Minister of Public Health Dr George Norton was yesterday referred to the Committee of Privileges after Speaker of the National Assembly Dr Barton Scotland found that a prima facie case was made out against him as regards the inaccurate statements he made on August 8, in the House on government’s rental of the controversial Sussex Street bond.
The Speaker’s ruling came after PPP/C Member of Parliament Dr Frank Anthony moved a motion, which was seconded by the party’s Chief Whip Gail Teixeira, in which he called for the minister to be sent to the committee based on the fact that he repeatedly misinformed the House and the nation during his August 8 statement.
The Speaker said the matter would be dealt with at the committee level and prevented Attorney General Basil Williams from making a statement following the ruling. “If I may interject…,” Williams said seconds after the ruling, but was stopped by the Speaker who pointed out that he had already made a ruling and was not entertaining any statement “at this point.”
Anthony’s motion noted that the minister had stated that government did not follow the procurement procedure in renting the bond because it was an emergency; that the bond was certified by PAHO/WHO international standards; that he had visited the bond several times; that pharmaceuticals were stored there; and that the cost being paid for the monthly rental was cheaper than what the government was paying to the New GPC. All of those statements, Anthony pointed out, were untrue.
Norton has been under fire since he made the statement on August 8 in the National Assembly and following a Cabinet sub-committee investigation, he was instructed to apologise in the National Assembly for the misleading information he provided.
He did so on October 13, where he indicated that while being questioned extensively by members of parliament representing the PPP/C he gave answers in part based on his “personal knowledge and ability” as well as on information and advice given.
He also stated that he had since come to the “firm position that the answers given to two questions relating to the payment to New GPC for the storage of drugs in the building at 29 Sussex Street, Georgetown were not accurate as these were based on information supplied to me.” His admission was met with groans from the opposition members.
The minister had also stated that in the circumstances he wished to express his “sincere and profound regret” to the President, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, all members on both sides of the House and all those present and who had observed the process that day.
“As Minister of Public Health I know that a high standard of duty and care is expected of me and the staff of the Ministry of Public Health so I take fully the responsibility for this unfortunate episode and give my full commitment that it will not be reoccurring,” he had said.
At the August sitting, there were more questions than answers about the government’s decision to single-source the contract to store pharmaceuticals at the Sussex Street bond, which Norton claimed was due to the urgent need to find a new storage facility in light of the $19.2 million per month that government was paying to use the New GPC bond.
The government, it was revealed, was to pay the new rental company, registered as Linden Holding Company, $12.5 million a month and according to the minister there was no public tendering because it “was an emergency.”
Norton had said that with the “exorbitant price called by the New GPC” for storage at its Ruimveldt warehouse and the conflict of interest posed by using a facility run by a potential drug supplier, there was an urgency to find new storage.
It later emerged that the new facility was in fact a converted house and was still being renovated. In addition, no payment had been made to New GPC. The opposition had been further incensed by Norton’s flippant attitude to the questioning. In light of the ensuing controversy, President Granger appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to review, examine and report on the deal.
It completed a report which found that the bond was fit for pharmaceuticals storage but also recommended negotiations for a lower rental fee.
While Norton said the contract will not be rescinded, he informed that Cabinet was still to decide if the recommendations will be taken up.
Left unanswered in the scandal was the question of who in the government was the initial contact for Linden Holding head Larry Singh as there had been no public tender and he seemed to have been aware of the search for a storage bond even though he had not been in that business.