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JC EATS HUMBLE PIE Hutchinson stripped, reassigned, says he’s sorry

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Entornointeligente.com / Andrew Holness yesterday stripped JC Hutchinson of his portfolio responsibilities and reassigned him to a desk in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the second time in three weeks that the chief executive has been forced to rearrange his Cabinet amidst a series of governance controversies dogging the Administration. The prime minister’s move comes five days after news emerged that Hutchinson — in his capacity as minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries — had written Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) Holdings instructing it to move speedily to give control of the 2,400-acre Holland Estate to a company in which his child’s mother, Lola Marshall-Williams, was a director.

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Hutchinson has denied giving any such instructions, but based on correspondence seen by the Jamaica Observer it appears executives of SCJ Holdings were of the impression that they had been given a directive by a minister in their parent ministry.

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He had also rejected charges of nepotism and cronyism, and insisted that he would not be resigning from his Cabinet post.

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“I don’t see why that should be. What is the conflict of interest?” Hutchinson argued in an interview on Nationwide News Network on Wednesday, even as he admitted that he had discussions on the matter with the prime minister

But yesterday, accompanying Holness‘s statement that Hutchinson had been immediately relieved of responsibilities he held in the ministry and transferred to OPM, Hutchinson issued an apology for what he described as his “errors of judgement” in relation to the Holland Estate land transactions

“My actions were never designed for personal benefit but arose out of a conviction that strong and decisive action was necessary to preserve the Holland Estate lands for small farmers,” he said

There was a real risk that without strong and decisive action the lands would have been overtaken by squatters and stray animals as has happened in the past. I therefore acted out of my perception that the proper course, of having the Agro-Investment Corporation handle the transition to small farmers, would have been ineffective,” Hutchinson stated

“I was wrong. The course of action I chose cannot be defended. Though my goals were noble, the procedure used was flawed and the ends do not justify the means,” he said

On Tuesday, Hutchinson had indicated in a statement that in March 2019 the previous corporate owner of Holland Sugar Estate, the Campari Group, indicated that it would be relinquishing ownership of the land on July 1, 2019

“One of the main reasons stated for giving up the land was the continuous invasion of the property by approximately 400 head of cattle, destroying vast acres of their cane annually. The property is located in North West St Elizabeth where I am the Member of Parliament (MP),” said Hutchinson

He argued that farmers who were informally cultivating sections of the property for a number of years indicated to him, as their MP, that they wanted additional land to cultivate and hoped that small farmers would be allowed to occupy the entire property

“In addition, many persons within and outside of the constituency indicated an interest in getting the land to cultivate. I encouraged the farmers to form an appropriate vehicle that could engage SCJ Holdings, or the Agro-Investment Corporation, depending on which entity would be put ultimately in charge of the land

“Subsequently, a group of residents indicated that they had formed a group called the Holland Estate Management Company [now Holland Producers Limited]. The Holland Estate Management Company, an unregistered group which consists of a nine-member management team, indicated that they had interviewed 245 persons who expressed their interest in the property in an attempt to coordinate and regularise the occupation of the land,” Hutchinson said

He said the group had asked him to contact the management of SCJ Holdings and, in April 2019, he wrote to Joseph Shoucair of SCJ Holdings introducing the Holland Estate Management Company and asking for his attention and guidance on the matter

But in his letter to Shoucair, seen by the Observer , Hutchinson had argued that Holland Estate Management Company was prepared to undertake the management of the property for one year starting June 1, 2019 to assess the viability of the project and after that enter into an extended lease

Hutchinson further argued that it was “important” for Holland Estate Management Company to start occupying the property “immediately” and would be submitting a formal application in the future

Yesterday, Prime Minister Holness, in his statement on the controversy, said he had consulted with Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw; and permanent secretary in the ministry Derman Spence. He also said he met with Hutchinson and had frank and meaningful discussions

“Our discussions centred on an examination of the general details of transactions in question, the policy intent behind the transactions, and the administrative and legal requirements of such transactions, analysed against the ethical standards and code of conduct of ministers outlined in Ministry Paper number 19. At the conclusion of our meeting, Minister Hutchinson reaffirmed his commitment to the principles of good governance, ministerial responsibility and the standards set out in the code of conduct,” Holness said

The prime minister said after his discussions with Shaw, Spence and Hutchinson, he was satisfied that the intent of Hutchinson‘s actions to make former sugar farmlands available to small farmers was in keeping with Government of Jamaica (GOJ) policy

Against that background, the prime minister said he had directed that:

* The Holland Estate lands should be immediately turned over to the Agro-Investment Corporation without prejudice to the small farmers who would have entered into occupancy arrangements in good faith

* Steps should be taken to terminate any arrangements that allow for non-farm, commercial operations on the lands. Any future commercial opportunities on these lands should be advertised and tendered in accordance with GOJ guidelines

* The SCJ is to immediately cease all land transactions that may be in progress, including divestments and leases, pending a review by the Cabinet Office to ensure that the procedures followed for proposed transactions are in accordance with GOJ policies

* The SCJ is to provide a historical listing of all land transactions over the last decade, including divestments and leases, with a disclosure of counter-parties and beneficial owners

* Minster Shaw should review the operation and governance of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority to ensure that there are no other undisclosed connected-party arrangements in the implementation of any of its programmes and, where such relationships are discovered, to take the necessary action to ensure they are removed

Holness also said effective immediately the new minister without portfolio in the ministry is Leslie Campbell, who last month was assigned responsibility for land, environment and climate change after Daryl Vaz was shifted to oversee water, housing and matters having to do with certain special economic development projects

Vaz was reassigned after he found himself at the centre of controversy when he tried to lease government land in the Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park for a private venture

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