The Auditor General’s report for 2006 (continued)

Update
In the first part of this review (BP 24.8.08) of the Auditor General’s report for 2006 we examined the several statutory obligations of the Audit Office under the constitution and several other statutes. We noted that the office has failed to carry out a substantial and perhaps a majority of its duties including the audit of entities and funds amounting to billions of dollars, noting specifically the Sugar Industry and Welfare Fund which has not been audited for over ten years. During the week I learnt that this fund amounting to approximately $1.25 billion was subject to a major fraud. This should cause an auditor not only to advance the statutory audit of the financial statements but to carry out a fraud investigation as well. While the Audit Act allows the Auditor General “complete discretion” such discretion surely does not extend to whether or not he can choose to carry out the audit of any entity, and the Public Accounts Committee needs to press him on this.

Two of the most important powers of the Auditor General are those of access to information to carry out the audits for which he is statutorily responsible and the freedom (and duty) to report to Parliament on such matters as he considers necessary. To wait for five years before inserting almost as a footnote to his report that such audits are outstanding, amounts to a dereliction of his duty. It would seem as well that there is a fiduciary obligation on the part of the National Assembly to withhold funds until the audits are brought up to date, as the government has done with certain other entities.

On the President’s statement that the bank balances are not real cash but a book entry, the records show that at the end of 2006 the government had over three hundred bank accounts of which one hundred and eight were dormant, but with balances amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. These accounts were held exclusively with a third party and represent real cash running into billions of dollars. When the President misspoke in relation to the tax laws, the task of cleaning up fell on Winston Brassington. Now it is the turn of Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh who has been mandated to educate those described by the President as “financially illiterate” even as the President mistakenly identifies the Minister as the authority for the appointment of the Auditor General. In fact the constitution confers that power on the President acting in accordance with the advice of the Public Service Commission, instead of logically that of the National Assembly through the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

Independence
In this second column in the series we look at some of the other provisions of the Audit Act and their implications for professional quality work by the Audit Office. The first is the duty to act independently. The role of the Auditor General is primarily to provide Parliament, the people and donors with independently derived audit information about the executive arm of government. Parliament exercises its oversight role of the office by way of the Public Accounts Committee chaired by the opposition which from time to time laments its narrow mandate, while Parliament seems to think its own involvement ends with the handing over of the report by the Auditor General to the Speaker of the National Assembly, often several months late.

The Audit Office cannot act independently if it is strangled for funds by the Ministry of Finance, arguably its primary client. Parliament needs to be far more forceful in securing resources for the Audit Office which would be one way to secure its independence of the executive and ensure the effectiveness of the office’s work. The Auditor General’s independence is also compromised because his is an acting position, though as we shall see presently it would not be possible for the acting holder to be confirmed in the post.

This lack of independence was most tellingly demonstrated by a press statement in 2005 referring to instructions by the President to the Audit Office in relation to the long promised flood account. Perhaps not too many people are surprised that three years later the Audit Office has gone silent on this matter. More recently we saw the Auditor General being summoned to the Office of the President in connection with another Customs corruption scandal but will this report too never see the light of day despite the requirement of the law that all reports of the Auditor General be submitted to the National Assembly?

Conflict of interest
The second provision is the prohibition of any conflict of interest between the Auditor General’s official role and that in any private or professional entity or activity with which he is associated. The problem is not only that this limitation is narrowly defined but that it applies to the Auditor General only. The second paragraph of the audit report just published correctly assigns responsibility for preparation of the statements and accounts to the Minister of Finance and Head of Budget Agencies. Those who would wish to defend the situation whereby the wife of the Finance Minister in her role as number two and the most professionally qualified person in the Audit Office, is not bound by this narrow conflict of interest limitation simply do not understand how the audit profession works, what conflict of interest means and the damage done by its very appearance. Any such appearance will mean that the report coming out of the Audit Office will be viewed with scepticism.

Qualifications
The third point is in relation to what would seem to be the required qualification for the post of Auditor General. Could Parliament in enacting the Audit Act 2004 giving to the Auditor General the same conditions of service and benefits including tax free salaries as the Chief Justice have intended that the Auditor General would not have to hold a first degree or a professional qualification? That is the case of the current holder of the post of Auditor General whose audit responsibilities dwarf those of all the professional auditors in Guyana combined.

Depleted
The vacancy rate in the Audit Office averages about 50% with a considerably higher rate at the senior levels.

The website of the Australian Auditor General in discussing its role notes that to be seen to be competent, key stakeholders must view the Auditor General as being the right person for the job and must also have the means to acquire resources according to the skill requirements of the job to be done. Without these characteristics, the assurances of the Auditor General would certainly lack credibility, even if the independence of the office was not significantly compromised.

