislead and did mislead the director of investigation”.

Deer is the principal of Homestead Primary School, which is located in the St Catherine South Central constituency in which Wheatley is the member of parliament. She also sat on several boards within the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology when Wheatley was minister.

There was, however, no credible evidence of nepotism, the report said.

STEP DOWN

Addressing the issue during an interview on Power 106 on Wednesday, Jeanette Calder, executive director of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal, said that based on the latest report from the Integrity Commission, Wheatley should step down as a member of parliament.

“In light of what the auditor general had already shared then, I felt that it would have been appropriate for the former minister to do so,” she said.

“Certainly, with the details that have come forward now, it removes any doubt in my mind that it would be the right thing to do for Jamaica.”

Calder said that if she had the chance to quiz the prime minister, her first question would be: “What does accountability look like to you, PM?”

According to Calder, accountability has remained an abstract term during Holness’ more-than-four-year term.

“I don’t know what it means to the prime minister,” she said.

Calder quoted the prime minister’s response to a question on Monday from The Gleaner on controversy engulfing St Ann’s Bay Mayor Michael Belnavis, including revelations of his role in a private company that captured government land and constructed a building in violation of the law. In the midst of a Sunday Gleaner probe, the building was demolished.

Said Holness: “My job is to brief myself properly, bring the people in who are at the centre of any accusation to get full knowledge, and once I am 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.”

However, Calder contended that “I want Mr Holness to unpack for Jamaica what does act mean, because to date, over the four years, I really cannot point to any case of real accountability. I see the process begin. I don’t see it end”.

She argued that the director of investigation has referred to administrative breaches in his report.

“Administrative sanctions can be taken,” he added.

But Holness said at Wednesday’s press conference that any fair assessment of his leadership as prime minister would conclude that he has taken strong action within the law.

“There is an unrealistic narrative that expects the prime minister to act on matters without first being properly informed, without having solid legal ground to act, without the benefit of the investigative and prosecutorial authorities to inform my action,” he said.

Besides Wheatley, then Education Minister Ruel Reid was forced to step down after being enmeshed in fraud allegations involving his wife and daughter as well as Caribbean Maritime University President Fritz Pinnock and JLP Councillor Kim Brown Lawrence.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com