The mockery and downright travesty that is being made in Andros of what I thought would amount to a revival of local agriculture has left a bad taste in the mouths of many Bahamians and raised many questions about the credibility of the programme itself and the so-called “qualified” persons at the fore of the project.
The Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI) has seemingly been derailed by political partisanship, cronyism, tribalism and nepotism in the rewarding of construction contracts, dubious and exorbitantly costly imports of plants that could have been purchased locally and what appears to be a cluelessness as to the purpose of BAMSI, and how it will be accredited and have a form of educational quality assurance to undergird its degrees and certifications.
Is BAMSI a slush fund that is evolving into a free-for-all under the guise of a national agricultural revitalisation project?
A few months ago, I was ecstatic to hear about the launch of BAMSI and the potential it had to put the Bahamas on the fast track to food security. Then, I said:
“Recently, I was very happy to see that the current administration launched the Bahamas Agriculture and Marine Science Institute (BAMSI), which has been touted as an agricultural and marine resources institute that will have wide ranging impact on the economy and put our food security at the top of our developmental agenda.
“I do hope that, considering the fact that we import more than a billion dollars’ worth of food annually, this is not another pie-in-the-sky, political pipedream being sold to the masses. I have always believed that with initiative and governmental and private sector collaboration, we can reduce the amount of monies sent from the Bahamas for imports.”
I further said that I was “pleased to hear that BAMSI, which is situated in Andros, is a multifaceted institute that is foreseen to have a positive impact on the Bahamas, from – as one BAIC press release puts it – “a commercial farming prospective where produce will be for sale to the general public, food stores, restaurants and hotels that will grow produce and livestock on the site. “Then there is also the educational component, where there will be certificate programmes and academic degree courses. The College of the Bahamas affiliation will ensure proper research development and best practices are held up to standards which will bring a new level of food security to the Bahamas.”
For many years, consecutive governments have pursued an ill-advised singular economic model that is reliant on foreign investment – tourism and the financial sector – whilst slighting agricultural development as if it were not a priority. These days, although there are large quantities of unused crown land, our government’s apparent condescension for farming and agribusiness over the years has fostered apathy for farming among the citizenry.
Today, age has caught up with the remaining, yet greatly diminished group of Out Island farmers, and thus far the government has done little to encourage local food production and recruit youngsters to enter the field. I felt, and continue to feel, that we have put ourselves in an insecure position as it relates to food security and that it is in part the fault of our governments why we continue to be a dependent price-taker. Therefore, my enthusiasm about BAMSI was expressed to all and sundry. However, between then and now, what I conceptualised BAMSI as possibly becoming has been hijacked and mired in controversy.
At the helm of BAMSI, as its “special adviser and project consultant”, the government has hired Omer Thomas, the former head of the Jamaican Bureau of Standards, which is a statutory body that describes itself on its website as “facilitating the development of standards and other requirements to which particular commodities, services, practices and processes must comply; monitoring for compliance; conducting tests and calibrating instruments; certifying products and management systems; providing industrial training and promoting research and education in standardisation.”
Mr Thomas resigned his post under a dark cloud when questions were raised about the authenticity of his qualifications. He claimed he had a doctorate degree but the school that issued the degree was found to be nothing more than a degree mill. Mr Thomas’ biography states that he owns/owned and operated a 320-acre cocoa and coconut farm, that he holds a PhD in Public Administration, a Masters of Science degree in Pathology and a BSc in Virology and Pathology.
According to an editorial in the Jamaica Gleaner: “Qualifications are an important part of the professional credentials of a person who is seeking employment. Therefore, recruitment and employment have a direct bearing on a person’s qualification. The country has never given an explanation as to whether or not Dr Thomas had perpetuated a fraud on the people of Jamaica.”
“Did he mislead the Government by overstating his qualifications, and were the taxpayers of the country shortchanged into paying for something that was undeliverable? If that were the case, what were the consequences? These are important questions that need to be answered and ought not to be evaded by the powers that be.”
So, is Omer Thomas – who some refer to as Dr Thomas – the holder of valid academic qualifications that qualify him to carry such a title? When the Bahamas government hired Mr Thomas, who signed off on his hiring and were the qualifications he espoused as a part of his professional credentials the main cause for his recruitment and employment or was it something else? Who vetted Mr Thomas before he was hired and, to paraphrase the Gleaner, are Bahamian taxpayers being short changed and duped into buying into a country-wide agricultural rejuvenation programme that is under the direction of Omer Thomas who has – based on my research – not effectively explained the circumstances surrounding his so-called doctorate degree and its attainment?
Was there no suitably qualified Bahamian to do the job that Mr Thomas is doing?
One would also note that Mr Thomas also served as head of the Rural Agricultural Development Authority and was an adviser to former Jamaican agriculture minister Dr Christopher Tufton. In May 2004, Omer Thomas also became the president of the Caricom Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ) – an inter-regional body that seeks to promote trade efficiency and competitiveness – for a two-year term.
Since his resignation following the much-reported scandal, Mr Thomas mounted a civil suit against the Bureau of Standards of Jamaica. According to the March 26, 2009 edition of the Jamaica Gleaner Online, this law suit also resulted in the then government’s chief legal adviser suggesting that the Public Accounts Committee of the Jamaican parliament await the outcome of the civil case before “deliberating on controversial payments made to him.”
The aforementioned payments concerns some $8 million paid to Mr Thomas, which were highlighted in the Jamaican auditor general’s report as a breach of government guidelines. Mr Thomas purportedly received the package as an ex-gratia payment at the conclusion of his term as head of the Bureau of Standards.