In his 2002 report, then Auditor General (ag) Mr B Balram referred to the “depleting staff situation in the Audit Office” as a result of which he could only adopt a selective approach in his audit. Consequently he warned against relying “upon the findings of his report to reflect the results of a comprehensive review of the financial operations of Government,” adding that he thought such a review desirable. While four years later the situation is now much worse, there is an absence of similar frankness by the incumbent leaving the uninformed reader with a false sense of security about the state of the government’s finances.

Basic
No wonder then that the Audit Office has chosen the most basic areas of cash and bank, purchases and stores and the maintenance of vehicle log books as his focus for the shortened audit report for 2006. This reminded me of a medical client some time ago who chided me for not paying enough attention to petty cash and postage stamps amounting to less than $5,000 but seemed far less concerned about whether his billing system which accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per month was effective! While Value for Money (VFM) audits are indeed very useful and necessary, there are not enough staff for the more routine functions involved, and many audits go undone for several years. Yet, the Auditor General is diverting his limited resources to set up a VFM Unit whose only progress to date “is presently in the initial stage of formulating its first VFM audit plan,” whatever that means in practical terms.

Sadly, the several limitations are reflected in the scope of his audit and the quality of the report which at times uses language more suited to a newspaper column than a professional report. For example, what must the reader assume from paragraph 6 (iv) of the report that refers to “The balances of 66 inactive bank accounts, of which eight had balances in excess of $100M.” It is standard practice that audit reports should not assume financial literacy and should as far as possible state actual values. And more than once the report gives the impression that the introduction of the new system IFMAS was done during 2006 – in fact this was introduced in 2004, and how too does the Auditor General explain his statement that IFMAS operates a single bank account when some 194 active accounts are maintained?

Trinkets and the wood for the trees
And in paragraph 8, the report repeats the “continued lack of reporting for all gifts to Ministries, Departments and Regions” as if we are talking about trinkets. In fact some “gifts” represent hundreds of millions of dollars and the Auditor General only needs to refer to successive Budget speeches and the newspapers to see some of the cases of huge sums of money. In one paragraph the report noted a UNDP grant of US$4.373M, but why not the others, not only out of a professional obligation but also so that readers can see the full cost of running the country and where the money comes from.

And in the same vein, how could the report not even mention the huge sums being collected by the Privatisation Unit/NICIL that are not being properly accounted for, or why the royalties collected from OMAI are not being deposited into the Consolidated Fund as required by the constitution? The value of special funds not accounted for and spent without any parliamentary approval has gone way beyond the infamous Lotto Funds despite the howls of protest over the years.

To be continued

The Auditor General’s Report for 2006

Introduction
It is now established that the Report of the Auditor General was late by more than ten months. By law, the Auditor General is required to report “at least annually, and within nine months of the end of each fiscal year, on the results of his audit of the consolidated financial statements and the accounts of budget agencies in relation to that fiscal year.” It is not only that he has failed to do so, but he has also failed to report on several of the Budget agencies which have spent tens of billions of taxpayer and loan funds without any audit or accountability. In the next few columns, we will review the report not only for what it says but more importantly for what it should have contained but does not, and we shall make our own conclusions about the real value of the report to the people of Guyana.

We will bear in mind too that several months ago the acting Auditor General had promised the report no later than June 30 of this year and failed to say anything when that time came and went. We will, as space permits, look at whether the Auditor General has met his other obligations under the laws, among other things.

More sound than substance
One of the ironies of the 2006 report is that it is far less comprehensive than the report for 2005. Not that size alone matters but some valid reasons should have been offered for the downsizing of the report from 1,822 paragraphs in 2005 to 525 paragraphs in 2006, many of which are devoted to “Prior year matters that have not been fully resolved.” The size of the Guyana National Budget has expanded dramatically, state corporations formed under the Public Corporations Act and the Companies Act have increased the volume and value of transactions they carry out each year while legislation in 2003 and 2004 introduced new systems of accountability as well as new responsibilities of the Audit Office as it is now called.

Yet, the 2006 report which does little more than repeat the several failures highlighted in earlier reports has generated considerably more public discussion and interest, eliciting responses from the Ministers of Health and Finance, the Head of the Presidential Secretariat and his boss the President himself. In fact the statements from the latter two were in stark conflict with Dr Luncheon suggesting quite inaccurately that the closure of certain bank accounts was proving difficult, “fundamentally because of a lack of information and timely reconciliation.”

Perhaps the Minister of Finance who spoke after Dr Luncheon should have advised him that the closure of accounts has nothing to do with whether or not accounts are reconciled as any person who has held a bank account will attest! In fact closure actually helps with reconciliations since it brings an end to all business being conducted on that account.

