At his last press conference on March 27th, President Donald Ramotar was asked by a Stabroek News reporter about the almost two-year-old report into irregularities at state TV, NCN and why he had not done anything about it. His reply and demeanour were shocking to say the least and add to the growing view that President Ramotar is really just occupying the office of the presidency and barely so. Despite a series of pledges to do something about the report, the President’s ultimate answer to the reporter was that he was not “prepared” for the question. Any President who says that he is not prepared for a question on a topic that he himself has promised to attend to cannot be taken seriously, and his response and the manner of it undermine the office of the presidency. More importantly, as has been stated before in these columns, the evasiveness and obfuscation on this very important matter of possible corruption at NCN exposes President Ramotar and his government as calculatingly hypocritical. It is well known that the two figures cited for transgressions in the report by an independent auditor are close to the ruling party and remain so. Prior to the findings of the report, both played major roles in propagandizing for the PPP/C almost on a daily basis and in the company of government bigwigs including President Ramotar. Apparently, they must therefore be protected from any hint of scandal as this would transfer to the government and ruling party. It is a well-known tactic by the government to avoid embarrassment and the accusation that corruption is entrenched. One wonders if President Ramotar has sought advice from his principal legal advisor, the Attorney General on how to address the NCN report. Whatever his approach on this matter, the President has displayed a dismal disinterest that speaks volubly about why the public doesn’t take the government’s prating against corruption seriously.
For the record, the independent report of the auditors pointed to a number of unsavoury features of a transaction between NCN and the telecommunications company, GT&T. One of the individuals at the centre of the investigation was first sent on administrative leave in relation to a $3.9 million cheque made payable to him by GT&T as an incentive for the production team that worked during the company’s jingle and song competition, held between September 2011 and February 2012.
The decision to investigate the incentive payment was taken at a meeting by NCN board members in 2012 to examine how the cutting of the $82 million government subvention to $1 by the combined opposition, would affect the company.
At the time, board members were also examining a proposal by the management of the company on the way forward, in the light of the cut of the subvention. The board decided to dig deeper on seeing the proposal, since NCN had publicly indicated that most of its revenues come from advertising and that it raked in over $500 million in advertising revenue in 2011.
Parmesar Chartered Accountants was then hired to carry out a special investigation into the alleged financial irregularities and several breaches were uncovered.
Among other things, the report stated that the individual in question, in the presence of the other person at the centre of the controversy, in June 2012, requested that the finance manager prepare an invoice to be dated January 2012 to cover production costs for the GT&T Jingle and Song competition for the period November 2011 to January 2012. The amount of the invoice was for $3.6 million but the employee refused to prepare the invoice “as no Job Order was given to her for these activities.” The employee told the investigators that the two individuals made “a few requests” to her to prepare the invoice.
After the finance manager refused, the report said, the two persons at the centre of the probe instructed another employee to prepare a Job Order for the GT&T competition production services and forward it to the Finance Department for the preparation of an invoice. This employee also refused to carry out the instruction. “The two employees reported that they felt that it was unethical to prepare a Job Order that should have been prepared in the normal course of business since January 2012 and submitted to the Finance Department for invoicing in June 2012,” the report said.
The report should have been passed on by the NCN board to the police with a suitable complaint, in addition to being forwarded to the President in his role as Minister of Information.
As we have said before, this NCN case provided an early test of whether the Ramotar administration was serious about addressing the spectre of corruption which critics have said it is not. We now wait to see what steps the President will take in keeping with his several broken promises. While the government has railed against the country’s low rating on Transparency International’s corruption perception index and other indices, the ranking is not surprising taking account of the government’s stance on cases like the NCN investigation. The Transparency International rating was given even greater credence last month by a comprehensive assessment under the Organisation of American States’ review of Guyana’s compliance with various anti-corruption protocols. Following a visit to Guyana last year and a review of key institutions in the battle against corruption, the OAS team said that this country needed an anti-corruption strategy. That was a stinging rebuke that exposes the mutterings of the government on its alleged fight against graft. The report of the OAS experts also homed in on the threadbare nature of several of the key players in fighting corruption such as the Integrity Commission. It also saw the need for specialized investigative units in the police force and the DPP’s Chambers to go after corruption after finding that those key offices didn’t have the requisite resources. The low conviction rate in corruption matters and the long periods for the disposal of cases also clearly concerned the experts.
If the government is going to be so cavalier on important matters such as the NCN probe because of who it pertains to, it can hardly expect the public, let alone the opposition to see it as reasonable and prepared to compromise. It makes the task so much more difficult for the government to convince the opposition that it can be taken seriously at the dialogue table.