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.
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?
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.
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.