‘Illiteracy’
But if Dr Luncheon’s statement was uninformed and misleading, it was the President’s contribution that truly caught the imagination and raised some parallel with his contribution to the debate on tax holidays for QA II. Attributing some of the findings in the report to factors ranging from financial ‘illiteracy’ to the previous government for perceived irregularities outlined in the 2006, President Jagdeo described the government’s failure to deal with Lotto funds in accordance with the constitution as a “technical issue,” and incredibly described the billions of dollars held in dormant accounts as “not real cash, it is a book entry…”

This is a matter with which the last Auditor General Anand Goolsarran had taken issue for several years and if the President were right – though he clearly is wrong – then each report for the past several years is deficient since dormant bank accounts usually represent cash confirmed as being held by a financial institution. What the President might have said is that there are possible explanations and controls to prevent the fraudulent use of these accounts, but without the benefit of this information one cannot determine whether the Auditor General was referring to confirmed bank balances or balances extracted from the accounting records. Past reports have been highlighting these same issues as far back as the nineties, and the accuracy of similar findings and comments were never questioned by any of the incumbent Finance Ministers, one of whom was the current President.

Where the President and his Finance Minister do have a point is in relation to outstanding advances drawn from the contingencies fund. Indeed normally a report would have identified the period for which the advances were outstanding, whether or not they were all proper charges on the contingencies fund, and would have highlighted the fact that many of these advances amounting to hundreds of millions of real dollars were made in the last week of 2006, including separate sums of $300 million each to the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Housing and Water, on December 29 and 30, respectively.

Why did the Auditor General not tell the nation the amount outstanding on the ten advances made in 2006 to the Ministry of Culture and Sport totalling $450 million dollars, or why in the space of seven days that ministry had to be advanced identical sums of $84.375 million?

Cabinet outreach and explanations
2006 was an election year in which all caution and rules were thrown to the wind, with a Cabinet outreach featuring outboard engines, food and other supplies funded by the state. Regrettably, the report is conspicuously silent on this or on any monies advanced to those like Omprakash Shivraj to get Guyana ready for World Cup Cricket.

Understandably there was no reaction to any of these omissions but the Guyanese public hopes that the Public Accounts Com-mittee (PAC), the body responsible for reviewing the reports from the Audit Office would raise the many questions which the report has failed to address.

And while the government, as indeed every citizen, has every right to express itself on any issue and to correct inaccurate reporting in the press, the established procedure for it to respond to the Auditor General’s Report is by way of a Treasury Mem-orandum following the review and report of the PAC. I believe that it is legitimate and necessary for any report by the Audit Office to mention that the government is in breach of the requirement of the Standing Orders of the National Assembly that this be submitted within ninety days of the PAC’s report. My information is that the last such memorandum was issued in respect of the 2001 and 2002 reports.

Dr Singh, the Minister of Finance, has challenged the report for not adequately reflecting explanations that would have been proffered by the government ministries and departments.

In fact I believe that the report was generous to a fault, accepting some of the most simplistic excuses offered by officials.

The report for example accepts the explanation by GINA that it breached the Procurement Act because it needed a minibus urgently! But the most glaring and arguably dangerous example not only of the acceptance of banal explanations but the apparent condoning by the Audit Office of a breach of the constitution is in relation to the Lotto Funds on which the report concludes that the unconstitutional expenditure from those funds “was within the National Sectors previously identified and in accordance with the guidelines for access to the Lottery funding”! Mr Sharma, if the thing is unconstitutional what can it accord with? No wonder then that Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy could explain the breach by his ministry and the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation in its purchase of drugs from New GPC as being in accordance with a cabinet decision.

The Audit Act
Under section 4 of the Audit Act, the Auditor General is the auditor of all public accounts defined in the constitution as including all central and local government bodies and entities; all bodies and entities in which the state has a controlling interest; all projects funded by way of loans or grants by a foreign state or organisation. All entities set up under that act are required to submit to the minister within 6 months of the end of the financial year a report including accounts of the corporation, which should be tabled in the National Assembly no later than three months thereafter. One such entity, GO-Invest, appears not even to know of this requirement!

Under the Companies Act all government companies have similar reporting requirements, but these too just ignore the law with impunity. Some of the larger active government companies are GuySuco, Guyana Power & Light Inc, Guyana National Newspapers Limited, Guyana National Shipping, GUYOIL, National Communications Network Inc and NICIL.

Audit responsibilities and non-compliance
Apart from its responsibility to audit the ministries and departments that come directly under the government the Audit Office is also responsible for auditing the Budget agencies listed in the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act, including the National Parks Commission which comes under the Office of the President, the National Trust, the Guyana Cooperative Financial Services, the Guyana Energy Agency, the Guyana Post Office Corporation, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Integrity Commission, the National Sports Commission and the Dependents Pension Fund. Another such entity is the Sugar Industry and Welfare Fund which controls close to $1.4 billion of real money for the direct benefit of the sugar workers but which has not been audited since 1996.

Indeed, instead of stating the status of the audits of all such entities the report simply identifies those that are more than five years in arrears! Moreover in respect of the backlog audits which are completed, the Audit Office does not report its detailed findings such as breaches of procurement laws, etc, but merely refers to the reasons for any adverse or disclaimer opinions given on the financial statements for the last year for which audits have been done. As a result we are completely in the dark about the Guyana Post Office Corporation which has not been audited since 1998.

