Monday, April 15, 2013

Snubbed! Cabinet dismisses calls from civil-society groups to sideline embattled junior minister over shop saga

Tyrone Reid, Senior Staff Reporter

Embattled junior minister Richard Azan will still hold on to his job even though civil-society groups had been calling for him to be sacked.

Azan has come under intense pressure for more that a week for his confessed involvement in the stink emanating from the shop saga at the Spaldings Market in Clarendon.

The slight by the Cabinet was announced on the same day the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) revealed that it had been investigating the unauthorised construction and rental of the shops for more than a month and called on members of the public to come forward with information on the matter.

Last week, the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC) argued that Azan, the member of parliament (MP) for North West Clarendon, should step aside and allow a full investigation to take place. The JCSC also said that the situation showed poor judgement on Azan's part.

Anti-corruption lobby National Integrity Action called for the OCG to investigate and said if the claims against Azan were proven to be true, then it would also support the view that the MP "should either, as a matter of conscience, resign or, in the absence, be fired".

Scores of individuals have also called for the minister's head.

But, the Portia Simpson Miller-led Cabinet was unmoved by the constant baying for the junior minister's head and circled the wagon in support of their man in North West Clarendon. The Cabinet saw the matter differently, arguing that it relates to Azan in his capacity as MP and not as state minister.

While awaiting the formal report from the OCG, the Cabinet appeared to be satisfied with the retroactive actions taken in a bid to regularise the sordid affair, which resulted in the rent being paid at the ruling People's National Party's (PNP) North West Clarendon constituency office and a $500 commission paid to a third party from each rent payment.

"Cabinet notes that the issues are not directly related to the duties of Mr Richard Azan, in his capacity as minister of state in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing. Pending receipt of the report from the OCG, he will continue in the position," noted the release issued by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).

Established procedures breached

According to the Cabinet, it welcomed the OCG's decision to investigate the controversial matter. However, it was prepared to accept that established procedures were breached.

"It appears that standard administrative procedures may have been overlooked in attempting to address a clearly established need for vending space," the OPM release said.

"Cabinet also notes that the Clarendon Parish Council has advised that all monies collected by the contractor for the rental of the shops, as well as receipt books, were handed over on Friday last. The council further advised that the ownership of the shops has been transferred to the parish council," the press statement added.

The matter was brought to light by a Sunday Gleaner exposé published on April 7, 2013. Azan has endured a turbulent and testing time since it was revealed that he gave permission for a private contractor to build the shops on lands inside the refurbished Spaldings Market without the approval of the local authority that owned the property.

After declining to comment last week, the OCG disclosed yesterday that it initiated a formal enquiry into the matter from as early as March 6, 2013. "We wish to, however, use this opportunity to encourage members of the public who may be privy to any information in the captioned regard, to make contact with its office at 926-0011 or The OCG wishes to assure members of the public that any information received will be held with the strictest confidence," read another section of the OCG statement.

The guardian of the Government's contracts awards process also stated that the probe is ongoing and that material in its possession is currently being processed by its officers.