Sat | Dec 4, 2021

CLEAN-UP TIME

Cornwall initially voiced concerns about incomplete records ahead of audit

Published:Saturday | October 23, 2021 | 12:11 AMJovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporter
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.
Dr Grace McLean
Dr Grace McLean
Dean-Roy Bernard.
Dean-Roy Bernard.
Cecil Cornwall.
Cecil Cornwall.
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A month after he registered an entity with the same name as the Government’s Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE) that he led, Cecil Cornwall told his executive to get its house in order because they could be audited, meeting records have...

A month after he registered an entity with the same name as the Government’s Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE) that he led, Cecil Cornwall told his executive to get its house in order because they could be audited, meeting records have revealed.

It is the first glimpse into the operations of the advisory body in the education ministry that is now at the centre of a $124-million police investigation triggered by a damning auditor general report.

“Cornwall advised that given the scrutiny expected, the JCTE’s records should be up to date,” read a section of the minutes of a March 25, 2019 executive meeting.

He reportedly said that other minutes must be identified to substantiate payments to project officers, that the chairman must approve all payments and that controversial ones should be discussed by the executive.

“The meeting was advised that although the JCTE is a ‘not-for-profit’, the Government can audit the JCTE,” added the document obtained by The Sunday Gleaner.

The JCTE meeting and Cornwall’s warning came five days after Ruel Reid resigned as education minister over allegations of corruption involving the ministry and the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU).

Reid, who is still the appointed principal of Jamaica College, is before the courts on corruption charges.

What did not appear in the minutes was the February 22, 2019 incorporation of an entity called JCTE Limited with two directors – Cornwall and Philmore McCarthy – and Venta Longman as secretary, based on Companies Office of Jamaica records.

There were no shareholders.

All three persons held roles in the Government’s JCTE. Cornwall has been chairman since 2015. McCarthy, the principal of Excelsior Community College, has been treasurer since at least 2015, around the same time Longman took over as coordinator.

At the same March 2019 meeting, there was a specific discussion on the legal status of the JCTE, but again no mention that a private version existed.

Cornwall told the meeting that the JCTE had capitalised on its training objectives and was generating an income, the document said, with an acknowledgement that questions were being raised in some “circles” about the committee’s legal status.

“The meeting was advised that the JCTE is not a legal body, but is contracted to conduct business,” the minutes said. The word ‘not’ was later crossed out and ‘but’ replaced with ‘and’.

It was also noted that the executive committee had agreed that the JCTE “should become” a not-for-profit entity.

An official aware of the JCTE’s operations said up to that meeting, there was no indication that Cornwall had registered a private entity with a similar name to the committee’s.

OTHER MAJOR REVELATIONS

There were other major revelations from the JCTE minutes, including a complaint by Secretary Delize Williams, who is reported to have said communication among executive members needed to be improved because “the team is not sufficiently knowledgeable of the JCTE’s activities”.

As an example, she pointed to the committee’s 2018 conference that she said was in an “advanced state of planning” before the full executive was involved.

Williams is the principal of the Government’s Vocational Training Development Institute.

There was also the disclosure that the education ministry authorised the payment of an honorarium to members of the JCTE committee that managed the various projects, which included the ministry’s Centre of Occupational Studies (COS) and Career Advancement Programme (CAP).

The precise rate is not clear, but it is believed that the funds were taken out of the commission that was paid over to the JCTE, which has been a vexing issue for some colleges, with reports from earlier this year that there was a stand-off between a college and the JCTE leadership over a demand for $40 million out of $400 million that the institution received from the ministry.

The uncertainty with payments from the schools was the problem the JCTE wanted to avoid. This is why initially the ministry withdrew the commission from its disbursement to schools and sent it to the committee.

“I don’t know why we needed to pay JCTE for anything in the first place. If the programmes are for colleges and the ministry approves our cohorts, why is there a need for the JCTE to be a middleman in that process?” said another tertiary leader.

A cashflow statement up to March 31, 2019 showed $10.5 million as balance carried forward. Another financial document showed total liabilities of $2.2 million owed to Surrey Hotel Management Limited, the outfit that owns and operates The Jamaica Pegasus hotel.

Neither Cornwall nor the education ministry responded to Sunday Gleaner questions sent to them on the latest developments.

Among the questions, the ministry was asked to explain the appointments of Odaine James and Meloney Rhynie – with links to Cornwall’s school, CAP and COS – to senior education officer roles, and whether the positions were advertised and interviews done.

A Sunday Gleaner probe had found that COS and CAP were revolving doors for persons affiliated with Cornwall’s three-campus Western Hospitality Institute (WHI) headquartered in St James. A former WHI principal even served as head of COS.

