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Payback feud

Finance and education ministries wrangle over surcharge action against Bernard, McLean

Published:Thursday | January 6, 2022 | 12:08 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Dean-Roy Bernard
Dean-Roy Bernard
Grace McLean
Grace McLean

The finance ministry is considering surcharge action of $11.2 million against sidelined acting Permanent Secretary Dr Grace McLean and more than $112 million against the in-limbo incumbent Dean-Roy Bernard, documents bearing the signature of Darlene Morrison, the financial secretary, indicate.

That revelation comes at the back end of a controversy ignited over the veracity of the disclosure by Education Minister Fayval Williams and her junior minister, Robert Morgan, that surcharge proceedings have been instituted by the finance ministry against both officeholders.

But that development contrasts with a terse statement issued on Wednesday by the finance ministry stating that “no surcharge has been issued” at this time.

“With reference to media reports today (Wednesday) regarding the issue of surcharges, the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service hereby advises that it is currently in the process of gathering and reviewing information to inform evaluation of the recommendation made by the Auditor General for surcharge of Mr Dean-Roy Bernard and Mrs Grace McLean,” the statement said.

At a post-Cabinet press briefing at Jamaica House on Wednesday, Williams said that surcharge action had been taken by the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service.

“Letters would have been written to our permanent secretary, acting, in that regard, and I know that she has taken the necessary steps to deliver the letters that would have come to her,” Williams told journalists, referencing Maureen Dwyer, who has stood in for McLean after she was sent on leave.

Providing further comments on the surcharge letters, Morgan told journalists that they have been “furnished to the persons. They have been delivered to the persons in question. It is now for the persons in question to activate whatever mechanisms within 30 days”.

He said that the process was managed by the Ministry of Finance, noting that the education ministry “has just been a conduit for transferring the information”.

In a Gleaner interview, Bernard made it clear that he had not received notice of any surcharge.

“I have checked with my secretary, checked with my office. No notice has been remitted to my office or to me and, therefore, I am not aware of any such surcharge,” he said.

In a special probe into the Joint Committee on Tertiary Education( JCTE) last year, the auditor general recommended that the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service institute surcharge action against Bernard and McLean on the basis that both officers allegedly failed in their fiduciary duty in causing $124 million to be allocated to the Cecil Cornwall-chaired JCTE.

The auditor general had said that the records revealed that Bernard facilitated the issuance of a TRN to the JCTE in January 2017 despite being uncertain of the committee's role.

In a scathing response on Wednesday, Bernard said that a financial secretary issuing a surcharge against a permanent secretary would be “highly irregular”.

“I am not a junior and, therefore, there is no remit for her to issue any surcharge against me,” the tough-talking Bernard declared.

Calls to Morrison's phone for a response went to voicemail.

The financial secretary has the power, under the Financial Administration and Audit Act, to issue a surcharge against any officer who, among other things, was responsible for any deficiency in, or for the loss or destruction of, any public money, stamps, securities, stores or other Government property.

Bernard told The Gleaner that he has tried, without success, to obtain proof of any action attributed to him in the auditor general's report on the JCTE.

The senior public official said he wrote to the minister of education more than two months ago for a copy of the “so-called letter” he purportedly sent to the local tax authorities requesting a TRN.

He said that to date, a copy of that letter has not been produced.

“I have written to the auditor general for that letter … she would have had to have seen that letter, I suppose, before coming to the conclusion she came to.”

According to Bernard, for any surcharge to be instituted against any officer, there must be losses. He claimed that the auditor general's report spoke of potential losses which were unaccounted-for funds.

“Funds unaccounted for are not losses,” Bernard added.

He said if the chairman of the JCTE refused to account for funds, the authorities could use laws under the Corruption Prevention Act to “get those documents ordered by a court or for the officer who refuses to hand them over to face criminal offences”.

In a new development, Bernard said he received information that documents have been submitted to the Ministry of Education detailing how the funds were used.

“I need to know what are the ministry and the minister saying about that because if that report is in hand, it means that the funds would have been accounted for.”

At Tuesday's post-Cabinet press briefing, Williams also said that the ministry had not yet recovered the $124 million paid to the Cecil Cornwall-chaired JCTE.

On the question of whether McLean would be returning to the ministry this month or in the near future, Morgan said the investigation by the Financial Investigation Division and the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency was still under way.

“As the investigation progresses, the investigation will inform the future action of the Government … . It would be inappropriate for us to act without being empowered by the constituted authority as we also have to contemplate that persons have legal rights that they under the Constitution and various statutes benefit from.”