War of words over Air Jamaica

A war of words between the Jamaican Contractor General and the Cabinet Secretary and reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Finance to comply with a request for information from the Office of the Contractor General created tension between the parties recently.

Several attempts by Contractor General Greg Christie to get confirmation from Financial Secretary, Colin Bullock on whether the national airline, Air Jamaica, was a public body, was met with silence for an extended period.

The Contractor General’s latest move was an ultimatum for Mr. Bullock to respond to his request.

Mr. Christie wrote three letters to the Financial Secretary from as early as April this year, noting that the airline had been classified a public body since December 2004 when Government assumed ownership of the entity.

In this regard, the Contractor General in his April 18 letter advised Mr. Bullock that the airline was required to observe the Government’s procurement procedures as set out in the jurisdiction of the Contractor General and the National Contracts Commission.

On May 9, the Contractor General again reminded the Ministry of Finance of his request for information in relation to Air Jamaica.

“On the assumption that Air Jamaica was in breach of Government of Jamaica’s procurement guidelines, you were requested to supply an outline of the remedial measures and timeliness which your Ministry and the airline are prepared to take to effectively rectify the breach,” he said in the follow-up letter.

In his third and final letter to Mr. Bullock, the Contractor General issued a deadline for compliance, cautioning the Financial Secretary that it was a criminal offence not to conform with the lawful requirement of a Contractor General.

He stated in his letter: “You might not be aware that section 29(b) of the Contractor General Act makes it a criminal offence for a person, without lawful jurisdiction or excuse, to obstruct, hinder or resist a Contractor General in the execution of his functions.”

The tension between the Office of the Contractor General and Government heightened when Cabinet Secretary, Dr. Carlton Davis requested a meeting with Mr. Christie “to discuss the tone of my (Christie’s) communications to senior public service officials”.

In a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Mr. Christie observed that Dr. Davis’ request came a day after his final communication with the Ministry of Finance.

Noting that the letters to Mr. Bullock was copied to the Minister of Finance and the Cabinet Secretary, Mr. Christie stated that the Finance Ministry had since confirmed that Air Jamaica had failed to comply with the Government’s procurement guidelines since 2004.

However, Mr. Christie told the Cabinet Secretary that he was uncomfortable about “the propriety and correctness of my meeting with you to ostensibly discuss the manner in which I should discharge (or should have discharged) my obligatory functions under the Contractor General Act”.

Responding to the Contractor General in a letter dated May 24, 2006, the Cabinet Secretary admitted that he asked his secretary to convey that he wanted to have dialogue with Mr. Christie. “I specifically used the word ‘tone’ and not ‘substance’, advisedly,” he said.

Dr. Davis, acknowledging the roles and responsibilities of the Contractor General, said he would be the last to want to derogate from them. However in a parting shot, Dr. Davis said: “My concern is that one can be much more effective without resorting to the use of a ‘blunt instrument.'”

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