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Imani Tafari-Ama | Policing thieves in high places

Published:Sunday | January 29, 2023 | 12:41 AM
Stocks and Securities Limited offices on Hope Road.
Stocks and Securities Limited offices on Hope Road.

Even if you were living under a rock for the past few months, the ants and worms would have told you by now that something is very fishy in Jamaica’s financial sector. The nation and many in foreign have been trying to make sense of the collapse of Stocks and Securities Limited (SSL). Jamaica’s fragile tourism recovery runs the risk of utter ruin as state officials scramble to rescue the reputation of the financial sector, which is embroiled in this scandal of seemingly mammoth proportions.

It is a diabolical coincidence that international superstar Usain Bolt is chief among the 40 people robbed of their investments in the embattled SSL. Would the other 39 victims have benefited from this dirty-linen washing if the multi-Olympian medallist did not have the misfortune of investing in the playground of some white-collar scammers? Unfortunately, the SSL debacle seems to be part of an emerging fleecing pattern.

The surfacing of the iceberg that would rock the SSL came on January 7, 2023, when the now infamous Jean-Ann Panton, former wealth advisor, confessed to defrauding select clients of more than US$800,000 and just under J$19 million. Using the antics of semantics, the self-accused said that she borrowed these monies in a systematic defrauding scheme, over at least a decade.

But what of Panton’s bosses? How can they credibly claim innocence when the buck stops with the power broker who pays the piper? Or are we to believe that the piper was calling the tune? Hugh Croskery, an ex-director of the defunct Eagle Merchant Bank, who also led the SSL for years, went public a few days ago to declare his innocence. He also threatened to sue anyone who suggested that he could have been involved in the chicanery business that was taking place under his watch.

PLEADING THE FIFTH

Doth the man protest too much? The trial has not even started and the Jacks in the boxes are all pleading the Fifth. Looking over the ruins though, it is tempting to ask, why would those in charge of SSL not respond to a regulator’s 2017 report, which was acidic in its criticism of the company’s financial health? The lack of an accountability trail rings an ominous note for investigators and clients alike. And why would the directors move to wind up the company on January 16? The Financial Services Commission (FSC), which has taken charge of the SSL, barred the directors from taking this action, which reeks of an attempt to cover up corruption. It is now feared that investors have been left holding empty bags, despite the promise of fraud insurance.

A week after Panton penned her confession, on January 13, 2023, Kadeen Thomas, former wealth advisor at National Commercial Bank (NCB) was charged with defrauding several clients by scamming US$143,000 or $20 million from their accounts. She stole these funds over a two-year period. Concentration of the public gaze on the SSL conspiracy has provided her with temporary cover. As the layers of fraud are peeled away though, we can see that the modus operandi was the same. The patta cats in high places dug deep into their clients’ accounts and called the money their own.

Understandably, Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Minister of Finance Dr. Nigel Clarke have rushed in to rectify the loss of the public’s confidence in the financial system. They have announced a raft of damage control measures to retrieve the bolted horses. However, it is going to take a lot more marketing and public relations to fix the frayed nerves of skittish investors. While collectively mourning the loss of people’s money to brazen white-collar thieves, it might also be prudent to encourage the victims to seek psychiatric support to hurdle them over this trauma. The international embarrassment caused Jamaica by the double whammy of the fraud and the top shot names being bandied about as both perpetrators and victims, has only exacerbated the country’s notoriety.

It is interesting that Micro-Financing Solutions Limited acquired the venture capital arm of SSL in June 2022 for $30 million. This sale coincided with the resignation of SSL top brass including Jeffrey Cobham (chairman) and Director Zachary Harding. The latter has been among those claiming innocence of wrongdoing. Despite the ownership shift of SSL Venture Capital (SSLVC), SSL continued its pattern of massive losses.

OMINOUS PATTERN

An ominous pattern is playing itself out in these violations of public trust by prominent actors. It makes one ask, is dishonesty gendered? Do men get away with these crimes more easily than the current crop of exposed women? Or does politics trump accountability? Who keeps shredding the footprints of culpable wrong-doers? For those not suffering from short-term memory loss, cast your minds back a few years to the Petroleum Company of Jamaica (PetroJam) scandal that rocked the island when that story was centre-stage. Did the men fingered as dishonest do their time for their crimes? Can’t recall that happening.

Just when you thought that things could not get any more brutal, news exploded about the debacle at the Child Protection and Family Services Agency (CPFSA). It may not be directly related to the financial scandal, but it is relevant to cite as a case of another key holder of power having lost her moral compass. The CPFSA is mandated to protect the young and vulnerable and maintain high moral and ethical standards to prevent them from experiencing harm. How then could Carl Robanske, CEO of Embracing Orphans, and a known sex offender have had access to wards of the state and exposed himself to them? Robanske, ran The Father’s House, a transition facility that housed wards of the state. The report submitted by Children’s Advocate, Diahann Gordon Harrison, damned the head of the CPFSA, Rosalee Gage-Grey and called for her removal for being derelict in her duty to protect the wards from harm.

Jumping in after reading the tea leaves, executive director of National Integrity Action, Professor Trevor Munroe, recommended that, like any other Samfie, white-collar criminals at the beleaguered SSL should be brought to book. It therefore seems that the narrative the embattled institution is an exception to an otherwise resilient financial sector and that business will proceed as usual, is beginning to ring hollow.

Dr Imani Tafari-Ama is a research fellow at The Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Office (IGDS-RCO), at The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to imani.tafariama@uwimona.edu.jm.