Special functions
In addition to its report on the Public Accounts the Audit Office is required to submit to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) within one month of each quarter a quarterly report on the performance and operation of the Audit Office and within (t1)4* months of the end of year an Annual Performance and Financial Audit Report. Under the Audit Act the PAC is required to appoint an independent auditor. There is nothing to indicate that any of these reports has been submitted or that the Audit Office has itself been audited.

There is a similar deadline and procedural requirement for the Auditor General in respect of special audits conducted by him. In other words the reports on his special audits of all the so-called scams that have taken place during the year should also be tabled in the National Assembly but while the 2006 report refers to twenty-three special investigations having been finalized in 2006, there is no evidence that the reports on these audits or investigations have been submitted by him for laying in the National Assembly.

Under section 37 of the Investment Act the Auditor General is required to carry out annually a procedural or process audit of incentives granted under section 2 of the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act and to submit to the National Assembly for laying within six months after the end of each financial year the report thereon. No such report has even been laid nor is there any indication that the responsibility was discharged. If that was properly done then the concessions illegally granted to QA II and whoever else would have been exposed a long time ago and the revenues of the country protected.

Next week
The scope of the responsibilities of the Audit Office is wide and it requires as its head not someone in an acting capacity but a professionally qualified accountant who can act independently of the politicians. In next week’s column we will look at some of the challenges facing the office, review the report in some detail and offer our own view on how the findings could have been made more useful.

*(t1)Supposed to be section 43

GO-INVEST – Investment and reality

Introduction
As we conclude the series of columns on the QA II privatisation, we turn our attention to the Guyana Office for Investment (GO-INVEST), an entity established in 1994 under the Public Corporations Act 1988 to replace GUYMIDA, an agency with similar objectives closed down soon after the change of government in 1992. GUYMIDA had operated a very structured process for incentives including tax holidays but as is so often the case we throw the baby away with the bath water and there is no documented evidence of the experiences, lessons and mistakes of that agency that would have avoided some of the failures we are now witnessing.  The functions of the GO-INVEST as set out in the Order creating it include the facilitation of investments though the identification of investment opportunities and providing profiles for such opportunities.

These functions were expanded in 2004 with the passage of the Investment Act that reposed in GO-INVEST responsibility for setting up and operating the Secretariat of the Investment Promotion Council (IPC). In fact it is that Act that placed GO-INVEST in the eye of the QA II storm since GO-INVEST is required to, “at least once annually, review and recommend to the Government alterations in the Priority Lists for Investment categories under section 2 of the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act” – the section that allows the Minister of Finance to grant discretionary tax holidays and to “annually recommend to the Government alterations to the regime of fiscal incentives established for investment including incentives relating to tariffs and taxes, import duties and to export-oriented enterprises.”

Any amendments to the regime of fiscal concessions should therefore have emanated from GO-INVEST and the haste with which Bill # 14 was passed to restore wide-ranging discretionary concessions to the hands of the Minister of Finance was another case of the abrogation by the politicians of a function embedded in the law to be performed independently and professionally. The considerable reduction in the scope for discretionary concessions under a change in the law in 2003 was not only a condition of the multilateral financial institutions and donors but was a way to provide better and more transparent governance. That the status quo is being restored so soon after our exit from the IMF programme is surely not reassuring.

Confusion
My enquiries concerning this area of GO-INVEST’s statutory responsibility suggest complete confusion at GO-INVEST about whether or not some of its directors are even aware of, let alone, discharge this responsibility. It was simply unbelievable how difficult it was to obtain from that source a copy of the GO-INVEST Order and how confused persons are as to whether the functions of the IPC have been taken over by the National Competitive Council headed by President Jagdeo. We shall leave for later the accomplishments of that council, expenditure on expensive consultants, the usefulness of no less than six ministers sitting around discussing matters that have been fully ventilated and decided on more than a decade ago, and why we need to borrow $5.4 billion dollars on what, from occasional publications issued by the National Competitiveness Council, appears to be a complete waste of resources. Just think of the many better uses to which that money can be spent.

The executive head of GO-INVEST is Mr. Geoff DaSilva, a long-time PPP activist in Canada whose appointment as Minister of Trade ended with his replacement by Mr. Manzoor Nadir of the TUF. GO-INVEST’s acting chairman is Mr. Keith Burrowes who heads a number of other government controlled entities. Apparently because the government treated QA II principally as a privatization the role of GO-INVEST was secondary to that of the PU/NICIL headed by Mr. Winston Brassington. GO-INVEST did take a lead salesman’s role in representing the transaction and in language not quite suited to an investment promotion agency attacked “the very small cabal of self-appointed business leaders” who had called for an apology from President Jagdeo for his widely criticized response to business leader Yesu Persaud’s call for the rest of the private sector to be granted similar concessions as QA II. Repeating the language of the President, GO-INVEST described a statement by the Private Sector Commission as “reflecting ignorance of the privatisation framework.”

