How one hand washes the other

October 30, 2008

I had a bit of downtime today, so I decided to write the following letter to the Gleaner.  The letter is in response to the claims of innocence by Rae Barrett, regarding the JUTC’s board which authorized the use of NHF monies to provide private security for him, using the company for which he is chairman, Marskman.  Nice, neat, convenient arrangement isn’t it?  Except, as Rudy Spencer points out, it has turned out to be a rather messy affair.  Really now? Who’d a thunk it? In Jamaica of all places? Perish the thought!

But wait nuh! ‘ear di one Rae Barrett nuh inna one long piece o’ memo:

“The company used to provide the security was Marksman Ltd where I have been chairman for over 20 years. Security was provided for my person and home. Note, I had nothing to do with the appointment of this company.”

Hmmm.  He seems like a bright man, but I guess he really doesn’t understand what “conflict of interest” means.  Maybe I should explain it to hm?

No Rae, you did not choose the company that would provide protection for you.   Nor did you sign the check paying for the services.  But you had something to do with accepting the services that were being negotiated with you in mind, and on your behalf.   You chose to accept and to use the services of  Guardsman.  Nobody held a gun to your head, or inferred that this was a condition of your employment.  YOU alone also chose not to make your 20-year relationship with Guardsman part of the equation and a deal-breaker.  Yes, the board members inappropriately put the issue on the table, but you lapped it up and kept right on stepping.  You didn’t stop to ask ‘ow it go look?  You just relied on the notion that since the board approved, then nobody could say it was not ok.   At least you couldn’t be accused of using the monies to provide your own security without anybody’s permission.  That would clearly be tiefness bizness.  But what you did was also another kind of tiefness.   The vagueness of the letter from the board also suggests that they don’t know how to say that you are a crook without implicating themselves.  Yes, you’re going down, but you could choose to take them with you.  What a prekkeh!

Barrett goes on in the memo to detail how, as the take-charge kinda guy he is, he was the one who terminated the security services this month.  I guess he finally figured out that something was not quite right with the arrangement?  Why?  Because it was leaked to the media.  How long did it take him?  Over two months?  I guess we should be glad that it wasn’t five years before we even found out.   Even so, nice job, Tyrone Reid!

Clearly the board was completely complicit in this arrangement – they probably thought they were doing Barrett a favour.  However, Barrett also had a responsibility to act in an ethical and professional fashion.  Thankfully, at least one person in this hoo-ha has seen that they did something wrong, at least in our eyes; Ryland Campbell, the chair of the board resigned.  I bet the rest of them are claiming innocence too; that’s so childish. Yep, I can hear the chorus already. Anno mi! Anno mi!  Mi neva know seh anno so mi fi dweet!  If nobaddy nuh tell me seh anno so i’ fi go, den a  ‘ow me whe’ fi know?   Makes you wonder what other kinds of decisions like these they have made in the past.  Given all the other problems with JUTC, I think someone should study their minutes carefully.  Anyway, here goes:

To the editor:

Regarding the latest practices of malfeasance at the JUTC: it seems prudent to suggest that the decision to fire Rae Barrett as CEO of the National Health Fund was a reactive one, aimed at demonstrating responsiveness to the problem, rather than to show that there is any serious awareness of and concern about corruption practices on the part of the board of directors.  Nonetheless, it was the correct decision, in my view.

In fact, Rae Barrett should be removed as CEO because he was aware of the conflict of interest between his role at Marksman and receiving services from Marksman, but chose not to make that conflict a part of the board’s decisionmaking.  Monies were being removed from the fund he was supervising to be paid for private security using a firm for which he is chairman, and thus funnelled back into his pockets.   While Barrett is claiming ignorance, I believe that the public sees through such tactics quite easily. The board’s decision did not bond him to accept the services of Marksman; he chose to do so, and thus acted in a self-serving way, at the public’s expense.

