Sat | Jul 22, 2017

Christopher Serju | Samuda’s cows and lots of bull

Published:Friday | May 19, 2017 | 5:00 AM

"The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I suspect the essence of this quote attributed to American poet T.S. Eliot would be lost on Karl Samuda, minister of agriculture and fisheries, were he at all even vaguely familiar with the 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral.

Samuda's cameo in Gordon House on Wednesday, when he flashed a receipt for $546,000, purportedly paid to the Jamaican Dairy Development Board (JDDB) for covering the cost of planting out 14 acres of Mombasa grass on his St Catherine farm, under a project designed to benefit registered dairy farmers, did not have the desired effect. Not if the aim was to convince taxpayers that his hands were clean, halo intact.

"I feel more comfortable," he assured the nation afterwards.

On that note, the veteran politician is in the minority.

For him to believe that mere payment would bring closure to the scandal in which he has been embroiled speaks to an unparalleled level of egocentricity, even for a Jamaican parliamentarian.

In concert with the accompanying sound bite, this action made for good television, but did not help the public to understand the actions of Byron H. Lawrence, a trained agronomist and senior civil servant, now acting as CEO of the JDDB, who has been scapegoated for the minister's benefit.

"I made the offer to the honourable minister to establish on his farm demonstration plots of these cultivars to exhibit their effectiveness in controlling piano grass. The minister declined the offer. I implored the minister to accept the offer, given the demonstration effect the plots would have. He responded by requesting that whatever it is that is done, if done, he should be billed for the cost of the establishment," Lawrence confessed in a letter to the minister dated May 10, 2017.

The failure of either Minister Samuda or Lawrence, a senior civil servant, to appreciate the need for some kind of written record of this agreement, coupled with their subsequent inability to understand why the public might just be a tad constrained to accept their vivid verbatim recall of events, might only have been just a little troubling. That is, if not for the sudden and widespread infection of the upper echelon of the agriculture ministry staff by the 'I can recall' virus.

How else can one explain the written endorsement of the drama between Lawrence and Minister Samuda as recalled by Permanent Secretary Donovan Stanberry and Dr Osbil Watson, director of veterinary services, as follows:

"Dear Minister,

Re: Sectoral Presentation of Opposition Spokesman for Agriculture

I take note of the allegation made in the Parliament on May 9, 2017 in the Sectoral presentation of the opposition spokesman for agriculture, and the statement from Mr Bryon (sic) Lawrence, acting CEO of the Dairy Board.

 

ESTABLISHING TRANSPARENCY

 

Dr Osbil Watson and myself being present at the informal meeting involving Mr Lawrence corroborate Mr Lawrence (sic) recall of the facts. Specifically, we:

1. Confirm that Mr Lawrence introduced the idea of planting the Mombasa grass on your farm.

2. That you initially rejected the offer.

3. That you accepted on Mr Lawrence's insistence, on the condition that you be billed."

I find it remarkable, if not curious, that Permanent Secretary Stanberry, in his capacity as chief accounting officer for the agriculture portfolio of the superministry, would not have had understood the need for, and value of, record keeping in establishing transparency. I also consider it a dereliction of duty that none of these highly qualified civil servants has seen it necessary yet to present for public scrutiny the facts establishing Minister Samuda's credentials as a registered dairy farmer in good standing with the JDDB. Doing that, even at this late stage, could go a far way in restoring their credibility as public servants.

It would help also if CEO Lawrence were to share the formula used to calculate the $546,000 the minister so proudly but belatedly, very belatedly, honoured, in light of the all-round admission that the grass-planting project was sealed on the strength of verbal agreement.

- Christopher Serju is an agriculture and rural affairs reporter. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.