Hutchinson slapped for ‘appalling conduct’

THE Integrity Commission (IC) says the education ministry needs to create, implement and enforce a policy regarding conflicts of interest involving Members of Parliament (MPs) and candidates they put up for appointment to the boards of publicly funded schools.

The commission made the recommendation in a damning report tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, calling out MP for St Elizabeth North Western JC Hutchinson for “appalling conduct” and impropriety in his role as a public servant with the responsibility to act with fairness and transparency in discharging his duties.

Kevon Stephenson, the commission’s director of investigations, urged Prime Minister Andrew Holness and the speaker of the House of Representatives to sanction Hutchinson for his conduct in light of the damage to public confidence which his actions may have caused.

The commission also recommended that Holness commission a general review of the issue of conflict of interest in Government and the impact on public confidence, with a view to creating clarifying legislation.

The report said the MP had recommended his intimate partner of 32 years, Lola Marshall Williams, for appointment to the board of five publicly funded schools within his constituency on at least 11 occasions since 2008. This is despite multiple documented objections from stakeholders, including the Ministry of Education’s regional director and the principal of the schools.

The allegation, among several others, was made by a whistleblower in February 2018, prompting the probe. The other claims, which the commission confirmed, are that Hutchinson had recommended to the St Elizabeth Municipal Corporation, a company owned by his son Jason Hutchinson to undertake work at Lacovia Community Centre, and Lacovia Training Centre in the constituency. Three cheques totalling $713,512 were made out to the company between March and August 2018, the commission said, noting that the MP, his son, and Marshall Williams all reside at the same home in St Elizabeth.

Stephenson directed the recommendations regarding appointees for school boards to the education ministry on the basis that the National Council on Education has no internal policy regarding conflicts of interest in relation to MPs and candidates recommended by them for appointment to boards of public schools.

“It is recommended that the National Council on Education and/or the Ministry of Education, implement and promote a merit-based system by which a qualified person may apply for and be appointed to serve on school boards. It is further recommended that this system be supported by a training programme, akin to the justice of the peace training programme conducted prior to commission, with a view to preparing persons to serve on school boards. This recommendation is posited in an effort to reduce the politicisation of the process and to minimise the appearance of nepotism and conflicts of interest, which threaten the integrity of the appointment process and, by extension, the governance of the public entities involved,” the commission outlined.

Furthermore, Stephenson said, the education regulations 1980 should be revised to include strict guidelines regarding the management, disclosure and avoidance of conflicts of interest in the acceptance of recommendations for individuals to be appointed to school boards.

The recommendation comes at a time when Government and stakeholders in the teaching sector are at loggerheads over the proposed Jamaica Teaching Council Bill, including anxiety over what the level of oversight role of school boards will be when the professionalising body receives its legislative teeth.

Meanwhile, the report said Hutchinson deliberately attempted to divorce himself from the process of identifying projects and recommending contractors to the municipal corporation for the award of Government contracts, by indicating that the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) coordinator for his constituency acted on her own, and took directives from political organisations in the constituency, without his knowledge.

Furthermore, the commission found that the MP’s claims regarding the autonomous role of his administrative assistant, who is the CDF coordinator, and his “lack of involvement and awareness of the projects undertaken within his constituency and the source of funding for same, were misleading”.

This is the second time in two years that Hutchinson has been named for misconduct in public office. In 2020, the MP was stripped of his long-standing post as agriculture state minister due to a controversial land divestment deal with Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings Limited. Marshall Williams had also resigned as chair of the parish advisory board of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority after Holland Producers Limited, of which she was a director, found itself at the centre of that controversy.

In its other recommendations, the commission said MPs should refrain from operating constituency offices or other politically affiliated offices within community centres and similar spaces, which are designated specifically for non-partisan public use and access.

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