-Govt “doesn’t care”, not obliged to provide info not asked about- Finance Minister
The Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc. (TIGI) and anti-corruption advocates are up in arms over revelations that Government had moved to open a secret account with the Bank of Guyana (BoG) to facilitate receipt of a signing bonus from ExxonMobil after claiming ignorance of this very bonus.
According to the TIGI, the coalition, while on the Opposition benches, had been vociferous about the transparent management of state finances. Now that it has formed the Government, it is failing to show that it can accountably manage oil resources.
The TIGI on Friday lashed out at the Government for the way it handled the signing bonus issue, saying that ever since Christopher Ram’s revelation that the coalition Government had extracted a signature bonus of approximately US$20 million from ExxonMobil for the renegotiated contract, there has been a combination of avoiding the question, silence on the matter, and outright contradiction of the assertion by various officials.
“Confirmation that a signing bonus was indeed negotiated and that the Bank of Guyana was asked to create an account to receive it is a shock to anti-corruption advocates and to Guyana as a whole”, TIGI said.
On September 26 last, Christopher Ram had questioned Minister Raphael Trotman’s signing of a new agreement with ExxonMobil. He followed this with the assertion that a signing bonus of US$20 million had been paid to the Government, and asserted that this was the real reason behind the renegotiated contract.
By then, the Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, had been asked whether a signature bonus was paid, but he provided no direct answer. He, however, indicated that the new contract was not much different from the previous one.
Trotman, after news broke of the deception, is now saying that Government did receive a large sum of money from oil giant ExxonMobil following the signing of the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA).
According to Trotman the money is being used to defend Guyana’s territorial integrity in the border controversy with Venezuela.
TIGI noted that Finance Minister Winston Jordan had also been asked about the signing bonus, and he had responded that there was “no agreement for any bonus”; and further, he had indicated the assertion was a “figment of the imagination.”
“There is now proof that there was a signature bonus, and furthermore, that the Government had acted on it more than a year ago, before the recorded comments were made. On top of this discovery that a signing bonus was secured, there are the matters of how it has been, and is being, handled, and whether this explains the secrecy and falsehood in which it was shrouded,” the TIGI said on Friday.
The APNU/AFC coalition Government, TIGI says, is therefore well aware of the law governing the Consolidated Fund, and about what moneys should be deposited there.
“The move to set up a separate account to receive the signature bonus therefore appears as a move to avoid accountability. Was the idea to use this new account to initiate a Sovereign Wealth Fund? If so, can we expect that the appropriate legislation will follow?” TIGI has asked.
According to TIGI, not only has the Government failed to handle with transparency matters related to oil, it appears to have deliberately engaged in deception in relation to the signature bonus.
“We don’t care”
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Winston Jordan was nonchalant about the leaked correspondence. During his contribution to the 2018 budget debates on Friday, Jordan in fact said the Government “doesn’t care” that the matter is now in the open.
Dealing with Government’s consistent denial of any knowledge of the bonus, Jordan said ill-directed questions were put to him by the media, and he was not obliged to provide information he was not asked about.
Jordan said he subsequently checked, and the Government has not received any bonus from ExxonMobil.
The leaked correspondence in question was dated September 20, 2016 and addressed to the Governor of the Bank of Guyana with this subject: “Signing bonus granted by ExxonMobil – Request to open bank account”.
It shows that Finance Secretary at the Finance Ministry, Hector Butts, has requested that a foreign currency account be opened at the Bank in order to receive a deposit in the form of a ‘signing bonus’ to be given by ExxonMobil.
The letter stated, “this account should not be treated as part of the Bank’s reserves. Instead, the proceeds should be held in the currency of the deposit; that is, United States dollars, and invested in secured interest-bearing securities.”
The missive also listed the signatories to the account: Hector Butts, Finance Secretary at the Finance Ministry; Louise Bouyea, Deputy Finance Secretary at the Finance Ministry; Jawahar Persaud, Accountant General (Acting) at the Finance Ministry; and Jennifer Chapman, Deputy Accountant General at the Finance Ministry. The letter was also copied to Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman.
At a press conference held two weeks ago, Opposition Leader Dr Bharrat Jagdeo demanded that Government come clean on this signing bonus, stating that he could ‘reasonably confirm’ that it was true, especially since members of Government have neither confirmed nor denied the allegation when confronted.
He also queried the whereabouts of the money.
Jagdeo has now reiterated his initial call for Government to resign.
“What we have here is a major scandal. The Government of Guyana took money, large sums of money, in form of a signing bonus and did not tell the people (and) write to put it into a special account, not paid into the Consolidated Fund or into the GGMC. What if a few years had passed? Then someone can easily, because it is not recorded, can easily draw down monies from this fund. It is illegal! The entire Government should resign now,” Jagdeo noted during his Budget presentation on Friday.
Jagdeo contended that the funds should have been included in the budget, adding that it was understated by over $4 billion. This, he said, is grounds to call for the withdrawing of the entire 2018 estimates because it translates to being not only fraudulent but also illegal.
“If the Minister of Finance knew of this and he deliberately misled this nation in such categorical terms that it is the figment of our imagination, then there must be another motive for trying to hide this money. There must be another motive, Mr Speaker, and I think if he knew and he misled this nation then he should resign,” he said in relation to Jordan.
“Mr Speaker it’s not only the Minister of Finance who knew of this. This letter was copied to the honourable Minister Raphael Trotman, he too should resign. Because they knew of this signing bonus and they categorically, Mr Speaker, denied it and this was since September of 2016 so over a year this country was in the dark,” Jagdeo added.
The Opposition Leader said only a selected few stand to benefit from the oil proceeds under the A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change Administration. He also accused Government Ministers of misleading the nation when they cited legal and sovereign implications for their refusal to release the contract with ExxonMobil.
He claimed the only thing that prevented the coalition Government’s refusal to release the contract was its lack of transparency and secreted nature.
However, the Government has since give in to the pressure and announced that it will release the contract by the end of the year.