… chronicled how President Granger and entire Cabinet was involved
By Devina Samaroo
After being attacked and humiliated by both the press and his Government over the highly controversial drug bond deal which is believed to reek of corruption, former Public Health Minister, Dr George Norton has finally opened up about the entire ordeal and how he is now being reprimanded for a call which was made by higher authorities.
Dr Norton was hauled before the parliamentary Privileges Committee (akin to a parliamentary court) and scorched by the media after he misled the National Assembly on the Public Health Ministry’s sudden rental of a basic house on Sussex Street, Charlestown, Georgetown owned by a party affiliate to store the country’s pharmaceuticals at an exorbitant rate at $12.5 million per month. Altogether, this arrangement is billing Government in excess of $14 million per month, as there are other expenses involved in the agreement.
As the story gained momentum and the Government began to receive immense public backlash, its members eventually expressed concerns over the matter and forced the then Public Health Minister to apologise to the nation.
Dr Norton was subsequently removed from the Public Health Ministry, which has a budget of $23 billion, and placed to head the Social Cohesion Ministry, which has a $90 million budget.
Dr Norton, in an exclusive interview with the Guyana Times newspaper last week, admitted that he is taking the fall for a decision made entirely by all Cabinet members, including President David Granger.
It all started when he received an invoice on his desk for the rental of a state-of-the-art and internationally certified drug bond. Notably, this bond is 70,000 square feet, while the controversial residential building disguised as a bond is 6000 square feet.
“The reality of the situation is you come to work one morning and you see an invoice on your desk saying you need to pay this company so much money,” Dr Norton said, positing also that Government did not need all of the space which the modern facility boasted.
He said the search began for alternatives and his staff prepared for a paper to be taken to Cabinet regarding options.
“For the Cabinet, every decision that is made there, a paper is taken by the Minister that is responsible, but it is not necessarily that Minister who makes the decision or who decides whether all the conditions are met, or who is the lowest bidder and those sorts of things. Those are decisions made by the technical officers and the Minister is supposed to defend that at Cabinet. We have Cabinet every Tuesday. It is a fact that many times we go to Cabinet with a paper we see for the first time,” the Minister explained, conceding that he did not get to review the paper his staff prepared beforehand.
At the Cabinet meeting where the matter was deliberated, Dr Norton said the members agreed that Government cannot continue to pay $19 million per month for the rental of a drug bond and needed an alternative urgently. This later tuned out to be untruthful, as at the time the NEW GPC INC never received any rent from the Government of Guyana for the use of its state-of-the-art storage facility for over a decade, but after the request for rental of the facility was made by the Public Health Ministry and the Georgetown Public Hospital, an invoice was computed at $275 per square foot.
According to Dr Norton, the idea was to rent a bond at a lower cost until Government succeeded in rehabilitating its existing drug bond in Kingston.
“A decision was made by Cabinet to seek another facility within a certain time. A rough calculation was made that if we should rent this, then we should save so much money over so much period,” the Minister explained.
Dr Norton related that Cabinet subsequently unanimously agreed to rent the Sussex Street facility – an arrangement he emphasised was pulled together by technical staff within the Public Health Ministry.
During the interview, the Minister made it clear that he was unaware of the arrangement prior to that Cabinet sitting and he asserted also that the decision to rent the drug bond was not his, but one taken by the entire Cabinet.
“Signing the contract is not the role of the Minister. So this Minister signed no contract; that is done by another officer who has duties for that. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even sign it as a witness,” he expounded.
Dr Norton further explained that the approval of contracts is usually done by the Ministry if the value of the contract falls below a certain amount of dollars.
In the case of the drug bond, the value well exceeded the limit and therefore had to be taken to Cabinet.
PULL THE PLUG
Nonetheless, the Minister explained that because he was receiving the negative press about the matter, the President had no choice but to “pull the plug”.