With three boards under his collective Transport and Mining Ministry portfolio being dissolved amid questionable circumstances in a matter of weeks, Robert ‘Bobby’ Montague’s tenure as a Cabinet minister over the years continues to be marred by several controversies.
The latest is the budding controversy at Clarendon Alumina Production (CAP) over a series of contracts that have been given to a consultancy firm over recent months.
News emerged on Monday that Montague intervened in the matter and requested and received the resignation of the majority of members of the board of directors.
Prior to that development, Board Chairman Norman Reid resigned in protest at the planned extension of one of the contracts.
Among those who resigned from the CAP Board on Sunday Deputy Chairman, Dennis Wright, who has been featuring prominently in the controversy.
Wright was taped in a recent board meeting ordering that the contract be renewed to “get on with the consulting work on behalf of the agency”. The tape was aired on radio last week.
The state-run entity owns the Government’s 45 per cent stake in Jamalco.
In the latest development in the matter, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has decided to transfer Clarendon Alumina Production from Montague’s Transport and Mining Ministry.
CAP is to be assigned to the Ministry of Finance, led by Dr Nigel Clarke. The decision was made during a meeting of Cabinet which ended late Monday night.
The resignation of the CAP Board followed the November 9 announcement by Montague in Parliament that the boards of the Airports Authority of Jamaica (AAJ) and its subsidiary, Norman Manley International Airport Limited (NMIA), are to be dissolved amid the ongoing First Rock investment scandal.
It was the first time that Montague was speaking on the AAJ matter since the story broke earlier this year.
Pressure had been mounting on the minister to speak on the matter after he refused to answer questions from the parliamentary Opposition a week before.
At the time, Montague was shielded by House Speaker Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert, who ruled that he would not answer the questions as an investigation into the matter was purportedly under way by the Integrity Commission.
However, the speaker reversed herself at the November 9 sitting of Parliament, where Montague made his statement and answered questions from Opposition members.
“The majority of the board members of the AAJ and the NMIA, I was informed shortly before the sitting of this Parliament, have offered their resignations. And, I have every intention of accepting those resignations,” Montague disclosed at the time.
He said two board members who were overseas had not yet indicated their intentions.
“But regardless of that, the board(s) will be dissolved,” he told the Parliament.
Montague said he had declined to address the matter before then because internal investigations were under way, and he wanted to be assured of the facts when he spoke because the issues were technical in nature.
The demise of the two boards was triggered by the investment by the AAJ of US$3 million (J$450 million) in start-up entity First Rock Capital Holdings without it being sanctioned by the Ministry of Finance as is required by law.
While stating that he has moved to dissolve the boards, Montague said, “The point must be made that the current [AAJ] board was different from the one that made the investment.”
He said some directors who were not members of either board, nonetheless, decided to offer their resignations.
“I am heartened by their decision to protect the integrity of the institution and their commitment to good governance has not gone unnoticed,” the minister said.
“The resignations will give the ministry and any other investigative body room to conduct their investigations and make recommendations,” he added.
He also told the House that while the AAJ remains profitable and still contributes to the national budget, it has so far recorded a loss on the First Rock investment with the price of the shares moving from $12 to $7.
Reports over several months suggest that the AAJ had the opportunity to invest in recognised blue-chip companies but disregarded advice and instead pumped millions of public funds into the First Rock start-up. Its first investment was made in February 2019, followed by a second investment in January 2020. First Rock started operations in March 2019.
But the scandals and controversies dogging CAP and AAJ/NMIA under the stewardship of Montague as Transport and Mining Minister, are not the first for the veteran Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) politician and party chairman.
A snippet of his parliamentary life over two JLP Administrations, dating back to the Bruce Golding-led Administration of 2007 to 2011, has not gone without controversy.
Looking back at Montague’s political career up to the JLP forming the Government in 2007, he became Councillor for the Carron Hall Division in the then St Mary Parish Council, which he served from 1990-2007. He became Mayor of Port Maria and served from 2003 to 2007.
After winning the Western St Mary seat in the 2007 General Elections, he became Minister of State with responsibility for Local Government between 2007 and mid-2011, when he was promoted to Minister of Agriculture for approximately five months under the short stint of Andrew Holness as Prime Minister following the resignation of Bruce Golding.
Montague’s first eye-catching controversial act earned him significant public backlash.
As a state minister in local government, he was shown on national television arrogantly and disrespectfully berated the then matron of the Port Antonio Infirmary in Portland in July 2009.
Montague, during a visit of the facility, found the sanitary conditions there too much to handle.
The matron’s response to Montague’s queries about the reason the infirmary had been overrun by flies earned her the wrath of the state minister who scolded her: “Woman, don’t insult my intelligence. I asked you about fly infestation and you come tell me ’bout mango season.”