In his law suit, Mr Thomas sought $15 million Jamaican dollars (more than US$133,000). According to the Jamaica Observer (July 11, 2008), in his suit, Thomas claimed that he was owed this sum “based on the contracts he had with the BSJ, which he headed for six years.” He asserted that in his second three-year contract, he earned a base salary of J$3.9 million (US$34,000-plus) which should have been annually reviewed but was never revised. He also claimed that his final payment upon resignation should have been in excess of J$14.8 million (US$131,000-plus), but noted that he has only received J$8.8 million (US$78,000-plus).
According to the Jamaica Observer in 2008: “A 2006/7 report of the Auditor General has raised concerns over whether Government financial guidelines were breached in order to make what it said were ‘improper payments’ of the J$8,743,030 (almost US$78,000) to Thomas between 2006 and 2007 and queried whether the amount was recovered.”
The then Deputy Auditor General Brenton Burrell told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Jamaican parliament that “the emoluments were paid in excess of what the officer was entitled to.” He further said that those payments had to do with “gratuity and vacation leave and retroactive salary” and expressed the view that “this was not entitled to the officer.”
The package purportedly contained payments and benefits that were broken down into J$4,457,611 (nearly US$40,000) for emoluments, office equipment totalling $326,249 (nearly US$3,000), motor vehicles costing $3,422,920 (more than US$30,000) and life insurance in the sum of J$536,250 (almost US$5,000).
According to the Observer’s report, then PAC Chairman, Dr Omar Davies exclaimed: “It is astounding, the gift of office equipment; I have never heard of that being done. How did such a thing occur? I was minister for fourteen and a half years and I can’t believe these things could happen, because one of the strangest things is that central government is perceived to be more tightly run than the offshoots, and ministers and the political directorate have to follow the rules much more stringently than anybody else!”
What’s more, in 2006 Dr Jean Dixon – then permanent secretary in the ministry of commerce, science and technology – wrote a letter to the Jamaican office of the attorney general seeking advice on the questionable payments to Thomas.
I intend to write a follow-up at some point with a view to discovering the outcome of that case.
Omer Thomas is also a failed general election candidate. He was the Jamaica Labour Party’s standard bearer for the Eastern St Thomas constituency in 2007. He was sent packing by Fenton Ferguson (People’s National Party), who attained 7,589 votes to Thomas’ 6,651 votes.
Mr Thomas is said to have attended and graduated from Kensington University in 1987. According to the Gleaner – on review of the Jamaica Directory of Personalities – Thomas would have received his doctorate by the age of 32. Here’s the thing: Kensington University was a diploma mill and one that was booted out of both Hawaii and California. An October 2003 court order ensured the dissolution of the company – Kensington University Hawaii Corporation – that operated in that archipelagic US state (Hawaii(. Kensington University was founded in 1976 by Alfred Calabro in Glendale, California, and referred to as a correspondence school that met and facilitated the needs and higher education pursuits of working folk. It was ordered shut down by Californian authorities in 1996 and re-opened in Hawaii later that same year until it was closed by court order.
Notably, a former Florida lieutenant governor and member of the Florida House of Representatives – Jennifer Carroll – also received an MBA degree from Kensington but – upon being exposed by a CBS news piece – quickly removed the degree from among her list of qualifications/biography.
So, has Mr Thomas removed his PhD qualification from his resume/biography? And, since Mr Thomas also claims to have attended Kensington, what work – if any – did he do and how did it all happen, especially since the internet and distance learning wasn’t as developed as it is today?
According to a June 2004 article entitled ‘Psst. Wanna buy a PhD?’ Thomas Bartlett and Scott Smallwood interviewed a professor by the name of Martin Roden, among many other things. Roden, an associate dean of engineering at California State University in Los Angeles – who attended Kensington – said: “Primarily, I was just tired of having to correct students who call me ‘doctor.’” He admitted that Kensington was a “second-rate, unrecognised place that basically is doing portfolio analysis.”
So, what could have been said to Prime Minister Perry Christie to make him so satisfied that Thomas “is more than adequately qualified” as he stated in the House of Assembly in response to FNM leader Dr Hubert Minnis’ contribution to debate on the 2014/2015 budget? Do the controversies in Jamaica account for much?
And, what is the salary that Mr Thomas is being paid? What exactly is he doing as government’s special advisor?
The $120,000 that Mr Thomas purportedly makes must be justified. That was, perhaps, the first questionable issue arising out of BAMSI. Then came the issuance of $20 million worth of construction contracts to cronies and overt supporters of the governing party. But, that $20 million figure pales in comparison to the Agriculture and Marine Resources Minister V Alfred Gray’s claim that the government had already spent a whopping $50 million! And, on what? A few unfinished buildings?
I often wonder how much abuse taxpayers can take and when an audited account of the people’s monies will be offered up. Perhaps never! With no Freedom of Information Act, taxpayers are left to wonder.
Mr Thomas told a press conference in May that $210 million in import substitutes could be realised after the third year of an aggressive food production programme at BAMSI. Yeah right! At the rate that things are going, they need to first focus on pitching the roofs on a handful of buildings that are clearly not of the most complicated architectural renderings.
Why were lime trees purportedly being imported into the Bahamas at a cost of $1 million for this project? $1 million for lime trees? Phew! Show me the receipts and all associated information! Something smells funky!
And who came up with the ingenuous idea to uproot cascarilla plants, taking them from Acklins to Andros only to – according to a source – have them wither up and die before shipping?
Did the government of Morocco give the Bahamas’ government $500,000 worth of inorganic fertiliser? If so, where is that shipment located and how is it being used?
BAMSI presented the government with an opportunity to uplift agriculture in the Bahamas. However, with what appears to be an uncoordinated effort, a lack of accountability and a politicisation of the entire undertaking, it could unfortunately be doomed.