USF hits back

Fund denies former CEO dismissed without cause in 2016

Friday, July 20, 2018

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THE Universal Service Fund (USF) has denied that its former chief executive officer, Dr Hugh Cross, was fired without cause in 2016.

The matter was documented in a release from the USF yesterday, which stated that the former chief executive officer's (CEO's) contract with the fund was not renewed by the new board because of legal advice that it was inappropriately drafted and signed.

The USF said the contract contravened a directive issued prior to the general election of February 2016, against renewing contracts prior to the appointment of new boards, and was signed by the former chairman, Dr Wellesley Blair, after a new board had been appointed.

The USF said it was making the information public, as it was suggested at Wednesday's sitting of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) that Cross was among a number of senior Government employees who were fired by the incoming Government in 2016 “without cause”.

The release also noted that Cross had dropped a case he took to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security after losing his job in 2016, after the board provided legal evidence that the new contract was in contravention of the ministry directive, was signed by the former chairman, and was dated to start approximately three days prior to the expiration of his then current contract.

The issue was first raised by the Jamaica Observer on December 22, 2016, in an article in which the then Opposition spokesman on information, Julian Robinson, had raised “grave concerns over the sacking of heads of critical agencies of the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology over the past three months”.

The USF release stated yesterday:

“Over the past 19 months, there have been uninformed statements and, in some cases, wild rumours from certain quarters, concerning the separation of former long-standing CEO of the Universal Access Fund, Dr Hugh Cross, from that post.

“The board of the USF has kept its powder dry, waiting for the apposite moment to present the facts concerning the issue. It was indeed tempting to respond to claims made in an article published by the Jamaica Observer on December 22, 2016, that Dr Cross was 'terminated without cause and replaced by a political operative'.

“But the board stood firm, even as Dr Cross took the matter of his separation to the Ministry of Labour.

“Given that the issue was raised at Wednesday's sitting of Parliament's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, alongside the fact that Dr Cross has abandoned his challenge at the Labour Ministry, the board deems now an opportune time to state the facts.

“Note that up to the point of his separation from his post in August 2016, Dr Cross had served the USF (formerly Universal Access Fund), as CEO for 12 years, a product of consecutive two-year contracts which he had signed.

“Crucially, the contract he was on at the time of his separation, had an expiry date of April 10, 2016. A perusal of his employment file showed a second employment contract, this one with a start date of April 7, 2016.

“This discrepancy, where Dr Cross had a signed new contract on file even as he had not yet completed his existing contract, gave the USF board, appointed after the change of Administration in 2016, reason to probe the circumstances surrounding the issue.

“These are the facts found in that search:

• On February 4, 2016, four days after the announcement of the date of the general elections of February 25, 2016, the Ministry of Finance and Planning issued a circular advising public boards that no new appointments to executive positions should be made until a new board had been appointed.

• The board of the USF at the material time, including chairman, Bishop Dr Wellesley Blair, and Dr Cross, met on February 11, 2016. At that meeting the February 4 circular from the Finance Ministry was presented to the board.

• Following the JLP's election win on February 25, 2016, a new prime minister and Cabinet were sworn into office. On April 1, 2016 a new board of the USF was appointed.

• Dr Cross signed a new contract dated April 7, 2016. This was done before the new board of the USF had even held its first meeting.

• On April 8, 2016, chairman of the old USF board, Bishop Dr Wellesley Blair, signed Dr Cross' employment contract.

• Nothing in the minutes of the old USF board suggested that Dr Cross' contract was to be renewed. This was likely so because of the Finance Ministry circular, which advised against any such action.

• On July 29, 2016, two directors of the new USF board requested a special meeting to discuss matters of importance, including the issue of the new contract signed by Dr Cross.

• At a meeting of the new board on August 5, 2016, Dr Cross' contract was discussed and found to have been authorised inappropriately and therefore illegal. This conclusion was reached given that at the time he affixed his signature to the document, Bishop Dr Wellesley Blair was no longer the chairman of the USF.

• Consequent upon its review of the matter, the new board acted to separate Dr Cross from his job as CEO of the USF.

“It's useful to note that when our attorney outlined these facts at the Ministry of Labour, in response to the challenge mounted by Dr Cross, the former CEO promptly abandoned the matter.

“The board of the USF took care not to act in a manner to damage Dr Cross' reputation, when the matter of his separation was its rawest.

“We are compelled to come forward now, given that the narrative being created around the USF is of an entity infected by the virus of partisan politics.

“Suffice to say, that such an accusation is a blatant lie,” the release said.

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