James, who up to this year was a senior occupation officer at COS, said he received an offer letter from the ministry’s human resource section with a six-month probation due to end this month, after which he will be evaluated.

The ministry has also been asked to explain James’ appointment to the board of the Council of Community Colleges of Jamaica.

James, who is the only one of the 11 ex-officio members who is not the head of a tertiary institution, said he is the ministry’s representative on the board.

Rhynie was the director of CAP before her new appointment.

The JCTE was launched in 1991 under Section 6 of the Education Act and is administered by an executive body elected by the members that are tertiary institutions registered with the University Council of Jamaica.

Over the last decade, the entity became involved in the delivery of educational services mainly through its work with COS and CAP, and at least six other projects.

CAP targeted students who left grade 11 without passing any subjects, offering them training opportunities in vocational areas like hospitality, while COS provided associate degrees to CAP graduates to help them qualify for high-level jobs.

The JCTE successfully convinced the ministry to withhold 10 to 20 per cent of amounts paid out to schools per student under the various programmes and turn it over to the committee as administrative fees, which upset several of the over 50 members.

An April Sunday Gleaner story that led to the education minister asking the auditor general to widen a probe revealed that Cornwall’s WHI was the largest beneficiary under CAP and COS disbursement at the same time he was leading JCTE and the oversight committee for CAP.

Cornwall was also the architect of the occupational associate degree programme that led to the establishment of COS that has now been disbanded and its functions transferred to the Council of Community Colleges of Jamaica, which many school leaders believe should have been in charge from it started in 2016.

Cornwall has used the basis of the JCTE Limited’s incorporation to block demands for documents by the auditor general, arguing that that entity was private and its rights could be violated, a 2019 auditor general report on the CMU disclosed.

That disclosure helped to prompt a specific audit of JCTE, which started in December 2019 and ended earlier this month with the publication of a report.

In detailing that over $124 million transferred to JCTE has been unaccounted for, Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis said she was not interested in JCTE Limited but in the state entity JCTE that she revealed was issued a government-owned tax registration number (TRN) in 2017. Records suggest JCTE had its own bank account years earlier.

“The chairman does not have the authority to privatise a government entity. The chairman’s private entity is separate and apart from the JCTE,” Monroe Ellis said.

COULD NOT PROVIDE DOCUMENTS

Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Dr Grace McLean, said that in July 2020 that she became aware of the private entity when the auditor general requested information from the body and the documents could not be provided.

Following a meeting in January 2020 involving Cornwall and the auditor general, McLean reportedly indicated that the ministry would cease doing business with Cornwall’s company.

However, between February 2019 and June 2020, the education ministry transferred $78.5 million to the JCTE using the government-owned TRN.

Approximately $11 million of that amount was authorised by McLean, subsequent to her learning of the status change and indicating that the ministry would have stopped dealing with the JCTE Limited.

The ministry said McLean was sent on leave earlier this month to ensure there was no hindrance to investigations.

When the potential for conflict of interest was put to the ministry in May, given the auditor general’s probe, State Minister Robert Morgan argued that the Government could open itself to a lawsuit if the suggestion is that McLean be asked to recuse herself on the basis “of an accusation not yet borne out in fact”.

The police were called in after the auditor general said: “If the MOEYI is accepting the position of the chairman that the ministry did business with a private entity, then this is a matter which must be further investigated to determine whether a fraud has been committed by a private institution using a TRN for a government institution to receive money under false pretences.”

McLean, against whom a surcharge recommendation has been made, has not commented on the development.

The recommendation has also been made against Dean-Roy Bernard, whom the auditor general has said approved the TRN without finance ministry approval. Bernard, who is contesting his 2019 transfer as permanent secretary, has challenged the claims.

Preaching at her Barbican Baptist Church in St Andrew on August 15, McLean urged persons to withhold judgement on issues until they know all the details.

“We live in a society where the truth is often twisted to suit different agendas. We have seen many times that the truth is so twisted just for it to become more believable and sensational … . We see where readers and listeners, they form their opinion and be very judgemental without even understanding the matters,” she said.

“Worst we live in a society, and this is generally across the world, where headlines become the truth … just a headline, nobody is going to go into the details, it just creates a certain impression,” she said.

Even at the workplace, McLean said: “Friends and colleagues are very judgemental and seemingly powerful when they believe they know the truth. Sometimes even without facts, decisions are made that are detrimental to those that we have to lead.”

Although confirming that Cornwall’s school named a scholarship in her honour, McLean has said she has never had any business relationship with the man.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education denied several Gleaner access to information requests to provide details on expenditures and contracts involving the COS and the JCTE, among other bodies.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com