Barrett should also be removed from his position at JUTC because he used his influence and position in one area – as deputy Chairman – to usurp monies and public trust in another area – NHF funds – over which he also had jurisdiction.  In other words, he figured out a way to have his left hand communicate with his right hand, and is now blaming his head – the board – for making the decision, and thus refusing to take responsibility for the actions of his hands.

The Board of Directors of the JUTC should also be fired for authorizing such a decision to remove monies from a protected fund and to use it to pay for Barrett’s personal security using his own company.  They knew that they should not touch that money, and yet they chose to do so, not believing that the public would find out, or that we would have the intelligence to discern that their practices were unethical.  No matter how much they might want to deny that they knew that Barrett was a chairman of Marksman, there is no way they could not have known this information. The circle of corporate elites is quite small in Jamaica.

The issues raised in this particular situation should be instructive to all of us. Much of the corruption and the usurping of public resources for nefarious purposes operates through the decisionmaking processes of boards of directors of private and public corporations.  Many of the directors on the boards are members of interlocking networks. That is, a single individual often sits on multiple boards, often in both private and public entities, and has overlapping personal and professional relationships that are of consequence to how and why they make decisions. Sometimes those personal networks and affiliations are the reason they became board members and are seen as useful to the institution.

However, because there is no shared understanding or agreement about what accountability and ethical conduct looks like in Jamaica, the personal networks of individual directors are often conduits for activities that are not necessarily in the interest of the institution. Likewise, the silence and complicity of other board members creates a kind of conspiratorial environment that promotes the very kind of unethical decisions and practices that we see in the case of the JUTC. For those who are so inclined, they know and believe that they can get away with these kinds of behaviours because their fellow board members may have done similar things, or are waiting their turn to do the same.

The language of “good governance”, “accountability” and “transparency” are often thrown around as if it is clear what we are talking about, and that there is broad commitment to the principles they are based on. But everyday we see examples of how such jargon is precisely that, and hardly touches the way things actually work in Jamaica. Organizations don’t make decisions; people do.  This JUTC case, like the case of Mark Wehby and GraceKennedy last year, reminds us that there ought to be serious scrutiny of the boards of directors, and how the constitution of these boards affect public life.  It’s well past time that we removed the veil around boards and recognized them as critical centers of powerbroking in this society.


8 Responses to “How one hand washes the other”

  1. Well said. Not to mention that persons involved in these “boards” are often related to each other, making it even more convenient for “back scratching”….

  2. longbench Says:

    Yes indeed. Nepotism is a way of life in these circles. This is the kind of thing that watchdog groups can root out and make known. We wouldn’t have to be constantly surprised by corruption if we were being vigilant.

  3. huh? Says:

    I know Rae Barrett, as he is a close family friend, with my uncle being Douglas Chambers, the slain JUTC chairman. Rae claims he had nothing to do with the awarding of his security contract to Marksman, as a committee was set-up to deal with the issue of security. After he found out that the contract was awarded to his company, he tried on several occasions to end the contract, which proved futile.
    I think that the fact that this government seems to act on impulse (their’s or sum1 else’s) and then scramble to find an explanation is something that I’ve personally gotten fed-up with.
    As far as i can see, this will turn into an issue that will never be explained to us

  4. longbench Says:

    Matt – Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, what you offer here is just as much hearsay as what we get in the press, so your claims are not more valid because Rae is yuh good good fren. But even your account shows Rae’s complicity. Trying to end the contract sounds valiant; not using the service and keeping a paper trail of one’s objections is what most educated people would do.

    You’re right of course, it will never be explained to us because we don’t care to ask and find out. That’s why we are always repeating our past mistakes; we don’t even know what the mistake was or whether it happened last year or last century.

  5. shiva Says:

    As someone who actually knows people concerned in this matter, i thought i’d add my two cents to a very well worded argument that is completel based on second hand information.

