PPP/C, TIGI lodge complaints with SARA over Exxon signing bonus

PPP/C Chief Whip Gail Teixeira and anti-corruption watchdog Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc. (TIGI) have lodged separate complaints with the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) over government’s handling of the controversial US$18 million signing bonus it received from ExxonMobil and its partners, according to SARA Director Professor Clive Thomas, who said they were among several reports made against the current administration.

However, Thomas said no investigation has started into either complaint as SARA has a long list of cases that will have to be prioritised and dealt with as time permits.

Thomas made these disclosures following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to legalise the agency’s cooperation efforts with the Financial Intelligence Unit and he informed that the gist of the complaints made by Teixeira and TIGI was that the money was not deposited into the Consolidated Fund.

It is not clear when the complaints were made.

US oil company ExxonMobil paid the signing bonus to government in June of 2016 but there was no official acknowledgement of this by the current administration until the information was leaked to the media last December. Government’s decision to deposit the US$18 million signing bonus received from ExxonMobil subsidiary Esso Exploration and Production Guyana Limited, CNOOC Nexen Petroleum Guyana Limited and Hess Guyana Exploration Limited into an account at the Bank of Guyana has been criticised as unlawful, with critics saying that the funds should have been placed into the Consolidated Fund as it is public money. Following criticism, government has since said that the money, which would in part be used to pay Guyana’s legal fees for its border controversy case with Venezuela, would be deposited into the Consolidated Fund before being released. The administration’s handling of the signing bonus is currently the subject of a legal challenge.

Procedure

Moments after stating that “people are thieving [state money] every day,” Thomas was asked if any official in the current administration is under investigation. In response, he said that one individual and one organisation had referred cases. Additionally, he said that Teixeira has also referred matters that go back a number of years but he was unable to recall them.

Thomas stated that the investigation of these matters had not yet started and added that SARA is hoping that by the end of the month it can make public the guidelines it will use to investigate such cases.

“We have a procedure of handing those matters and we will make that procedure known to you in a short while because the… criteria that we are establishing to become the standard operational guidelines …that…is still being drafted and is still being vetted by our international advisors to ensure it meets best practice,” he said.

Asked whether the current procedure being used can’t be applied to investigating the signing bonus complaint, he responded in the affirmative, while reiterating that the desire is to make it public.

Asked what is stalling the commencement of these investigations, he said that there is a long list of matters and there is also the question of time and priority. “We would have to establish that a crime was involved. We just can’t take every reference off the street and assume that there is some guilt involved there,” he said before adding that in doing so the agency could open up itself to the accusation of “pursuing vendettas.”

Thomas assured that the agency does not and will not utilise a separate system to deal with complaints made against the government. “No, no, it is established, a uniform mechanism to apply to every case that is before us. We have to establish standards by which we approach them in terms of the investigation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Thomas noted that as SARA seeks to recover stolen state assets, the law gives him the authority to seek settlement if the “conditions are appropriate.” Although pressed, he declined to say whether he is currently pursuing this sort of arrangement in any of the cases currently being investigated.

He also could not state definitively how much money SARA was seeking to recover. “It’s not a finite amount of money… We don’t know what the end is going to be but we are pursuing the misappropriation of assets,” he said.

Thomas later explained that the law makes provision for SARA to attempt to recover a minimum of $10 million or US$50,000 per investigation. He said that this figure was set in order to comply with the US requirements for reporting persons who are US citizens or residents and who have bank accounts here in excess of that stated amount. Once that is found, he said, a report has to be made to the US Treasury.

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