Criticism mounts on Guyana Gov’t’s handling of ‘signing bonus’

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Guyana’s Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, holds a copy of a daily publication as he addresses the matter of Guyana receiving a 'signing bonus' from US oil major, ExxonMobil, in Parliament on Friday, December 8, 2017.

Days after Guyana’s Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, told law makers in the country’s 65-seat National Assembly that the government did indeed receive a ‘sum’ from US oil major ExxonMobil when a new agreement was inked in 2016, criticism over the administration’s handling of the matter continues to mount.

The situation has been made worse by the government’s failure to admit, up until Friday, that the sum, which a leaked official correspondence describes as a ‘signing bonus’, was paid by the oil major.

The disclosure from Mr. Trotman came after a letter was published in the media confirming that a payment was made and the government was seeking to have a Foreign Currency Account opened at the Bank of Guyana to receive the deposit.

Engaging in Deception?

Transparency Institute Guyana Incorporated (TIGI) in a statement on Friday accused the Guyana Government of deliberately engaging in deception in its handling of the ‘signing bonus’.

TIGI President Dr. Troy Thomas said, “Government has failed to handle matters related to oil with transparency and it appears to have deliberately engaged in deception in relation to the matter of a signature bonus.”

The Guyana chapter of the anti-corruption watchdog body called the development a catalyst for demanding answers from the Administration, saying, “this verification of the signing bonus and the move to handle it outside of the consolidated fund, must galvanize all Guyanese; whether supporters of the Government or not, into demanding transparency and accountability…There is just too much to lose by standing behind partisan politics.”

Legal Implications?

Chartered Accountant and Attorney-at-Law, Christopher Ram, in a statement on Saturday, said there are immediate and longer term implications “from which Guyana may forever suffer.”

“For the immediate, it means that Article 216 of the Constitution of Guyana has been knowingly violated; that critical information contained in the Estimates of Expenditure now being considered by the National Assembly is inaccurate, incorrect and meaningless; that the 2016 financial statements of the Government and of the Consolidated Fund are for 2016 similarly deficient; that the Report of the Auditor General thereon is inapplicable and that auditing standards applied by his Office requires him to withdraw his report; that the financial statements and the auditor’s report of the Bank of Guyana for the year 2016 face the same jeopardy; and that this web of deception has ensnared high level officers of the Ministry of Finance, the Geology and Mines Commission and the Bank of Guyana, including the Chairman of its Audit Committee Mr. Anand Goolsarran,” he stated.

Mr. Ram, himself a well-known political commentator, said the South American country’s President, David Granger, should apologise to the nation if confidence in his administration is to be restored.

Error of Judgment

Former Speaker of Guyana’s National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran, said in a column on Saturday that the handling of the situation, particularly the decision by government not to communicate the receipt of the payment to the public seems to have been an error in judgement.

“An admission of an error of judgment by the Government, as this plainly is, would go a far way in putting the matter to rest. But this doesn’t happen in Guyana’s politics. We have to expect more bluster, cross accusations against the Opposition that ‘you were worse,’ and amidst it all, efforts at dismissals or explanations. None of this will work among thinking Guyanese. Even when it fades from the news, this episode will remain a stain on the integrity of the Government’s promises about transparency and accountability and increase cynicism with politics, even among Government supporters,” Mr. Ramkarran stated.

Call for Resignations

The country’s Opposition’s Leader, Bharrat Jagdeo, in responding to the revelation by Mr. Trotman in Parliament on Friday said both the Natural Resources Minister and Finance Minister, Winston Jordan, should tender their resignations for “misleading the nation.”

“If the Minister of Finance knew of this and he deliberately mislead 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, and I think…he should resign,” he said.

Making reference to the leaked correspondence, Mr. Jagdeo said it was also copied to Mr. Trotman and as such, “he too should resign.”

We did it to Safeguard Guyana

For his part, Mr. Trotman, who has primary responsibility for the petroleum sector said government’s handling of the situation was motivated by its desire to safeguard the country, referring to a territorial claim by neighbouring Venezuela that seems set to end up at the International Criminal Court.

“We wish to see this region as a zone of peace and our best tools…are our diplomatic efforts and our legal prowess…Yes there is a sum and yes it is reserved to safeguard this country,” he told Members of Parliament.

“I am not ashamed, in fact, relieved that the facts are coming out…,” he said, adding, “all we are doing is what has been done in the past, preserving the good State of Guyana.”

What is Next?

On matters of transparency, the government has given a commitment to provide the media and public with details of the terms and conditions contained in the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) with ExxonMobil this month.

Speaking to reporters at his post-Cabinet briefing last week, Minister of State, Joseph Harmon, said after fully considering the matter Cabinet has made a decision to make the contract public. This decision comes in wake of repeated calls from civil society groups and members of the public over the months for the details of the contract to be made public.

“The matter was discussed at Cabinet…What I would  say also is that the Exxon Contract with the government of Guyana will be made public during the month of December and that is the contract and all its terms and conditions,” he said.

When asked by OilNOW if the decision, as stated by Mr. Harmon to release the ExxonMobil contract in December would extend to other PSAs, Mr. Trotman said that is the ultimate objective. “We will work to release all contracts and have to engage the companies to be able to do so, as each contract has a confidentiality clause.”

Committed to Transparency

Mr. Trotman has repeatedly said that his Ministry and by extension the Guyana government, remain committed to transparency.  While key aspects of the contract has been made known, the decision not to disclose more details reflects the will of the President and Cabinet, the Ministry has said.

“Minister Trotman’s position is not his own, but that of a Government committed to the best interests of all Guyanese now and in the future,” a letter from the Ministry, dated November 14, pointed out.

Beginning in 2018, the Ministry has signaled its intent to spearhead a country-wide public awareness programme on oil & gas which it hopes will serve to better inform the population about government’s preparations for first oil come 2020.

The country also became a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in October and Mr. Trotman has indicated that work to establish a Sovereign Wealth Fund will be intensified in 2018.