While insisting that she has nothing to hide, Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes yesterday disclosed that she has declared her assets and interests to the Integrity Commission and that Cabinet was informed about the intention of her husband’s law firm to open an office in Texas for oil industry clients but she stopped short of saying how she will deal with the potential conflict of interest.
“Are you serious?” Hughes asked when contacted by Stabroek News to comment on the length of time between her July 4th declaration to the Integrity Commission and her October 9th disclosure to Cabinet.
During the brief telephone conversation, the minister proceeded to remind this newspaper of recent comments made by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo that he and a number of his party’s Members of Parliament (MPs) have not declared their assets to the Integrity Commission as mandated by law. “I have done so. I have nothing to hide,” she said.
Stabroek News was unable to get clarifications on other issues raised in a statement she issued earlier in the day.
This newspaper yesterday reported that the local anti-corruption watchdog Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc (TIGI) did have concerns over the potential conflict of interest for Minister Hughes, given that her husband, attorney Nigel Hughes, is a managing director of the Hughes, Fields and Stoby law firm, which recently established an office in Houston, Texas to provide legal services to clients in the oil and gas sector.
“Just the fact that Nigel Hughes is the husband of Minister Cathy Hughes means that there is a potential conflict of interest. I hasten to reiterate that I am not, neither is TIGI, attempting to attack or make accusations against anyone,” TIGI President Troy Thomas said.
It was pointed out that ministers of government should give more than oral assurances to issues of conflict of interest and the Integrity Commission should lead the way in having sound policies to address the issue. This issue was not addressed by either of the two Hugheses yesterday neither has the government taken it on.
Thomas, in questioning the issue at hand, said, “A new code of conduct for public officers [has] been implemented…the code speaks of conflicts of interest. I would like to know whether any declaration about the new business venture was made to the Integrity Commission, which, I believe, should handle matters involving ministers of government. If such a declaration was made, what steps were prescribed for the minister to take, and perhaps the firm as well, to guarantee that no conflict of interest will be acted upon? What continuing efforts do the minister and the firm have to make to keep conflict of interest at bay in the future?”
“TIGI is not satisfied that conflict of interest is ruled out or adequately dealt with,” he added, before later adding, “We don’t want to take away any legitimate economic engagements from anyone, we expect them to be smart in business and when they do well, the country also benefits. But the problem here is that there is a major conflict of interest in Mr Hughes playing an integral role in linking people who might get into the oil industry in Guyana, given that his wife is a current minister of government.”
Thomas said since the launch of the firm, the public is not aware of Minister Hughes’ role or if she has declared insulation or documented commitments to a non-conflicting stance.
The law firm and Minister Hughes issued separate statements yesterday morning in which they repudiated the contents of the report.
In the minister’s statement, she accused the newspaper of launching a personal attack on her, particularly as it failed to get a comment from before going to press.
She said that she did not want to dwell upon the “motives” for the publication but merely wanted to provide information to the general public, “which is and was at all times available on the most cursory of inquiries.”
She informed that on July 4th, 2018, she submitted her declaration of assets and interest to the Integrity Commission.
“I am aware that the contents of my declaration are confidential but I will disclose that included in my declaration was a clear statement of my marriage to the Managing Partner of Hughes, Fields and Stoby and his interest in the firm,” she said.
Minister Hughes added that following her submission to the Integrity Commission, on October 9th, 2018, “I repeated my disclosure to the Cabinet about my husband’s position as Managing Partner of Hughes, Fields and Stoby as well as the firm’s intention to establish an office in Houston.”
She claimed, too, that prior to the publication of the Stabroek News report, legal advice on the disclosure and compliance requirements set out in the Laws of Guyana were sought. She did not state who provided this legal advice or when it was sought.
“I am aware that despite their previous experience to the contrary, it must have been very difficult for the Stabroek News to contact me over the week. My phone records have not disclosed any attempts to solicit any comments from me. This is interesting since for many years now the publication has bee[n] in possession of my contact numbers and in the past has contacted me on several occasions including after hours and on weekends,” she said.
She went on to express hope that in “their (Stabroek News) efforts to express their views on activities of Ministers of the Government that Stabroek News would at least conduct the most rudimentary of inquiries prior to publication to ensure balance, objectivity and fairness which still is the foundation of good journalism.”
Meanwhile, in a statement issued early yesterday morning and signed by Nigel Hughes, the firm sought to defend its integrity and dismissed concerns that the minister could give out information pertaining to proposed legislation regarding the oil and gas sector.
Two hours later, a revised statement was issued correcting minor errors and adding the name of Senior Counsel Andrew Pollard.
While noting that the “full statement” of TIGI could not be secured, the firm highlighted some of Thomas’ comments which related directly to the minister and the apparent conflict of interest.
It went on to question whether any effort was made to determine whether the Minister has made any declarations in relation to the issue of potential conflict of interest.
“We are not unaware that the Minister declared her interests to cabinet on the issue of the relationship between the firm and herself. We are not unaware that the Minister has sought independent legal advice on this matter and that a mere inquiry would have disclosed this information and perhaps may have made its way into the headline article…,” the statement said.
