Farm Roads Rehab Programme controversy

* PNP charges mismanagement of funds * Opposition's claims absurd, says RADA

BY SHANAE STEWART
Observer staff reporter
stewarts@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

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Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) Chairman Nigel Myrie yesterday dismissed as “untrue” and “absurd”, a claim by Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips that funds allocated for the Farm Rehabilitation Programme were being mismanaged.

“The Rural Agricultural Development Authority rejects the statement issued today (yesterday), November 19, by the parliamentary Opposition regarding the Farm Road Rehabilitation Programme being implemented by this agency,” Myrie said in a voicenote.

“The public should be aware that the total value of this programme for the past four years, since 2015, has been $1,724,000,739 for work done nationally and not in any one parish or constituency,” he added.

Myrie's response came a few hours after Phillips charged at a news conference at People's National Party headquarters in St Andrew that “a massive scheme to steal public funds” was taking place at the State agency.

“Members of the media will recall that in October the auditor general of Jamaica sent to Parliament a report of an audit of RADA. This report contains the findings and assessment by the Auditor General's Department of RADA's management of the Rehabilitation of the Farm Roads Programme and raises serious issues. These issues give rise to our concern about the level of diversion of funds and the overall mismanagement of the Farm Roads Programme,” Phillips said.

“First of all, for comparative context, the overall budgetary provision for farm roads islandwide was approximately $470 million (for 2017 to 2018). However, in St Thomas alone, total contracts were prepared in the amount of $1.6 billion in that same year for bushing only. This contract expenditure was more than double the budget allocated for the whole island,” Phillips said.

“But this is not the heart of the scandal. Our investigations reveal that the job rates in these contracts were way out of line with the rates being paid by the NWA (National Works Agency) for the same work.

“The difference between the NWA's rate and RADA's rate is over 6,000 per cent,” he said, while affirming that there are at least two instances where bushing was paid for at the “scandalous rate”, and that proof will be submitted to the auditor general.

“The first scandal of this Government was the $800-million bushing scandal in 2016. This 'Bushing 2.0' makes that first bushing scandal seem like a tea party,” Phillips said.

“He also said that based upon an investigation by Victor Wright, the Opposition spokesman on agriculture, and Dr Fenton Ferguson, the Member of Parliament for St Thomas Eastern, “we do not believe that any of this bushing was done, much less to find evidence to justify the scandalous rate that has been paid”.

However, in his response, Myrie said the suggestion by the Opposition that “$1.6 billion was spent in St Thomas alone is absurd. It is also important for the public to be aware that no contracts were issued under this programme for bushing solely, but rather contracts including paving, patching and grading”.

He also said that the claim made by Phillips that bushing contracts were being done at a rate of $10,380,000 per kilometre under the programme while the NWA was paying a rate of $150,000 per kilometre for bushing is untrue.

“The rates used by RADA are consistent with the NWA-recommended rates and no concerns regarding rates were raised in the auditor general's report for October 2019,” Myrie said.

He also said “RADA notes that the issues raised by the Opposition are not raised in the recent auditor general's report or the internal audit reports. As such, the authority encourages the Opposition to share any and all information with our parent ministry and the investigative authorities.”

Phillips called on the auditor general to conduct a financial audit of RADA and said he also wants the Major Organized Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency to subject RADA to a thorough forensic investigation. In addition, he said that the prime minister should relieve Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw and his junior minister JC Hutchinson of their duties until the investigations are complete.

Phillips also said that the auditor general, in her report, highlighted other findings such as the abandonment of procurement and oversight practices which led to negative consequences in value for money, the absence of transparency in the selection process, and a failure to provide specifications and scope of work in the contracts, which limited the ability to measure against the contracts and hold contractors accountable and liable.


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