Current Affairs

Current Affairs




Assamba to be Paulwell's deputy
COK boss to take up appointment as state minister for investment and technology
Observer Reporter

Friday, January 11, 2002

PRIME Minister P J Patterson will name government senator, Aloun N'dombet Assamba as deputy investment and technology minister, replacing Colin Campbell, who was recently promoted to head the information portfolio.

It is expected that the official announcement could be made as early as today, being brought forward by several days after the Observer sought confirmation last night. "Since the questioning they have had JIS (Jamaica Information Service) draft a statement and have been aggressively attempting to have Mr Patterson sign off on it," said an official in the government's information apparatus yesterday.

According to Observer sources, Assamba will take up the appointment early next month, and Patterson expects her to take some of the strain off her new boss, the embattled Phillip Paulwell, who has been fending off calls for his resignation over the NetServ affair.

Early yesterday, Paulwell declined to confirm or deny Assamba's imminent appointment, saying that the naming of ministers was strictly the remit of the prime minister.

"I have no comment," Paulwell told the Observer. "If there is an announcement to be made that would be for the prime minister."

Patterson's political chief of staff, Delano Franklyn, also claimed to know nothing about the development and, like Paulwell, stressed that "the appointment of ministers and ministers of state is entirely the prerogative of the prime minister".

However, other sources said that Paulwell has told key advisors about the appointment and that he was yesterday discussing her job description with ministry staff.

Assamba herself was unavailable for comment yesterday, but staff at the City of Kingston Co-operative Credit Union (COK) said that up to afternoon she had not yet told employees of her earlier-than-expected departure.

"She may already have told the board that she is going soon, but she hasn't told the staff," said one source.

Assamba, a lawyer, and government senator since 1998, has won respect for her management of COK, where she is credited with lifting membership and driving business.

It was announced in the middle of last year that she would be entering representational politics, contesting the South East St Ann parliamentary seat for the ruling People's National Party (PNP), in place of Seymour Mullings who retired from the legislature to become Jamaica's ambassador to the United States.

However, COK directors would have believed that they still had a few months to find a CEO as the campaign for the general election, expected by yearend, was not expected to get into full swing until mid-year.

However, a vacancy arose in Paulwell's ministry in November when Patterson shuffled his cabinet after the resignations of Mullings, the deputy prime minister; foreign minister, Dr Paul Robertson; and information minister, Senator Maxine Henry-Wilson.

Robertson and Henry-Wilson, the PNP's general-secretary, left the government to work full-time on the party's election campaign.

"Assamba is smart and genial and has a good track record in managing COK and the prime minister obviously thought that this represented a good combination to back up Minister Paulwell, especially in the face of the NetServ issue," said a ruling party source.

NetServ was the information technology company which collapsed in December after its investors failed to come up with promised equity despite government loans of approximately $180 million.

The first $95 million of the loans, made through the National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ) on recommendation by a special inter-ministerial committee, was paid out before any rigorous due-diligence was completed on NetServ's parent company, NetServ Caribbean and its principal, Trinidadian, Paul Pereira.

When reports became available last year, questioning the business practices of Pereira and some of his associates, the committee and the NIBJ decided to continue with the disbursements, ostensibly with tighter arrangements.

However, the company still collapsed, which Pereira and government officials blamed on last July's violence in Kingston, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the politicisation of the project, which caused potential investors to pull out.

The receiver sent into the company by the NIBJ last month said that invoices and company records, on the faced of it, accounted for $177.2 million pumped by the NIBJ into the company, including $5.8 million used by the receiver to pay staff.

John Lee, a partner in the firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, pointed out, however, that there had not been an audit or verification on the price for equipment against what prevailed on the market.

But last night, Paulwell welcomed Lee's report, particularly his statement that there had been six expressions of interest in NetServ by potential purchasers.

"I am grateful that they have indicated no dishonest dealings have been picked up," Paulwell told the Observer. And although there was as yet no audit, the minister noted that there were "invoices in relation to actual purchases made and the visual inspections showed that the physical things exist".

Added Paulwell: "What is more important is the six different groups that have shown interest in NetServ."

Said one government source: "NetServ is a potential albatross for Phillip Paulwell. The PM expects that Aloun will help him to dislodge it."