Rooms on the Beach: What Mr Vaz and Mr Paulwell have in common

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

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The sordid history of political corruption in this country has made it extremely difficult to give politicians the benefit of the doubt when it comes to even the most remote appearance of official graft.

A perfect example is the current concern about the sale of Rooms on the Beach, a prime beachfront property in Ocho Rios, St Ann, to a developer, Puerto Caribe Properties Limited, by the State-run Urban Development Corporation (UDC).

Mr Daryl Vaz, the minister with portfolio responsibility for the UDC, inserted himself into the sale process, clearly out of not-so-youthful exuberance, giving rise to suspicions that something untoward had taken place.

That suspicion is based on the decision of the Andrew Holness Administration to sell the property at millions of dollars below the actual valuation in order to bring in quick revenue to fulfil promises to create jobs.

The need to fulfil promises made in the heat of political campaigning is the Achilles heel of many governments. It happened to Mr Phillip Paulwell in a People's National Party Government.

This current Jamaica Labour Party Government made quite a song and dance about creating jobs and achieving economic growth long not seen, such that it created a Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

To show how serious he was, Prime Minister Andrew Holness put his 'Mr Fix-It', the energetic Mr Vaz, to head the ministry, relying on his reputation as the go-to guy — the man who gets things done by learning how to circumvent cumbersome bureaucracy.

But if Mr Vaz had asked us before delving into the UDC/Rooms on the Beach sale process we would have advised him, free of charge, to stay on the sidelines and just clear the way for his technical people to do their job.

Direct ministerial involvement is always fraught with disaster.

It seemed that the Administration found that the promised benefits from the sale were irresistible and worth the risk: US$225-million investment in the first phase; 2,200 direct jobs during construction of a five-star hotel; and 600 permanent jobs in phase one; $270-million investment in phase two; 1,500 direct jobs in phase two; and 3,000 direct jobs; and tax revenue to the Government of $4 billion in the first three years.

Every serious businessman understands that one has to give to get. That is why many governments sign concession agreements with investors in which they give up some tax revenue to get jobs and other spin-offs from major projects.

We can't stay here and decide that Mr Vaz and the Administration did anything other than a sale in good faith in exchange for what benefits they were convinced are in the best interest of the country.

The difference of opinion between the former contractor general and the newly constituted Integrity Commission suggests that there is no concrete evidence of any corruption in the Rooms on the Beach sale, or no “there there” as the Americans like to say.

What is paramount now is a thorough investigation into the matter, with the findings being released to the Jamaican public in the shortest time possible. This is especially critical as the developer is threatening to withdraw from the process to spare itself from being drawn into this political mess.

If that happens, it is the Jamaican people who, once again, stand to lose.

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