    It’s easy to pass judgment on information that is fed to you, but i find it interesting that the negative tone and critical air with which such judgment is passed completely ignores the possibility that perhaps the story being fed via the media is orchestrated to paint things in a certain light?

    If Mr. Barrett was so stupid as you claim, it’s a wonder he’s gotten this far. Wonder even that the government that hired him has now miraculously discovered, after years of knowing him personally as well as professionally that any decisions he makes that involve multiple companies with which he is involved should demonstrate misappropriation.

    I think the writer of this blog is naive of how capitalism functions, and appears a little bitter at not being allowed to play the game. Truth is most people of power have gotten to that level with hard work via multiple avenues. You would be hard pressed to find ANY high ranking official to be caught free from involvement with arrangements to widespread and mutual benefit, and frankly what’s so wrong about that. It’s the capitalist way. Those who object are usually upset that things haven’t gone their way, and find means of stirrign up the ignorant mob, to create feelings of unjust bheaviour as a means to their own end (naturally leaving the mob non the wiser as they are dazzled by the story rather than the plot, if you know what I mean.)

    Perhaps this amounts to more 20 cents than two, but esentially I would encourage you to take a wider view and perhaps do some more independent research (beyond the puppetmaster’s dailies, hello) before passing judgement. inform yourself then speak, otherwise please spare us another outlet of ignorant rabble.

  6. longbench Says:

    Shiva – Thanks for stopping by.

    I am really not sure what your point is. Unless you are one of the people involved in the scandal, then you are also working with second-hand information. You have not provided any verifiable information that directly contradicts what is in public circulation, so I am not sure why I should take your rant very seriously.

    Unfortunately, you also embrace a rather tired logic – any criticism has to be either a result of ignorance or sour grapes – which hardly encourages further dialogue.

    Finally, in conflating “capitalism” with the kind of internecine corruption that characterizes **governmental** institutions in Jamaica, apparently you don’t seem to recognize the ill effects of such practices on Jamaican society, as long as you are among those who benefit. Lovely. As for the “ignorant mob” comment, I won’t dignify that with a response. We sure have a long way to go, don’t we?

    And, as always, if you don’t like what you find here, you are free to go somewhere else, or start your own blog.


  7. shiva Says:

    Hi LB,

    The whole point was to stress the need to look at various sides to a story, in order to provide a truly objective and original commentary.

    The reason why I came here was because I didn’t like what I saw, I thought blogs were meant as forums for debate, so I was wondering if you’d provide information to change my thoughts. No interest/ time to start a blog of my own.

    With regard to the ill effects of hand washing in government, my point there was to take into perspective overall effects and to have other readers question the severity of these actions. What if Marksman provided the cheapest quote? had a longer track record for better service? People’s lives are at stake here, why not hire the best. What if the government decided to go down that route because they knew they could get a discount on the service, and thus cut costs to the taxpayers? Is it so objectionable then, handwashing or otherwise? See, these are the things that make the situation seem less sensational, but sadly sensational news make headlines that sell papers. Mr Barrett was chairman of Marksman from before even the last time that this government was in power, and his position has never been a secret, the company is public and all reports are published and distributed (as a former shareholder, i used to receive these reports), so to twist this to allow people to cry ‘aha! he’s a crook’, just seems like a cheap shot to me. That’s what got me interested in this scandal, i couldnt believe that people were up in arms about this when i heard about what was going on.

    re the capitalist rant, i just think its sad that people like to tear others down when theyve gotten to a certain level, as it makes those who havent ascended as quickly nervous. That happens in every capitalist society and schoolyard (jealousy is a natural evil) but i think in the tiny fishbowl of the island petty grievances get blown up on a much larger scale, to the greater detriment of those involved. I get my information from phoning people involved and keeping tabs on the situation, then i get my understanding of the public response from seeing what the papers read, so really i do it in reverse so that i can better form my own opinions. Also just to ease your mind, I am not involved in the scandal, i live overseas, where handwashing occurs as well, but is viewed and assessed with bigger grains of salt.

