Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kern caged - Politician, associates charged in bulb scandal

published: Wednesday | February 27, 2008

Daraine Luton, Gleaner Staff Reporter

DARK DAYS for former sate minister Kern Spencer began late yesterday evening when the People's National Party (PNP) member was arrested and charged by police for his role in the controversial Cuban light-bulb project.

Spencer spent the night in police lockup and will have to remain behind bars until Thursday, when he is booked to appear before the Corporate Area Resident Magistrate's court. It is expected that a bail application will be made on his behalf then.

Spencer has been slapped with seven charges. He is facing three charges of conspiracy to defraud, one charge for breaching the Prevention of Corruption Act, and three charges for breaching the Money Laundering Act.

Also charged are Rodney Chin and Coleen Wright. Chin is facing two counts of conspiracy to defraud and two counts of breaches of the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Wright, a supervisor at the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica who also worked as Spencer's personal assistant, is charged with two counts of conspiracy to defraud, one for breaching the Prevention of Corruption Act, and four money-laundering offences.

A person who is convicted of breaching the Prevention of Corruption Act faces a fine of up to $1 million and or imprisonment of a term not exceeding two years.

Five-year jail time

A breach of the Money Laundering Act, which involves the transfer of property from Jamaica to overseas, of which Spencer is accused, could bring jail time of up to five years, and a fine of up to $1 million.

Chin, 44, is the managing director of Universal Management and Development Limited and Caribbean Communications Media Network Limited. While Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Les Green addressed journalists on the charges last night, detectives sneaked the embattled member of parliament (MP) and Chin through a side door of the Organised Crime Investigation Division (OCID) building, all this to escape glaring camera lens.

Earlier, Wright had been whisked out of the OCID building by police officers and taken away in a waiting service vehicle. As the police took her away, Wright hid her face with a black cloth which she later buried in her lap as she took her seat on her way to jail.

Last night, Deborah Martin, one of Spencer's attorneys, said they had initiated contact with the police after hearing that he had been charged.

"We heard and we brought him in," Martin told The Gleaner as she left the OCID building last night.

Patrick Atkinson, Spencer's other counsel said: "There is far too much press on this case." He said also: "This is a witch hunt."

Prior to his arrest, Spencer was seen walking in downtown Kingston in the company of Martin.

One man said that "he looked happy, waving and talking to people," along the way.

Spencer, 33, was the state minister in the energy ministry in the last PNP administration. His minister, Phillip Paulwell, placed him in charge of the energy-saving project. The project involved the distribution of four million free Cuban light bulbs islandwide.

Despite the bulbs being free and Jamaica benefiting from Cuban volunteers to whom stipends were paid by their government, it racked up $276 million in expenditure.

Since the allegations first surfaced 118 days ago, Spencer has been under tremendous pressure to resign as member of parliament for North East St. Elizabeth. Two weeks ago, he bowed to the pressure by taking leave as MP. He also took leave from all positions he had within the PNP, which seemingly has given him the cold shoulder.

Grilled by police

Former junior energy minister Kern Spencer walks from the offices of the Organised Crime Investigation Division in Kingston after being interrogated by senior police officers last week. He was slapped with seven charges, including money laundering yesterday. - Norman Grindley/Deputy Chief Photographer

Spencer was grilled by police for two consecutive days last week - Thursday and Friday. The Gleaner was informed that the police were getting ready to arrest Spencer on Monday. The arrest did not take place until yesterday, after he turned up at the OCID for a third time.

The arrest of Spencer comes after scores of interviews and the perusing of documents by the police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as the auditor general and the contractor general.

Energy Minister Clive Mullings, who 118 days ago made the disclosure about the light-bulb project, said that it raised questions of fraud. The PNP had been booted from government one month earlier, ending its 18-year reign.

Contractor General Greg Christie found what he called a possible criminal conspiracy. He said Spencer had undue influence on the project.

The contracts for the distribution of the bulbs were awarded by Spencer to Universal Management and Development Company, which was set up around the same time the bulb distribution project began.

The contracts did not go to tender as required by law. Spencer has defended his decision to employ UMD, saying that an "emergency situation" existed as Cuban volunteers were in the island and no provisions had been made for them.

Because of this emergency situation, Spencer said he turned to Chin, owner of UMD to provide the service. He said this was because he was someone with whom he was familiar.

PNP review

UMD's chief principal is Sherine Shakes, the mother of Spencer's child. Shake's mother, Verdie Mair, was also contracted. She provided catering services.

When the allegations unfolded, the PNP president Portia Simpson Miller had requested that Spencer and Paulwell furnish her with reports on the project.

The details of the report have not been released but former PNP general secretary Donald Buchanan, who sat on the review committee which looked at the report, said that the party was confident that Spencer would be vindicated. His successor, Peter Bunting, said, however, that the chips should fall where they may.


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