Hughes still awaiting advice from lawyer, Cabinet on potential conflict of interest

Cathy Hughes

Public Telecommunications Minister Cathy Hughes yesterday said she is still awaiting advice from Cabinet and one of the two attorneys she has consulted about any potential conflict of interest she my face in government deliberations on the oil and gas sector and she assured that in the interim she will excuse herself from such discussions.

“I haven’t gotten it yet… I’ve gotten one. I actually wrote off to two attorneys and I have gotten one,” Hughes said yesterday at the Ministry of Finance, shortly after the signing of a loan agreement with China for the National Broadband Project.

The local anti-corruption watchdog Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc (TIGI) earlier this month expressed concern that there may be a 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 had said in response to questions asked by this newspaper.

The minister subsequently declared in a statement that she had nothing to hide before disclosing 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. She, however, had stopped short of saying how she will deal with the potential conflict of interest.

Subsequent to the statement, she told online media outfit DemeraraWaves that she would not participate in Cabinet meetings whenever oil and gas issues are discussed pending advice from an attorney as well as advice from Cabinet.

When asked yesterday why she has decided to withdraw from any such meetings ahead of receiving advice, Minister Hughes told reporters that the media is misunderstanding what she has said on the issue and this is of concern to her.

In providing clarity, she indicated that she previously said that if there were a discussion that had anything to do with oil and gas, “I would recuse myself.” She added that she said, too, that she had gone to independent legal advisors to get an idea of what else she should do.

“I have done all that was legally required of me. Legally you are required to respond and report to the Integrity Commission. Although many people, including the Opposition Leader said he ain’t report, Cathy Hughes reported long before this incident. So, they require me to report. They require me to inform Cabinet. I have done those. Nobody said to me go and get independent advice but I said in this situation let’s do that. There is precedence all over the world. This is not a new situation, so that is what we are looking at and I promise you that as soon as we get the guidance I would be more than happy,” she said.

TIGI had 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.

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 saying, “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 was not aware of Minister Hughes’ role or if she has declared insulation or documented commitments to a non-conflicting stance.

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