A visibly-shaken Public Health Minister Dr. George Norton yesterday appealed for a chance “to do better” in wake of his ministry’s controversial leasing of the Sussex Street drug bond, even as he maintained that he still could not say who approached the owner about the deal.
“I want an opportunity to do better,” Norton told a news conference yesterday at the Public Buildings, where he issued an apology for inaccurate statements he made in the National Assembly’s Committee of Supply during questioning on the bond.
“I have come to the firm position that the answer given two responses were not accurate and wish to express sincere and profound regret,” Norton said, while offering his apologies to President David Granger, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and Speaker of the National Assembly Dr. Barton Scotland along with his parliamentary colleagues from both sides and others who were present in the Committee of Supply at the time the false answers were given.
“I take full responsibility for this unfortunate episode…,” the minister said, while committing that it would “not happen again.”
In response to questions posed by PPP/C MPs Juan Edghill and Dharamkumar Seeraj, Norton had inaccurately stated that government sole-sourced the rental of the bond from Larry Singh—owner of Linden Holding Inc—for $12.5M monthly because it had been paying the New GPC $19M a month in rental fees for its Ruimveldt warehouse, and also that pharmaceuticals and medical supplies were already being stored at the location. However, it was later revealed that the government had not yet paid New GPC and that the bond was still undergoing renovation.
And while an invitation was sent to the media to cover the handing over of a letter of apology to the Speaker yesterday, Norton told reporters that it had not yet been handed over. He said while he met with the Speaker, he was informed that the correct procedure had not been followed. “I have been advised to put it in an envelope,” he said, when asked about the procedure and informed that the letter would be with the Speaker by the end of yesterday.
But while the minister was willing to accept his responsibility for misleading the Committee of Supply and accepted that he “has personally lost face” in light of the allegations of corruption from citizens, he refused to address several questions which have been raised in relation to the contract itself.
Asked how the government identified Linden Holding Inc. as a supplier of bond space, Norton responded, “I cannot say.”
Asked to confirm whether its principal was a member of his political party, Norton responded, “I cannot confirm that.”
He had previously provided a copy of the contract to the National Assembly with its last page missing, prompting objections by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo. Norton said it was an oversight.
“Originally we had provided a copy of a copy of a copy and the signatures had faded. Additionally the last page came loose at some point. I was informed about it yesterday [Thursday] and that the page is now with the Clerk of the National Assembly,” Norton said. He said that the contract was signed by Permanent Secretary Trevor Thomas as chief accounting officer of the ministry and by Singh on behalf of Linden Holding Inc. The minister also committed to providing the signatories of the contract to the National Assembly.
Another oversight, according to Norton, is the stipulation of contract that the ministry was leasing “office space” rather than bond space.
Questioned extensively about whether the Cabinet would be willing, in light of immense public criticism, to re-tender for bond space, Norton explained that at the Cabinet level decisions are made collectively an as of now the Cabinet has recommended that the contract be renegotiated, not re-tendered.
He maintained that while he is uncomfortable with the situation that has developed, he is comfortable with the space provided and is convinced that it is suitable for the needs of the ministry.
Asked to respond to the opinion that he is being served up as the “fall guy” for someone else, Norton responded, “I don’t know anything about that.”
‘I take responsibility’
Although Norton maintains that the information he provided to the Committee was based on advice he received, he has refused to identify who advised him.
“I responded based in some instances on my personal knowledge and ability and in others based on information and advice given to me,” he said.
Asked if any member of his staff has been or will be reprimanded for providing him with misinformation, Norton stressed that his staff are dedicated professionals with whom he is proud to work.
“I will speak proudly of their services. As minister, I take responsibility,” he said before adding that this experience has taught him to “trust no one.”
“One has got to do due diligence, take every possible effort to evaluate contracts and whatever you are getting into. You’ve got to be extra careful. What I will ensure to see done in the future is that I would personally go into details in all these kinds of arrangements, much more than I have done before in all areas, even if I might be guilty of micromanaging,” he further said.
Asked why the Guyanese public should accept his apology and not ask for his resignation, Norton maintained that as someone who has dedicated almost three decades to the healthcare sector, he is committed to continue doing so.
“I have been a healthcare giver for all of my professional life… even in my recently acquired position as Minister of Public Health, I continue to do so. I have admitted that I made a mistake, for which I take full responsibility. Every effort will be made for this not to reoccur and I renew my commitment to offer health care to the nation,” Norton said.
He has offered similar explanations to the delegates of his party, the PNCR, who will this weekend decide whether he should be returned as a party Vice-Chairman.
“I’ve been there over the years. I’ve worked for the party. My track record will show my comrades that my intention is noble. I’ve been in the trenches,” he said.
In the wake of controversy over the rental of the bond, President Granger had appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to do a review. It has since recommended that government should try to negotiate a reduction of the agreed monthly rental fee and that if there is a refusal by Linden Holding Inc., government should give a year’s notice of a termination of the lease and build its own facilities in the intervening period.
However, the Sub-Committee review has been criticised since it was Cabinet that ultimately approved the rental of the bond in the first place.