Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Birthday backlash! - McLean under fire in CMU probe

Published:Wednesday | July 15, 2020 | 12:26 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Parliamentary Reporter
From left: Grace McLean, Dean-Roy Bernard, and Ruel Reid.
From left: Grace McLean, Dean-Roy Bernard, and Ruel Reid.

Strenuous attempts by Dr Grace McLean to justify the spending of more than $400,000 in 2018 to stage a surprise birthday party for Fritz Pinnock, the former president of the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU), were rejected on Tuesday by the hard-hitting Public Accounts Committee.

McLean, who stated that she was asked by then Education Minister Ruel Reid to coordinate the party, told members of the committee that Ministry of Finance Circular No. 25 was used as an overarching guide to carry out the directive.

However, former permanent secretary in the education ministry, Dean-Roy Bernard, made it clear in a Gleaner interview on Tuesday that he did not give permission to anyone at the ministry to use public funds to host any party for the then CMU president.

“I did not give Dr McLean any such permission,” Bernard said plainly, noting that Circular 25 indicates that permission should be given by the head of the entity.

The document, according to McLean, indicated that money could be spent on major anniversaries, awards, and awards functions.

However, what is being described as a birthday party was not borne out by an invoice on which the Auditor General’s Department reported earlier.

In her CMU report to Parliament, Monroe Ellis had said her department identified a payment amounting to $406,747.57, which was approved by the then chief education officer at the education ministry in respect of a surprise birthday party for the CMU president. McLean was the chief education officer at the time.

DECEITFUL DOCUMENTATION

However, a review of payment vouchers and supporting documentation by the auditor general revealed that these payments were for “hosting meeting with the Caribbean Maritime University and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information on August 16, 2018”.

By way of a memorandum dated August 14, 2018, addressed to the then chief education officer from the project coordinator, request was sought and obtained for the payment of $277,290 for hotel expenses. The approval was given by McLean on August 15, 2018, and the payment executed on the same day.

“The matter of celebratory activities is something that has always happened since I joined the ministry in 2009. It’s not unusual to have a celebratory activity, but we make sure we observe the expenditure carefully,” she explained.

However, Peter Bunting, committee member, argued that the circular was irrelevant in relation to the surprise party for Pinnock.

“I think it is really a stretch to be trying to use that to justify these parties for senior officials. I feel almost uncomfortable for the PS to be put in a position to be trying to defend the indefensible, because this really is,” Bunting contended.

“There is no circular that could support this type of splurging at taxpayers’ expense; these parties, yachts, and whatever ... it is just not provided for in any circular, clearly in breach of government policy, and an abuse of taxpayers’ funds,” he charged.

Committee member Mikael Phillips asked the permanent secretary to list the category in which Pinnock’s party fell. Responding, McLean said: “This speaks to major anniversaries. It also speaks to awards and awards functions. In that case, I think it was his birthday.”

“Guided by the circular, I would not have thought that there would be anything untoward as it relates to what the circular says and the specific activity that was being organised,” she added.

However, Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis made it clear that the ministry circular relates to government employees.

“My understanding is that there is a guest list for these parties, and it is along that background that the expenditure was questioned,” she said.

Monroe Ellis pointed out that the limit per staff member was $7,000. “If you take that into consideration and apply it strictly to one or two of these parties, the payments would not exceed probably $30,000 from the Government if you take into consideration Government employees, for which the circular relates,” she added.

Hope Blake, deputy financial secretary in the Ministry of Finance, also told the committee that the aim of the circular was to address welfare activities for staff and, as such, certain limits were put in place.

Further, Bernard said that he did not give any permission for the use of public funds to be spent for an appreciation function held in his honour. The former permanent secretary said that his attendance was only secured after being assured that the money being spent was not government funds. The auditor general also reported that the CMU staged a birthday party for former minister Reid.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com