One laptop per family: State under scrutiny

Lest we be tempted to think that we are alone in our seemingly unending continuum of bothersome revelations arising out of President Bharrat Jagdeo’s One Laptop Per Family (OLPF) project, we may – or perhaps not – be comforted to know that the President’s CARICOM colleague, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had to face her own demons last year arising out of accusations of bribes and kickbacks or what is commonly called ‘influence pedalling” at Hewlett Packard, the same United States company that secured the  TT$83m allocation for the provision of 24,000 laptops for students entering secondary school at the start of the current academic year.

The T&T prime minister was forced to say publicly that the hands of the high officials of her government were clean after the award to HP to supply the country with the computers coincided with a US$55m fine imposed on the company by the United States government to settle charges that it paid kickbacks to companies that recommended its products to the United States government.

While there may never have been any direct suggestion that T&T government officials were ‘on the take’ from HP, it was the widely-held belief that state officials in the Caribbean and other developing regions are uniquely vulnerable to such blandishments that may well have caused the issue to be raised in the first place. In the circumstances Persad-Bissessar felt constrained to “assure” Trinidadians that neither the government nor “anyone else in Trinidad” received money from HP. Evidently wary of the possibility that the coincidence could attract a scandal to her government the undertook to put out “further information” to explain why HP was chosen. “For my Government here, I can guarantee you there has been no pay off, no kickback and if there is, let the law take its course.”

President Bharrat Jagdeo

Here in Guyana where the political administration has come in for strident media and political criticism the OLPF hullabaloo has centred around the widespread public view that is in the very nature of the government’s track record that a multi – million dollar state project that involves the award of tenders and, uniquely, the distribution of 90,000 laptops around the country, simply will not ‘fly’ without manifestations of corruption.  That, many people feel, is simply the way things work in Guyana.

It has been said too that the Project is in fact President Jagdeo’s election year gimmick, a charge which holds no merit whatsoever since, apart from the fact that the distribution of 90,000 laptops across a poor country like Guyana is no gimmick, whether in an election year or otherwise;  even if the timing of the exercise is intended to persuade voters to put the PPP/C back in office, elections-time sweeteners are an integral part of Guyana’s political culture.

What is more relevant is the increasingly popular view that some public officials simply cannot keep their hands out of the public purse or seek out ways to enriching themselves beyond what their remuneration as public officers allow them to afford. The provision in successive reports of the Auditor General of thinly veiled and invariably uninvestigated evidence of a persistent pattern of corrupt practices arising mostly out of anomalies in the administration of the public tender process, particularly at the level of some government ministries, had long created a public mind-set that led inevitably to the view that the OLPF would go the way of all flesh.

And even if, as appeared to be the case, the government had decided to release information in ‘dribs and drabs,’ confining its disclosures, in the first instance to pronouncements designed to boost the president’s and his government’s standing with the electorate, the now widely-known faux pas by Junior Finance Minister Jennifer Webster in the National Assembly earlier this year in which she mistakenly quoted a hugely inflated figure for the purchase of a lap top, blew its cover.

Since then closer media and to a lesser extent political attention has not only forced the government to accelerate the dissemination of information on the OLPF project, but has also unveiled one awkward circumstance after another, the most recent being the sacking of an Office of the President employee following an accusation that she had leaked evidence of lap top purchases which the government had earlier denied to the media. Revelations were also made that two high-priced expatriates were being paid the equivalent of several millions of dollars in emoluments every month as employees of the Project and the disclosure that one of the two, a former Peace Corps volunteer named Judson Lohmeyer had resigned and was threatening to blackmail his employers by ‘telling all’ about the Project.

Public suspicion born of previous experience can scuttle even the best-laid public relations plans. The disclosure by the disgruntl-ed Lohmeyer, the Peace Corps Volunteer turned Project Manager, who resigned his post then complained about unpaid emoluments, forced government to issue a response. The response itself was disingenuous and elements of it persuaded no one. If there was indeed a clear hint of threat in Lohmeyer’s e-mail to his boss, Stephen Grin, the other expatriate and the man in charge of the Project, the Office of the President sought to persuade the public that it had, after all, agreed to pay Lohmeyer US$100,000 per month without seeking to thoroughly verify his qualifications. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the claim made by the Office of the President that Lohmeyer is a “scoundrel,” in even making such a claim the government is in effect conceding that it was taken for a ride.

T&T Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar

The biggest obstacle to public endorsement of the OLPF Project after the occurrences of the past few weeks is the quick sand of public suspicion in which it now dwells. The government’s policy of keeping the details under wraps and to release them at moments of their own choosing have led to serious misconceptions of the terms and conditions under which the lap tops are being issued. It now transpires that there are a number of conditions attached to possessing a lap top and, moreover, that the possessor is only part-owner of the machine. One wonders whether this ought not to have been made clear much earlier.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Persad-Bissessar succeeded in fending off vigorous enquiries from the media after the HP issue arose. President Jagdeo may not be so lucky. Beady-eyed critics of his administration will be keeping an eye on the project in the event that it hits even more hurdles, including possible inducements from potential bidders. Such inducements are commonplace and the charges against HP go back to 2004, when whistleblowers at an accounting firm known as Accenture and investment firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, filed a complaint alleging HP had paid kickbacks dubbed “influencer fees” to have its services and equipment recommended for government contracts and agencies. HP sought to make salvage its image as best it could by stating that paying up did not constitute an admission of guilt to the charges stating that it believed that it was “in the best interest of its shareholders to resolve the matter and move beyond the issue.” HP was one of several IT companies to be named by the US government in lawsuits launched three years ago that relate to the payment of so-called ‘influencer fees’ by companies to consultants who helped guide federal agencies’ IT procurement.

The fees reportedly amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars, were said by the companies. It is an open secret that Guyana is vulnerable to such blandishments.

United States Senate Special Committees have investigated the practice known as gifting in the device manufacturing and pharmaceuticals industry and the US federal government has actually conceded that federal laws to regulate such fees, gifts and other perks are not sufficient to ensure adequate oversight and prevent conflict of interest.

In 2007 there were five settlements following investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into how surgeons determined the sort of implants to use in surgical cases. Companies investigated included Smith & Nephew, Biomet, Zimmer Holdings, DuPuy Orthopaedics, and Stryker Corporation. The first four, save Stryker, paid out a total $311 million in settlement. Stryker, alternatively, agreed to modify practices.

In developing countries where, in many cases, the distinction between the professional lobbyist and the influence peddler is often no more than semantic, big investors and multinational service and commodity suppliers are generally have much freer hand in making personal payments for such ‘favours.’ The absence of stringent regulations and attendant oversight mechanisms allow for such transactions that facilitate significant sums as fees for influencing major purchases and facilitating investment concessions. In the matter of  Jagdeo’s OLPF Project, the state continues to be under close scrutiny.

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