No head
While falling short of an apology, it must have taken some guts then for Mr. DaSilva at the PU/NICIL’s seminar on taxation to admit that “we made a mistake” in awarding tax holidays to two of QA II’s companies, an admission that none of the other players in the saga has so far had the courage to make. At the time of the seminar the misrepresentation of the $50 million per annum rent had not yet been revealed, nor was the claim about a textile mill, a misrepresentation that has so far gone unacknowledged by GO-INVEST, an agency that had described as “totally dishonest” an innuendo by the Private Sector Commission.

GO-INVEST has had no chairman for some time and the acting position is held by Mr Keith Burrowes, who is, among many other public offices he holds, the Chairman of the Guyana Chronicle, which was another entity cheerleading for the QA II deal. While the Guyana Revenue Authority is represented on the Board there has been no private sector representative since the withdrawal of Mr David Yankana several years ago on account of ill-health.

The dangers
Mr. DaSilva’s presentation at the July 29 Taxation Seminar emphasised the “investment projects of 285 companies totaling US$835M” between 2002 and 2008. He announced that these projects had attracted some 1006 concessions in the form of duty free concessions for machinery, equipment, vehicles and furnishings amounting to sixteen billion dollars between 2005 to June 2008. Mr. DaSilva’s paper did not offer any reason for giving the investment projects for one period while stating the incentives in the form of tax exemptions for a considerably shorter period. In fact not all of the 285 entities are companies and it would have been instructive for Mr. DaSilva to have indicated the value of the concessions granted to the self-employed and other unincorporated businesses that continue to deprive the country of billions of dollars of tax revenue each year. In effect these businesses get more in the form of concessions than they pay in the form of taxes or benefit they provide to the economy.

The public is understandably still concerned about the revelations of the QA II details but there is a bigger picture in which there has been exposed a massive failure on the part of key government agencies and officials to discharge a professional quality of coordination, due diligence and necessary follow-up work on concessions granted to investment projects. The entities are set up and officials are paid, often tax-free $US to do a professional job for the taxpaying public, not to act as servants to politicians.

Matching the numbers
GO-INVEST’s numbers have always attracted attention for their lack of support and in their 2006 Budget Focus, Ram & McRae commented that the GO-INVEST “seems to have its own measure of identifying projects, the investments made and the jobs created. This time [2006] it appears to have out-done itself with the minister’s statement that it [GO-INVEST] has facilitated nearly 140 private sector projects, representing investments of $68Bn which generated an additional 9,000 jobs.” Those numbers translate into an average of 65 jobs and an investment of $485M per project or $7.5M per job. Even the economic powerhouse China could not attract such investments! Focus had also noted that the Finance Minister had announced in his 2005 budget presentation that seventy-five investment projects had been facilitated by GO-INVEST which should have created 1,900 direct jobs and the firm suggested that it was unfortunate that the Minister in his presentation in the following year did not indicate how many of the 1,900 jobs were actually created.

Co-incidentally no investment or job numbers were announced in subsequent budget speeches.

Mr. DaSilva also told the seminar that only about 60% of the investments are notified or facilitated by Go-Invest. Adding the remaining 40% would put investments between 2002-2008 at US$1.4 billion or in private sector investment. How do these numbers match up with other data in the economy?

2001     2002      2003     2004     2005    2006      2007

Active employed (thousands)           121      120       115        115        117          117          118
Active self employed (thousands)     11        10           9               9               7             7            7
Taxes paid by Self-employed ($M)    725    778       887            993            919       1,030      1,243
Source of information: National Insurance Scheme & National Estimates

Mr DaSilva usually dismisses questions about Go-Invest’s numbers by questioning the effectiveness of the National Insurance Scheme but the GRA which actually grants concessions sits on his board in the person of one of its officials, some of whom have been sent on leave in relation to a high profile tax-evasion scandal. Are we to believe that the GRA is so generous and careless about the billions of dollars of concessions that it grants every year or that the NIS is still troublingly inefficient and expensively incompetent after sixteen years?

Taking a tax holiday
There is undoubtedly a high degree of underreporting by businesses to the GRA and the NIS and many Guyanese taxpayers including companies that are audited do not wait for tax holidays but take them, adding another dimension of “discretion” to them. But Go-Invest’s role is the promotion of investments not tax evasion, even as it expects the GRA to do a better job particularly since up-front concessions are given for investments that are often overstated. There is no single instance of the revocation of concessions or the prosecution of those businesses that provide false information to get concessions from the GRA.

Fanciful
A close examination of the investments for which concessions have been granted by the GRA on the recommendations of Go-Invest leads to questions about some of the information published by Go-Invest. Here are some examples obtained from comparing GO-Invest’s information with that contained in the financial reports of public companies and other verifiable sources.

