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Bunting, Wheatley heading for clash over OCG-flagged telecoms licence

Published:Monday | August 22, 2016 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson

Technology Minister Andrew Wheatley and Peter Bunting, the opposition spokesman on national security, are headed for a potentially major clash when the House of Representatives resumes sittings this month over the spectrum licence issued to Symbiote Investments Limited, the holding company of telecoms provider, CARICEL.

A July 19 report from the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) has linked Symbiote to various irregularities.

Bunting has been fuming that questions he tabled in the House on May 19 and, which were due to be answered by Wheatley from June 9, were not answered up to July 26 when the House last sat before going on its summer recess.

“In the interim,” Bunting asserted then “while we’ve been waiting for the minister to answer, the OCG has issued a 137-page report and what is disturbing is...attempts are being made to change the nature of the answers (because) directors have been added, directors have been subtracted, shareholders have been changed."

The OCG report noted that four people were removed as directors of Symbiote on July 1. 

Responding in the House to Bunting's complaint, Derrick Smith, leader of government business, said: “It is a fact that the questions have been outstanding for quite some time.”

Smith added that the minister had been away on official visit the week before and further, that Cabinet had asked Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte to review the OCG’s report.

“Cabinet decided the questions would not be answered until the Attorney General reports back,” Smith said.

Last month he told The Gleaner that the Cabinet was only meeting for the first time in weeks and he was not sure if the matter was on the agenda.

Bunting had nine questions, one of which asked “whether a thorough due diligence was done in order to determine that the directors, shareholders, and ultimate beneficial shareholders are fit and proper persons to operate a cellular telephone company in Jamaica”.

Speaking with The Gleaner in August, the spokesman said he was sticking to his claim that the minister’s delayed response had given the company time to change practices flagged in the OCG’s response.

"It’s interesting that since my questions were tabled, attempts were being made to change and obviously to obfuscate the true nature of the shareholding of the company. Any reasonable observer could draw a conclusion that his (Wheatley's) delay was to allow these changes to take place before answering,” he said.

Wheatley, in response to Bunting’s claim said the questions would still be answered but suggested that Bunting could be left with some explaining to do in relation to the actions of the previous Portia Simpson Miller Cabinet.

“When Parliament reopens the questions posed by member Bunting will be addressed," Bunting said.

“No,” he replied, when asked to respond specifically to Bunting’s assertion that the delay was to facilitate a change in responses.

“He will get the appropriate response and the response will be up to date as to the information available. I was travelling and the record will show that."

The approval process of the J$2.7-billion licence started under the Simpson Miller administration but, up to the change of government in February, Bunting claimed the then Cabinet was awaiting further reports on the principals of the company to make a full approval.

On May 20, the Holness Cabinet announced that it had approved the granting of a licence to Symbiote.

But in his report, Contractor General Dirk Harrison advised Wheatley not to sign the licence, noting adverse findings relating to George Neil’s association with Symbiote Investments Limited and the existence of adverse findings involving Neil arising from a 2009 OCG probe.

Symbiote’s lawyer, Patrick Bailey, in questioning the OCG's findings, has said the report raised no new material that should cause the minister or Cabinet to resile from their decision to grant the licence.