The angry retort was recorded by television news cameras and broadcast on national television later, earning the condemnation of civil service unions and the public at large.
Three years after the outburst, Montague, who was speaking in the Senate during the JLP’s tenure in Opposition, said he was only human, and explained that he was emotional because of the unsanitary conditions of the infirmary.
“I was emotional. For that I will not apologise, however, being a minister of Government, if the circumstances would happen again I would handle the situation a little different,” Montague, then an Opposition Senator, told colleagues in the Upper House in June of 2012.
In the aftermath of the 2011 General Elections, it was discovered that in the months leading up to that election, millions of dollars worth of black water tanks had been given out ostensibly to farmers, in a partisan political manner.
There was no empirical evidence of any impropriety by Montague, but it notably happened under his watch as Minister of Agriculture.
The People’s National Party (PNP) took over affairs of Government and ordered the Auditor General, Pamela Monroe-Ellis, to conduct a probe.
In June of 2013, a performance audit of the National Irrigation Commission (NIC) conducted by the Auditor General’s Department reported that the commission procured eleven 1,000-gallon tanks at a cost of $342,507, which were “purportedly” distributed to farmers in St Mary and Manchester on the eve of the 2011 General Elections.
“We noted an undated notation on the related purchase order by a senior officer of the NIC, stating: ‘The purchase of these tanks are urgently required. A list of names will be supplied today. We will make payment to the supplier of the storage tanks’,” the report revealed at the time, according to a newspaper publication.
Two cheques for the amounts of $140,805 and $201,702, respectively, were made payable to hardware companies in Manchester and St Ann.
“NIC’s disbursement register disclosed that both cheques were disbursed on December 23, 2011; however, there was no evidence that the tanks were received by the NIC or delivered to the farmers,” Monroe-Ellis stated in the report then.
According to the auditor general, despite the department’s requests, the NIC did not present any evidence to substantiate the actual delivery of tanks and water to the beneficiaries.
The report stated that the lack of transparency resulted from management’s override of the control systems and its disregard for established procurement procedures.
Monroe-Ellis said since May 2013, the NIC has undertaken an exercise to confirm that the intended beneficiaries have received the tanks.
The NIC’s interim report to the auditor general said: “Additional follow-up will be done to ascertain the names of the farmers in Manchester as well as their agricultural impact.”
Then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Donovan Stanberry, told a media house in January of 2013 that he could not provide any information about the whereabouts of the tanks.
In another development, the auditor general reported that the NIC engaged the services of nine contractors to provide water to unnamed beneficiaries at a cost of $2.4 million.
Asked to comment on the findings of the auditor general, Montague, who was then a JLP Senator, reportedly said he could not respond until he saw a copy of the report.
In one of the most highly publicised scandals that dogged Montague’s tenure as Minister of National Security from 2016 to March 2018, even after he left that ministry to the Ministry of Transport and Mining, Montague was forced to respond to decisions he made while being the portfolio minster in charge of the Firearm Licensing Authority (FLA).
The FLA came under scrutiny following allegations of corruption in the issuance of firearm licences to persons of questionable characters.
The story has ballooned into an uncovering of irregular practices, allegations of bribes and strong arming to get FLA employees to break the law and, to top things off, an anonymous whistle blower wrote a letter accusing several high-level players of promoting and supporting corrupt practices in the FLA.
The questionable FLA practices first came to light on November 2, 2016, when the authority’s new board revealed that businessman Patrick Powell’s file had gone missing from its offices.
Powell, a month earlier, was freed of the murder and shooting with intent arising from the death of 17-year-old Kingston College student Kahjeel Mais in July 2011 in Havendale, St Andrew.
However, Powell remained before the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court in relation to the charge of failing to hand over his licensed firearm.
National Security Minister Robert Montague introducing then Police Commissioner George Quallo to some of the then newly acquired used police service vehicles.
According to an investigation carried out by the new FLA board, the last established evidence of the movement of the file was when an officer in the then CEO’s office made a request from the FLA Registry on April 14, 2015.
During Powell’s trial in June 2017 relative to the licensed firearm, then Chairman of the FLA board, Dennis Wright, said the disappearance of the original file of Powell caused “some challenges” when the agency began the process of revoking his firearm licence.
However, Wright testified in the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Court that the FLA was able to overcome the challenges, and the board met on November 16, 2016 to revoke the licence that had been issued to Powell for a Glock pistol.
According to Wright, he signed the revocation order two days later.
But by July 30, 2017, alleged shady operations at the FLA, in which guns were reportedly being approved for people of questionable character, were being revealed, with more than 100 cases then said to be under investigation for alleged breaches.