Sterling Products Ltd is stated as having been granted concessions in 2004 for machinery, equipment and vehicles for an investment of $600M. According to the financial statements of the company the amount invested in 2004 and 2005 was $155 M.

The DDL subsidiary TOPCO is stated as having invested $800M in 2004 and 2005. In fact the bulk of the investment was done in 2003 while the total investment by all DDL subsidiaries in 2003-2005 was under $800 million.

Caribbean Containers Inc, another public company is shown as having invested $310M in 2004 and 2006. In fact, the company’s financial statements show capital expenditure for those years of $6.9M.

The same G&C Sanata Company Inc. that has been described by QA II as abandoned for fifteen years is shown as having invested $800 million in 2005 while CGX is shown as having invested $12 billion or US$60 million.

The same level of casualness appears with regard to private companies including clients of Ram & McRae whose investments in their books are nowhere close to those reported by Go-Invest, while in the case of the Omai/IAMGold/Bosai there seems to be evidence of double-counting with the payment by Bosai to IAMGOLD being shown as an investment.

Conclusion
QAII has been more than an embarrassment for this government. It has been a revelation of how government business is transacted, public assets are sold, tax concessions given away and the public is misled by, to use the words of Go-Invest “a very small cabal” of political functionaries and professionals who seem willing to compromise their professionalism to meet the objectives set by politicians. All of the key players involved, the President, the Minister of Finance, Cabinet, the Privatisation Board, PU/NICIL, Guyana Revenue Authority and G-Invest have been found terribly wanting.

The fact that during the revelation of this saga the law was changed to facilitate even looser action by these persons and institutions must be a great cause for concern and reinforces the view that legislation was introduced to legitimise the unlawful.

There is clearly a need to review the operations and mandate of each of these offices and functions with the requirement for considerably more rules-based decisions carried out in a system of proper checks and balances. Too much is at stake for the revenues, assets and welfare of the nation. The rest of society including the accounting profession needs to demand a greater say in these matters.

Next week we will look at the Auditor General’s Report for 2006.

Brassington confirms QA II rent at $12-17 million annually

Introduction
Contradicting several earlier statements about the rent the Government would be getting from the lease of 20 acres of land to Queens Atlantic Investment Inc. (QA II), Executive Head of the Privatisation Unit and the state-owned company NICIL, Winston Brassington, in an e-mail to me last week confirmed that the rent is “between 12 -17 M per annum  Yrs 2-5 and in Yr 6 (2013) it will be approximately G$45 M.”

You may very well wonder how Mr. Brassington would rent 20 acres of the most valuable land in Guyana and not know the rent by a margin of close to 50%. Having advised the Privatisation Board that the rent is $12 million only to be publicly corrected that at the rate per square foot specified in a leaked document authored by him, the amount has to be $18 million, Mr. Brassington needs to give himself ample wriggle room. This is as astounding as it is dangerous from the person who this country has placed in a position where he negotiates individually with all sorts of investors and other persons doing business with Guyana. He travelled often to Russia to negotiate with Rusal before another give-away of our country’s non-renewable resources and was mainly instrumental in the purchase of generating sets for GPL late last year costing millions of US Dollars. His recommendations are accepted by the Privatisation Board and Cabinet with the same conviction that a fundamentalist Christian would accept the Bible.

Half true
The answer about the rent came in response to persistent efforts to have Mr. Brassington confirm a number of matters that have surfaced since the tax concessions to QA II became an issue on June 5, 2008. These questions included the price and proceeds from the sale of land to Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) and the date of payment by John Fernandes Limited (JFL) of the sum of $320 million for land sold to that company in 2007. Mr. Brassington confirmed that GBTI paid G$201 M but in relation to the timing of the JFL proceeds he would only say that the “JFL transaction was only completed in March 2008”, which can lead to the inference that no monies were received until 2008. In fact there were two payments made by JFL in 2007 and the balance paid in 2008.

Mr Brassington has refused to answer my follow-up questions particularly about the correctness of the Privatisation Unit holding on to money that should properly have been paid into the Consolidated Fund and for information on the expenses incurred and dividends paid by the Privatisation Unit (PU). In fact all that was new from Mr. Brassington during the week was a press report of him saying that “previous privatisation processes have created ad hoc accounting processes in Guyana.” His incorrect line has been that the proceeds of privatisation have to pass through NICIL, a limited liability company which he claims incorrectly can only pay dividends into the Consolidated Fund after its accounts are audited. It seems that Mr. Brassington does not appreciate that interim dividends are permitted under corporate law and it is not unusual for companies to pay more than one such dividend during the year as Banks DIH has been doing over the past couple of years.

More abuse of the Consolidated Fund
Only monies legally due to NICIL or any of its subsidiaries would be subject to Brassington’s accounting but certainly not monies due directly to the Government such as on the sale of property including shares, land and other assets not owned by NICIL or its subsidiaries. At least some of the land sold to JFL falls into this category and the proceeds should have been paid into the Fund but are instead retained by the PU/NICIL under the control of Mr. Brassington.