Further, it was stressed that no efforts were made to contact members of the firm, including the managing partner who is frequently sought at “unorthodox hours” for opinions and comments.
Late last month, the firm announced that it was opening an office in Houston, Texas, USA, to guide prospective oil sector investors on doing business in Guyana.
“Hughes, Fields & Stoby, in partnership with Access Point, becomes the first legal and business protocol firm locally to establish a Houston, Texas presence in recognition of the emerging importance between the American energy capital and Guyana, as an emerging energy powerhouse,” the firm said in a statement.
The firm identified Greg Clark, who worked with Occidental Petroleum Company as that organisation’s Legal Manager, as the person who would lead the firm’s team in Houston. It was also stated yesterday that the preparation for the development began a year ago, with the collaboration between Hughes, Fields & Stoby, and the global law firm of Shearman and Sterling.
During the launch, which was held at the Marriott Hotel and which Minister Hughes attended, Clark said the firm would be monitoring all legislation and regulations that might impact on oil industry companies that are currently operating here or plan to do so.
“I like to call it ‘legislative watchman,’ that the firm will keep their eyes out for every law, rule, regulation or policy that could impact our clients and we’ll take it upon ourselves to give them a draft of that document, if it’s available, along with a memorandum summarising the potential impact that new legislation can have on the company, for those companies that want that service,” he said.
“…This is a totally different environment here. The laws don’t exist and they are in the process of being developed and so I would imagine that this new service of being a watchman of the stuff that is coming, ought to be of an interest to our clients but it’s their call,” he added.
The firm’s statement noted that the Stabroek News report sought to lay emphasis on the fact that the firm had announced that it would be performing the role of legislative watchdog and reference was made to comments made by Clark.
With regards to his comments, the statement said that “the clear insinuation being that somehow Minister Hughes would provide the firm with advance information on what laws, regulations and policies were in the pipeline. It may perhaps be useful to remind the general public about the process by which law, regulations and policies make their way into the legal effect.”
According to the statement, most responsible governments long before the introduction of new laws, regulations and or policies make public announcements and circulate the proposed laws, regulations and policies to stakeholders in the industry, like bar associations, private sector organisations, civil society organisations and other stakeholders for comments. The bill on the establishment of the Petroleum Commission and the local content policy are cases in point, it added.
“The current Government is no exception to this practice and as a matter of fact several persons have severely criticised both of these proposals in the press and elsewhere long before they have become law or policy,” the statement stressed.
Further, it was pointed out that the purpose of the consultation process is to facilitate the expression of views by the general public and interested stakeholders long before a final decision is taken so that all views may be considered before potentially bad laws or policies are adopted.
After the consultative process, the statement explained all bills are read in parliament then published in the Official Gazette before they are finally adopted on the third reading.
“Hughes, Fields and Stoby, like every other private organisation, will have access to the above process without any special privileges, ministerial or otherwise,” it said before pointing out that it is unaware of any recent instance where a Cabinet decision went straight from Cabinet into law without any prior announcement or consultation.
Pointing out the newness of this industry to Guyana, the statement said that the process of advising one’s clients on what is likely to come down the legislative, regulatory or policy “pipeline” is part of what attorneys are hired to do. The process of consultation is designed to afford all stakeholders an opportunity to be heard, whether they consist of the citizenry or those in the oil and gas industry, it added.
“The firm’s representation of major players in the industry preceded the Minister’s appointment to Cabinet as Minister of Tourism and now Minister of Public Telecommunications. We do not and have not placed our integrity as the basis for any special consideration for favourable or other consideration in the event of a conflict whether by TIGI, Stabroek or any other body,” the statement stressed.
The firm made it clear, that does not offer “word of mouth assurances” and has been open, transparent and clear in the expression of the intentions here and in Houston.
“We did not seek to hide the establishment of our Houston office without any local announcement. We believe that the Minister has declared her interests to cabinet and had sought and continues to seek independent legal advice both prior to and after the publication of today’s front page article about her legal obligations,” it said.
The statement said that the firm is well aware that in Guyana the commercial imperatives of a “rush to judgement without consultation,” particularly where government officials are concerned, are significant.
“We seek no privileges, special or otherwise, just an accurate reflection of both sides of the coin. As the article and TIGI warn ‘the shoes may be on the other foot,’” it added.
Later Hughes took to Facebook. “My wife declares her husband’s interest in Hughes Fields and Stoby [HFS] to the Integrity Commission months ago, long before any talk of HFS going to Houston. She then discloses her husband’s interest again to Cabinet before Stabroek publishes its headline today. No attempt to investigate or inquire either from the Integrity Commission or the Minister on whether any disclosures were made but proceed to make the following conclusion,” he said in a public post.
After referring to one of Thomas’ comments, the attorney questioned how TIGI could speak on the issue of conflict of interest when no checks were made.
“So you disclose to the Integrity Commission months ago, you disclose to cabinet, you seek independent legal advice and Stabroek does not bother to check but ‘TIGI is not satisfied that conflict of interest is ruled out or adequately dealt with,’” he said.
“You cannot contribute to national development even if you disclose your spouse’s interest, as you may be potentially conflicted. So happy I departed from Guyana’s politics two years ago,” he added.