Minister of State Joseph Harmon has told Cabinet that it was the Chinese Ambassador to Guyana Zhang Limin who arranged for four China-based companies, interested in investing in Guyana, to transport him to their respective offices located in different parts of the country during his visit last month.
This is according to a statement issued by the Ministry of the Presidency last evening on Harmon’s travel while in China, in light of questions raised by a photograph, published in the Kaieteur News, which showed the minister, an attorney attached to the government holding company National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) and several Baishanlin officials on a plane.
A written explanation was handed over to Cabinet with respect to the photograph and a modified version of the statement was released by the ministry.
In the ministry statement, Harmon said the four companies, whose representatives signaled their intention to make significant investments in Guyana, were located in Beijing, Shanghai, Hebei and Heilongjiang Provinces.
As a result, he said the Ambassador of China to Guyana, who was in the country at that time, made arrangements for him to meet officials of the companies.
“In this regard, because of the significant distances involved and the limited time available on that trip, the Ambassador made arrangements for these companies to provide transportation, both air and land, for me to travel to their respective Head Offices,” he said.
He specifically referenced arrangements for a visit to Long Jiang Forest Industries Group, in Heilongjiang Province on March 2.
“The Long Jiang Forest Industries Group is a state-owned company that had acquired 55 percent of the shares in [Baishanlin] and is intended to fully take over the company in 2016,” he said.
Harmon added that two officials from the Long Jiang Forest Industries Group, along with two officials from Baishanlin, accompanied him on the aircraft on the flight from Beijing to Heilongjiang Province to attend the meeting.
He said at the meeting, the Vice Director of the Company Wong Dong Xu, in the presence of officials of Baishanlin, gave the assurance that the company’s officials will be in Guyana by May, 2016 to complete due diligence for the takeover and to satisfy and expand on the obligations of Baishanlin to Guyana.
On this point, Harmon said he used the opportunity to convey all of the concerns and expectations of the government and the people of Guyana with respect to foreign investment generally and those specifically with respect to Baishanlin.
In a document seen by Stabroek News, which was confirmed by multiple sources as being that which Harmon submitted to Cabinet, it is stated that the company intends to invest over US$500M to satisfy and expand on the obligations of Baishanlin.
The statement released by the ministry said no official release was made on the matters at that time since a prerequisite would have been a formal briefing of the President and Cabinet. It has been two weeks since Harmon returned to Guyana.
“The publication of a lone photograph, therefore, without seeking to investigate and report on its context was not the work of the Ministry of the Presidency. I wish to make no comment on the motivations for its publication,” the statement added.
The Ministry of the Presidency, in a statement on April 1, had said that Harmon’s trip to China was for the purpose of engaging in discussions with regard to the payment of the US$5 million balance owed to the government for the purchase of 20% of phone company GT&T shares by Chinese company, Datang Telecom Technology and Industry Group from NICIL in 2012. This deal was entered into by the previous administration but only US$25 million of the agreed US$30 million was paid. The statement had said that in-house legal counsel at NICIL Natalia Seepersaud accompanied Harmon.
Meanwhile, a separate statement by Harmon on his interference in a seizure operation by the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) targeting Baishanlin was also released by the ministry last evening.
Harmon has been accused of contacting GRA officials as they were preparing to execute the seizure of two luxury vehicles and instructing that the vehicles not be removed and that the company be left alone. Days passed before the vehicles were eventually seized.
According to Harmon’s statement, he contacted the GRA and requested a 14-day delay of its intended action based on a request made by an official of the Chinese Embassy.
He said he was contacted on March 17, 2016, by the official on an urgent matter affecting one of their national’s company operations in Guyana. He said he was then advised that personnel of the GRA had gone to the premises of Baishanlin in furtherance of a tax demand by the GRA of $1.5B.
“The GRA personnel were intent on seizing movable assets of the Company. The Chinese official explained that the principals of the Company were not in Guyana and requested a stay of execution of the GRA’s action for 14 days pending the return of those principals, at which time they would go into the GRA to settle their indebtedness. The Embassy officials also gave the assurance that none of the assets of the Company would be removed, during that grace period,” he said.
Harmon explained that considering the importance of Guyana/China relations and the urgency of the matter, he made contact with the GRA and requested the facility. “This request was granted. At the expiration of the 14 days requested, the GRA proceeded with its work,” he added.
The statement did not explain why Harmon interfaced directly with the GRA instead of its subject minister, Finance Minister Winston Jordan.
In a report submitted to Cabinet and which was apparently modified for release to the public, Harmon said the “the relationship between the Cooperative Republic of Guyana and the People’s Republic of China, in my considered opinion, was important enough to request the stay of execution by the Guyana Revenue Authority on the appeal by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Guyana.”
Harmon’s official statement yesterday said too that while several reports in the media conveyed the “erroneous impression” that he had used his position to interfere in the work of the GRA and alleged that there were corrupt dealings with Baishanlin, he “refrained from making a public response to those reports earlier because my actions were linked to Guyana’s diplomatic relations and its pursuit of foreign investment that would be beneficial to the people of Guyana.”
Addressing Harmon’s interference in the GRA last week, President Granger said he has had discussions with Jordan and that there should not in future be an issue of any minister other than Jordan dealing with the GRA.