Mr. Brassington refused to provide me with the names of the directors of NICIL or copies of its audited financial statements for the year 2006 while noting that the 2007 accounts are with  the Auditor General for audit. NICIL as a company operating under the Companies Act 1991 has been in breach of that Act with respect to the filing of any annual return to the Registrar of Companies as it is required to do nor are its financial statements and reports tabled in the National Assembly.

Such disregard for the country’s supreme and other laws, for good conduct, transparency and truth would in any society where the rule of law prevails, have resulted in the most severe sanctions against those responsible. The political opposition and so-called civil society including the accounting and legal professions have a public duty to act to stop this lawlessness. What is the meaning and relevance of the Constitution and the laws if professionals could ignore them if only to show loyalty and obedience to the politicians?

Deja vu
Two years ago, this column was very critical of Mr. Brassington’s conduct in its March 12, 2006 issue when it wrote about the improper means and tactics applied to corral workers’ funds of the National Insurance Scheme and depositors’ funds of the New Building Society for the Berbice Bridge. I reported then that Mr. Brassington even sought to have me postpone an article and give him time to get some necessary paperwork done by the NIS! The necessary paperwork was a letter enclosing, among other things, an irrevocable special power of attorney and requesting the NIS’s co-operation in having the voluminous agreement and four schedules signed one day later. The Privatisation Board was given the same or less time to endorse Mr. Brassington’s recommendations on the QA II deal.

Just as an aside, in that March 12 article one of the subheadings was Making the unlawful lawful as we see with the QA II tax holiday law!

For all the vast proceeds from privatization that are  now being boasted about, only $7.3 million was paid into the Consolidated Fund in 2006, $1.4 million in 2006. The manner of drawing  up the National Estimates does not allow the reader to determine how much was paid in in 2007 or is budgeted to be paid in in 2008.   Where then is the GBTI money and the JFL funds amounting to more than half a billion dollars? Is this another Lotto Fund scandal where the money is used for all sorts of unauthorized payments such as the $20 million to Courtney Benn Construction for breach of contract relating to works for the Kingston phantom hotel?

The tax seminar
Mr. Brassington obviously enjoys the confidence of the President and with his control of perhaps hundreds of millions of public funds he was indeed well-placed to organise the Taxation Seminar last month. While the Seminar scored poorly on organizational arrangements – a head table of 13, no recording and just one microphone for 200 persons – it was certainly well orchestrated and controlled. The seminar was organised for a Cabinet Day so that after the Finance Minister had left the meeting with his two colleagues from Cabinet and the Privatisation Board there was no one authorised to answer questions on policy from an audience consisting of several state executives and accountants anxious to learn the tax system. Mr. Brassington gloated over the $24 billion proceeds from privatisation since 1994 when he took over but he did not say that in the process the nation lost control of several key assets including Bauxite to Rusal which we then turn around and give a tax holiday! That is hardly how successful privatisations are measured.

Much was said too about transparency but let us not forget that had information not been leaked to the press there would have been no Seminar. In my contribution during the Question and Answer session I pointed  to an apparent conspiracy by the PU, Go-Invest and the company to misrepresent information fed to the public on the QA II investment, drawing attention to some of the statements made by Messrs. Brassington and Da Silva and how they differ from the facts that have surfaced from documents written by Mr. Brassington and agreements signed between the QA II group and the Government.

I pointed out too that Mr. Brassington’s creative explanation for the charge to JFL compared with the rent agreed to be paid by QA II, led to no other conclusion but that the PU either overcharged JFL or was undercharging QA II.

At the Seminar, Mr. Brassington lavishly praised for their contribution to the success of the privatisation programme the Privatisation Board made up of three Cabinet Ministers including the Minister of Finance who chairs the Board, and representatives from labour, business and consumers. My enquiries suggest that even allowing for the imbalance of the political influence Mr. Brassington gets the Board to arrive at a desired result by submitting to them his recommendations often with no more than a few hours notice. I understand too that the Board has dispensed with its sub-committee that had as its principal responsibility the examination of proposals and tenders and has transferred this task entirely to Mr. Brassington with whatever political input and direction that may apply.

Different rules
Astoundingly, in a recent article in the Kaiteur News Mr. Brassington is quoted as saying that “Previous privatisation processes have created ad hoc accounting processes in Guyana” and that “What you did not have was adherence under the law of how you distribute a company’s assets.”

That this statement would have been made at a Seminar to disabuse accountants of their ignorance of the tax laws was outstanding for its sheer arrogance and  uninformed ignorance! It is Mr. Brassington who does not understand the law and who created these “ad hoc” and unconstitutional arrangements that are so blatantly abused by the PU/NICIL. Has Mr. Brassington ever read the relevant sections of the Constitution or the financial rules or sought guidance on how these operate?