    With the world economy collapsing its sadly amusing to see jamaica still caught up in finger pointing at the smallest details while missing the bigger picture! Did this man cost taxpayers any money? No. If all calculations are done, did he make any real monetary gain from the marksman association? No, his bursary as chairman ( and it wouldn’t warrant a full salary, those positions never do) is the same regardless. Did he steal from the Jamaican people? No. Has he pissed off the new government? Yes. Has he pissed them off because perhaps they want him to do things he will not agree on, and thus they realise best get him out now while they can with a smear campaign?? I’m still digging to get a solid yes/ no answer for this one….will keep you posted.

    Just a bit funny that all negative comments made on him are always done in parliament, the one place where speech cannot be used in a court of law to determine slander… this whole thing seems too well orchestrated and stinks to high heaven… really sad for a simple, amiable man I used to see around town.

  8. longbench Says:

    Shiva – You raise some really good points so thanks for returning.

    Let me just pan out a bit: the problem with the handwashing thing in Jamaican politricks is not just, or even about the mutual benefit to the handwashers. The problem is there are no guidelines anywhere that make it clear when, why and whose hands can be washed by whose, you follow me? So, there’s no way to ferret out when some behaviour is not in the public interest, and when it is. In fact, I would venture to argue that the public interest is generally not served by the kinds of secrecy and backdoor dealings that generally go on, no matter how much they might want to claim that taxpayers’ money is not being used. The cost is not merely in monetary terms, but also in more social terms: this thing called “public trust” and “confidence” does matter in all kinds of ways. Because so much is done according to what is beneficial for individuals, when there is vexation and what not, den who fi dead get kill, who fi fire, l’ass dem job, who fi run whe’h, tief di money an gone. There is no accountability to anybody anywhere. Only the handwashing parties get to decide how the game goes down. If we model most business and political interactions on this kind of behaviour, well, we get what we have now. Utter chaos from top to bottom.

    One of the things that i see happening is that various folks – I might even include myself on this one – are introducing and problematizing certain issues in ways that we have not given much thought to before. In our lovely scandalmongering country that wants to see itself as on the cusp of 1st world status, highfaluting language like “stakeholders”, “corruption”, “conflict of interest” etc. all seem like just what the newspapers should be saying and doing. Except, we don’t know a bloody thing about how not to be corrupt in our dealings. So even the accusations of corruption now are being borne of corruption! But I will still hold all public servants to that same standard of ethical conduct, even as I see that we have nuff work to do, and even as I see how certain people like our PM are manipulating some of these criticism to his own ends.

    On this issue: I don’t fault Barrett nearly as much as I fault the board. He’s really just a fall-guy who can actually be redeemed; at the end of the day, his level of responsibility and culpability in this is madness is not negligible, but certainly not enough to go to jail for. I don’t know him but you clearly do enough to attest to his character; my grandmother uses to say when you lay down with dogs, you bound to catch fleas. Some serious mangy dog was on that board.

    If I were choosing a security firm, it would probably be Guardsman for the simple reason that that company has been around the longest, has a good reputation as such companies go, and is on top of its game. But, if we are going to play the game right, then do it openly. The board didn’t need to lie and claim they didn’t know this and that. Barrett didn’t need to claim innocence. There wouldn’t need to be fact finding because they would have noted the possibility of conflict of interest, and had an explanation ready. But only if their process was clean. There will be a few casualties but the really mangy ones are still to be caught. I don’t listen to them fools in parliament. Dem deh do wusser dan whe Barrett do, but use dem position fi cover dem baxide. But, you know, ol time people seh ebery dog have dem day, every puss dem four o clock.

    Yes, this whole JUTC thing is worse than Riverton; beg yuh please, when you get more info, drop it right yah so.

    Walk good.


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