Tue | Mar 2, 2021

Public body raises privacy shield - Shock as education group changes status, stonewalls auditor general

Published:Wednesday | July 29, 2020 | 12:28 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Parliamentary Reporter

Efforts by the Pamela Monroe Ellis-led Auditor General’s Department (AuGD) to get critical information from the Joint Committee on Tertiary Education’s (JCTE) sponsorship of a party or dinner for former permanent secretary Dean-Roy Bernard continue to be met with strong resistance from the entity more than seven months after the request has been made.

Members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) were stunned on Tuesday when they were told by Dr Grace McLean, acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, that the JCTE changed its status to a private entity on February 22, 2019, without informing the ministry.

The body was chaired by Dr Cecil Cornwall.

Monroe Ellis told the PAC on Tuesday that her department had widened its interest in the JCTE.

“I want it to be understood that my interest as it pertains to JCTE is not limited to the more than $400,000 but it relates to the use of funds provided by the Government,” she said.

When the AuGD requested documents from the JCTE, the agency allegedly refused to comply. In an earlier correspondence to the AuGD, Cornwall stated: “The JCTE does not receive Government of Jamaica subvention or any other Government aid, but the JCTE provides services to Government and private organisations. Based on the foregoing, the submission of documents requested by the auditor general’s office would be a violation of the rights of the JCTE, which is a private entity and consequently, would set the wrong precedent for private business operators in Jamaica.”

On July 10, correspondence from the JCTE coordinator to project coordinator, special projects, Office of the Chief Education Officer, indicated that the “amount of $434,114.50 was paid on January 2, 2018” for meals for 70 persons.

OUTSTANDING RECORDS

The auditor general said that the JCTE was yet to provide related payment vouchers, cheques, and authority for the expenditure, nor did it provide any other payment records.

Other records seen by the auditor general indicate that the JCTE received payments of $114.2 million for 2017-18 and 2018-19 from the education ministry and the then HEART Trust/NTA.

Monroe Ellis told PAC members on Tuesday that up to February 22 this year, the JCTE operated under a government-issued TRN.

The auditor general said she would have an interest in knowing what gave rise to the change to a private entity, as well as who granted the authority and approval.

It was revealed to the committee that the ministry had signed a memorandum of understanding with 51 tertiary institutions to support the Career Advancement Programme (CAP). She said that under CAP, the ministry made payments to these institutions and 15 per cent of the amount for each student goes to the JCTE.

McLean said that the JCTE was established in 1991 and later operated as an affiliate of the University Council of Jamaica.

Bernard, who appeared before the committee on Tuesday, said that the JCTE could be running afoul of the Corruption Prevention Act by refusing to account for public documents.

And McLean said that she first became aware that the JCTE had now become a private entity when the auditor general requested information from the entity and the documents could not be provided.

McLean said she wrote letters asking for the documents to be submitted to the auditor general - to no avail.

The acting permanent secretary said after discovering that the JCTE was now a private entity, she curtailed the arrangement that was in place with the ministry.

McLean said she wrote to the chairman on June 8, 2020, stating that the ministry could no longer continue the previous arrangement now that it had changed its status to a private entity.

Committee Chairman Mark Golding contended that prior to the change in its status, the sums used by the JCTE to finance Bernard’s dinner/party were taxpayers’ money.

“On what basis they could possibly say that they are not providing information that the auditor general had asked for to see exactly what payment was made and how much?” he questioned.

Bernard said that he was told by the organisers of the dinner that it was being sponsored through contributions from persons who attended the event.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com