Where is the Auditor General?
As a non-statutory body, the Privatisation Unit is no more than part of the Ministry of Finance and so it has sought legal cover under NICIL, the state-owned company that Mr. Brassington operates without observance of the laws. Money that should constitutionally be placed into the Consolidated Fund are spent by the PU/NICIL as it now likes to call itself, to create a huge bureaucracy including legal expertise, and to by-pass the parliamentary process for authorizing the expenditure of public funds.

These are matters so significant that one would have expected the Auditor General to have paid particular attention to it and to comment critically thereon. These funds are on the same level as the Lotto Funds in that they are public monies that are required to be deposited in the Consolidated Fund under Article 216 of the Constitution. The Lotto Funds are too infamous to miss while equally huge sums of a similar nature go unnoticed by the Audit Office. In fact that Office should feel accused by Brassington’s claim of “ad hoc accounting processes”.

Conclusion – many cheques but few balances
It is clear that far from being efficient and transparent, the privatisation process is shrouded in secrecy and is managed without regard for elementary rules of good governance, the rule of law and knowledge of accounting. Much of the resources of this country have been given away in many cases for a pittance, in a process involving many cheques but few balances. This Unit and NICIL under Mr. Winston Brassington ought to be investigated by the Economics Affairs Sub-Committee of the National Assembly.

If that body fails to act, then some public-spirited citizen(s) should invoke the provisions of the Companies Act and demand an investigation of the operations of NICIL and its alliance with Mr. Brassington’s Privatisation Unit. We should not simply excuse and exonerate public officials’ improper and unlawful acts by attributing those acts to unaccountable politicians. They must be held equally accountable and culpable.

Next week we will look at the role of Go-Invest, the other partner in the saga.

Letter: New GPC has not made full disclosure

The first response of QAII Executive Chairman to the Business Page Article on June 8 dealing with tax concessions to his companies, was to dismiss the suggestion about the impropriety of the announced concessions and adding for good measure that there was nothing further to be discussed.

Since then, faced with revelations that have obviously embarrassed more than just the group, and realising that it was not the group’s call whether or not there was indeed nothing further to be discussed, the group has embarked on a weekly full page public relations campaign including easy-to-disprove statements that must surely aggravate for them an already bad situation.

Their latest was a full page advertisement in the Stabroek News of Sunday, August 3, 2008, making unfounded and misleading claims and ignoring critical questions that speak volumes about those who are supposed to protect the public interest. It is not my intention to challenge the group on every point including its wishful boast about New GPC being the largest pharmaceutical manufacturing company or that Guyana is essentially self-sufficient in pharmaceutical and medical supplies. In fact with just 39% of its revenue derived from its own production in 2006, it is only the generous definition under the tax laws that qualifies New GPC as a manufacturing company while it only needs a few minutes on the internet to show just how idle is its boast about its size. And if Guyana is self-sufficient in pharmaceutical and medical supplies then Chairman Ramroop may wish to explain why we are importing hundreds of millions of these products each year.

Unable to deal with facts, the advertisement targets me, suggesting that I had disclosed information obtained under a professional engagement. Anyone following the exchanges in the press knows that I wrote only about the discount on the sale to QAII of the additional 30% shares in GPC by the Government. At no time was Ram & McRae involved in that transaction which took place more than two years after we had done a non-audit engagement for the group in respect of an advertisement for the purchase of a 60% stake. The company also states that they did not take our advice on the engagement we did have. They did more than that – they poached the very staff member who led the exercise for Ram & McRae. That staff member is now New GPC’s General Manager!

But I am not surprised at their half-accusation. If they show such scant respect for accuracy and truth in information on straightforward matters like the losses which the acquired company was incurring and the rental QA II are paying for the Sanata Complex, it is unlikely that they will respect anybody’s reputation including their own. Let us get this straight. The source of my information on the discount offered by Mr. Brassington’s Privatisation Unit (PU) was the 2003 audited financial statements of QAII, despite its delinquency in complying with the law requiring the filing of annual reports and audited accounts. And for confirmation just read page 24 of Winston Brassington’s Paper presented to the July 29 Taxation Seminar for his convoluted justification of a discount of $45 Million on the sale of the additional shares. Using simple arithmetic I had reckoned that it was at least $30 Million. Thanks Mr. Brassington for the confirmation. As for the assertion that GPC was making $300 million in losses each year, I have to plead professional confidence.

Now let me offer the group some advice. Just in case it has any residual concerns about my professional conduct they can lodge a complaint with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana which investigates such complaints. Their PR consultant can help them – he has experience with this, albeit unsuccessful.

And please would the group, in any other full page advertisement it is advised to take, state whether it considers it ethical to have a top official of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation – a major buyer of GPC’s products – sitting on the board of New GPC under a lopsided contract that is not in compliance with the procurement laws of the country? Or how it feels about the incentives legislation being changed to facilitate concessions wrongly granted to members of the group.