Caution: Bridge Company helping to sink leaking NIS

Recently the NIS has made news on two scores: the first that it will not receive any dividends on its investment in preference shares in the Berbice Bridge Company Inc., and the second that there are more than 1,500,000 contributions which have not been credited to the workers’ account.

I was disappointed rather than shocked when I saw Ms. Doreen Nelson, General Manager of the NIS, sitting passively next to her Chairman Dr. Roger Luncheon announcing that persons were not coming forward to help clear up the contribution mess in the NIS. Ms. Nelson knows that his statement contradicts the experiences of many contributors who try, sometimes for years, to persuade the NIS that the contributions recorded in its records are less, sometimes significantly so, than the actual contributions they have made over their decades of working life and contributions.

A client has been engaged in frustrating correspondence for more than four years persuading the management of the Scheme that his entitlement is a pension rather than an Old Age grant. I myself have had fifteen telephone calls to Ms. Nelson over the matter and all I hear is that the NIS is looking into it. Frustrated with the delay, the poor fellow travelled to Guyana from the USA over the Christmas holidays only to be told that it was Christmas time and the matter would have to wait until the holidays were over!

I reported this to the General Manager several weeks ago. She said that was not good.

Buying a pig in a poke
Contrast this with the speed with which the NIS doled out $950 million to NICIL to pay for non-performing preference shares in the Berbice Bridge Company Inc. Here is that story. In December 2013 the PSC, which apparently shares the same PR with NICIL and the Berbice Bridge Company Inc., broke the news that the NIS had acquired from NICIL preference shares with a face value of $950 million in BBCI. What a difference a year made. One year later, in fact on December 29, 2014, BBCI wrote the General Manager of the NIS informing her that the company would not be paying the NIS any dividends on its newly acquired investment! According to BBCI’s CEO, the company did not record a profit in 2014.

Of some interest is that while the Bridge Company claims it has not made profits, it has failed to file its 2012 and 2013 annual returns as required by law. In fact it was only after I called on the Registrar of Companies to enforce the law with respect to annual returns that a demand was made on the company. As far as I am aware the company is yet to comply.

But back to those preference shares. Unfortunately for the workers of the country whose pension is tied up in the NIS, this was another hustle by NICIL and Winston Brassington to raise desperately needed funds for the company. If you have to wonder why a holding company should be desperate for cash it means that you have not heard about the Kingston Hotel. To any Guyanese who has been observing how Winston Brassington operates however, it should be no surprise. But even Brassington’s well-known indiscretions do not make the announcement of no dividends to the NIS less shocking in its seriousness, crass in its brazenness and gross in its shamelessness, or detrimental to those who have contributed to the Scheme.

Willing co-conspirators
In fairness to Brassington, he could not succeed without some willing co-conspirators. He succeeded because of the spinelessness of the members of the Investment Committee of the NIS and the conflicting roles of Dr Roger Luncheon who happens to be a director of NICIL and Chairman of the NIS Board at the same time. In relation to the preference shares, he was both buyer and seller!

No doubt one will hear that the Board of the NIS has an Investment Committee and that the Scheme’s Investment Strategy has been approved by the Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh who, coincidentally, has statutory responsibility for the Scheme and is the Chairman of NICIL! But like the money from GGMC to the Central Housing and Planning Authority, reality, decency, propriety and legality were the least of the factors in the imposition of the “acquisition” by the NIS of shares that for several years had earned its owner NICIL nothing by way of dividends.

The press has counted and recounted the story of the Bridge Company’s creative accounting and financing perpetrated by Brassington, first as a promoter and later as Secretary of the Company. In his capacity as company secretary Brassington personally engaged in incomplete and inaccurate statutory reporting that concealed the extent of government funds invested in the company. And when the glowing financial projections for the company turned out to be no more than cock-eyed accounting, he as an officer of NICIL and its directors, engaged in the illegal waiver of hundreds of millions of dollars of dividends due by the Bridge Company to NICIL, directly or through its subsidiary.

The tide is going out on the Bridge Company and it is leaving the NIS adrift. Over the years I have offered both warnings and advice to the Bridge Company, most recently in September 2013. Here are two examples:

1. “With its high borrowings, liquidity dangers for the Bridge Company are never too far from the surface. This concern is not helped by the improperly prepared financial statements such as the word “maturity” in relation to the repayment of more than $5,575 million in corporate bonds.”

2. And drawing on information contained in BBCI’s 2011 financial statements I calculated that “in 2014, the company will have to find some $610 million to repay Tranche 1 and another $100 million or so to repay other loans which will become repayable. If the company is unable to meet those obligations, it would find itself facing what is called ‘cash-flow’ insolvency.”

I suspect that the unwillingness by the directors to file the annual reports of the company for more than two years may have something to do with the poor state of their finances.

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