That disclosure of the cases came after a meeting between Montague and Wright.
In a statement issued after the meeting, the ministry said that in May of 2017, the FLA board met with MOCA and asked it to join the vetting process following concerns about how gun licences were being approved.
“In addition, the FLA has initiated a system to refer to MOCA more than 100 files of persons previously granted firearms. This action is as a result of information the new board has found, that persons whose files were subject to the appeals process were being granted firearms before the appeal was heard,” read the statement that was issued at the time.
The ministry said that the then FLA’s Review Board, headed by former Court of Appeal President, Justice Seymour Panton, was to review the agency’s process, procedures and systems.
Meanwhile, the ministry sought to explain how an alleged criminal was granted a licence earlier that year.
The FLA raised questions about the licensed firearm holder during a meeting with the Police High Command in early February 2017.
It added that: “A request was made for further information, which was provided by the police on June 29, 2017, following which, the licence was revoked on July 13, 2017.”
In relation to an alleged ex-convict getting a licence, the ministry said the deported man applied and was denied a firearm licence on November 13, 2014.
“However,” the ministry continued, “he wrote the then board appealing the decision. On February 12, 2015, he was granted a firearm licence, the approval for which was signed by the then board chairman Robert Gregory.”
The FLA said, at the time, that approval of licences after a refusal “is a practice which existed prior to the installation of the new board”.
But, following those events, the calls grew louder for Montague and the FLA board to resign.
By August 2, 2017, the entire board of directors of the Firearm Licensing Authority (FLA), including Wright, resigned amid the controversy over the issuance of gun permit to people of questionable character.
Interestingly, Wright is the same man who resigned from CAP under the Transport and Mining Ministry. He is also a former JLP candidate for Eastern Portland and Eastern St Thomas.
By later in August 2017, MOCA intensified its probe at FLA, with some senior members being separated from the authority.
Calls also grew louder from the Opposition for Montague to be fired as National Security Minister, but he remained in the position.
Interestingly, in August of that same year, Patrick Powell, whose firearm licence case indirectly led to the scandal at the FLA being revealed, was sentenced to nine months in prison for failing to hand over his firearm to the police. He served under six months of his sentence, and was released from prison in February of 2018.
On September 19, 2017, Cabinet approved a new FLA board, with Dennis Wright returning, but as just a board member.
Then National Security Adviser, Major General Antony Anderson, was appointed as the new chairman.
At the time, the National Security Ministry said the board was mandated to carry out the reforms approved by the former Dennis Wright-chaired board.
The FLA scandal then dwindled and it was not clear whether MOCA had completed its investigations.
On March 27, 2018, Montague was appointed Minister of Transport and Mining, with Horace Chang being his replacement at National Security.
But, in August 2018, the FLA scandal returned to the fore, with Montague rejecting claims of impropriety when he was National Security Minister.
An earlier national television report had alleged that Montague had approve a gun licence for a “man of questionable character” after it was turned down twice by the FLA board.
Montague insisted that all decisions made by him while occupying the post of Minister of National Security were in the interest of that portfolio and the safety security of all Jamaicans.
He pointed out that Clauses 37 & 37 A of the Firearms Act outlined the process of appeals and explicitly gives the minister the final determination as to Permits for Firearms.
Montague said a committee of six persons “very senior within the National Security framework”, was a part of the appeals panel, and that all decisions to grant permits after appeals heard had to be unanimous.
To this day, Montague is still remembered for the very controversial used car procurement deal that he led the National Security Ministry into, which was nowhere near being fully sorted out when he departed from the.
With most times far more questions than answers on the matter, after years in train, there was seemingly no full accountability before Montague was relieved of the portfolio.
There was also a short-lived controversy at the Jamaica Railway Corporation (JRC), which is another entity under Montague’s Transport and Mining Ministry.
A media house reported in October that there was disquiet at the JRC over the appointment of a female board member as a human resource manager.
However, JRC’s Acting General Manager Donald Hanson told the media entity that the woman’s appointment as the human resource manager was a temporary measure.
Hanson also clarified that she had stepped downed from the JRC board.
Hanson assured the JRC staff that the recruitment for a permanent human resource manager would be transparent.
But despite the clarification, staff members of the JRC accused the board of being too involved in the management of the entity.
The woman in question was reportedly closely linked to a key figure on the then JRC board, and had transitioned through a number of entities and agencies within the ambit of the National Security portfolio before landing into the controversy at the JRC under another of Montague’s ministerial portfolios.
Montague, meanwhile, did not comment on the issue at the JRC or issues relating to the staff concerns.