With questions over her role in the PNM’s scholarship slush fund scandal, McDonald yesterday sought to distance herself from the fund’s operations for the years 2002 to 2007, but in the process raised more questions over her knowledge of irregularities later uncovered at the Ministry.
“A proper system was put in place and what I found very disingenuous is that the period was not divided. I could account for what I did from January 2008 to May of 2010,” McDonald said in Parliament yesterday.
At the same time, former Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who once wrote former Culture Minister Joan Yuille-Williams instructing her to handle a scholarship for a Grenadian national quietly, maintained silence over the latest revelations.
During her contribution to the Budget debate, McDonald addressed the issue, which was raised on Monday by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Parliament. McDonald for the first time said she had stopped the programme, formally known as the Financial Assistance Programme, weeks after she entered office in November 2007.
“May I state that upon my arrival then and the assumption of my duties, with respect to the Financial Assistance Prog-
ramme, which is loosely called a scholarship programme, that programme was closed temporarily until the third week in January 2008,” she said. “The reason why? As minister, I closed that programme. Reason why I closed it? Because I need to get a better understanding of what the programme actually involves.”
In her statement to Parliament of December 4, 2009, when pressure was mounting on the former PNM administration to explain why it was withholding details of the programme, McDonald never disclosed that she had cause to stop the programme upon assuming office. McDonald, in her Budget contribution yesterday, admitted that she had to put “a structure in place” in relation to the programme and to form a committee to manage the programme and deal with applications.
In contrast, in 2009, McDonald told the Parliament that, “Cabinet agreed that the Ministry, in consultation with the CBOs and NGOs, (would) identify the criteria for the award of the bursaries; and that a Selection Committee (would) make the appropriate recommendations to the Minister”.
At the time, in 2009, the Minister gave no indication that the Selection Committee – as mandated by Cabinet – had never met prior to her tenure, as suggested by findings of the Equal Opportunities Commission this year. However, McDonald yesterday said that a committee was formed – apparently for the first time — under her tenure.
“A committee was formed,” she said at Tower D, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain, yesterday. “The committee was headed by Mr Wayne Wood as the chairman. The other committee members were Mr Victor McEachrane, Dr Valerie Hackshaw, Mr Roger Kawalsingh, Ms Amita Ganga. Those are the five members of the committee.”
“And they assumed responsibility for the programme for which there are policy documents, there are guidelines,” she said. (The Commission found that for the years 2002-2007 the programme’s guidelines were routinely flouted, a fact not disclosed by McDonald in Parliament after her review in her statement in 2009).
McDonald also yesterday said she introduced changes to the programme, but did not disclose why those changes were needed or what were her concerns with the programme.
“Also Mr Speaker, the application forms were all redone and were all placed on the Ministry’s website,” McDonald said. “This was done in January 2008. And indeed, every Wednesday, it was not unusual to see the entire committee meeting and interviewing applicants. The Minister removed herself from the process and this independent committee assessed all applications.”
She said two of the original members of the committee remained on it under current Multiculturalism Minister Winston Gypsy Peters, Ganga and Kawalsingh. The Port-of-Spain South MP did not say how she was aware of the current membership of the committee.
In response to McDonald’s statements, Government Chief Whip Dr Roodal Moonilal questioned why the programme was continued under the PNM.
“They continued the programme, they did not stop,” he said. “You see Mr Speaker when they were in office, they thought they would handle everything quietly, they thought they could handle everything quietly and nobody would know.”
During the lunch-break of Parliament, Manning was silent on the issue. Asked by Newsday why he had instructed Yuille-Williams in a letter to handle a scholarship he had recommended for a Grenadian national “quietly”, Manning walked away.