I believe Junior Finance Minister Jaipaul Sharma deliberately missed the point and put a political spin on a non-political issue when he recently attempted to justify the President’s decision to keep the US$18M signing bonus from Exxon/Mobil secret and put the money in a secret high-interest bearing account.
I say so because, according to media reports, Mr Sharma tried to whitewash the two most controversial aspects of the signing bonus saga and deflect legitimate criticism by throwing up a smokescreen of rhetoric about the perceived misdeeds of the past administration.
First, the act was unlawful because the law required the bonus to be put in the Consolidated Fund. Second, the act was a secret kept by the President and a small band of insiders leaving most cabinet ministers and parliamentarians in the dark.
Minister Sharma reportedly acknowledged the law requiring government to place such funds in the state’s account, but said there were “real” national security issues, alluding to problems with the Consolidated Fund in terms of converting US dollars to local currency and back again at a higher rate, et cetera.
Is the Minister saying that the Constitution does not provide ways of dealing with national security issues without violating the law? Is he saying that a President has discretionary power to define national security issues and to break any law, or all laws, to deal with them? I do not accept that the President needed to break the law to protect the nation.
Mr Sharma also sidestepped the issue of the unusual secrecy of the deal. Why put the money in a secret account and why keep this from most members of cabinet and Parliament? The funds should have been put in an escrow account with cabinet approval and parliamentary scrutiny.
Guyana’s need to put funds aside to pay for the best legal representation possible in the controversy with Venezuela is quite obvious. Indeed, Venezuela would be foolish not to expect Guyana to do so. So why treat such an obvious and necessary provision as a national security issue requiring great secrecy? I do not buy Minister Sharma’s take on it at all.
To me, a government that was elected on a platform of honesty, accountability and transparency has no business getting involved in secret accounts that are only accessible to the President and a small group of confidants. A law-abiding government’s actions must be above suspicion; this is not.
The signing bonus rightfully belongs to the people of Guyana. The rightful owners and their elected representatives in cabinet and Parliament had a right to know about it up front ‒ how much it is, where it is deposited, what it is to be used for, how it will be accessed and who is authorized to access it.
No law should have been violated in the handling of the signing bonus, and its availability and proposed purpose should have been disclosed to cabinet and Parliament. At least, it should have been disclosed that funds had been earmarked for a national security purpose to be disclosed at an appropriate time.
Minister Sharma had an opportunity to offer the nation an apology and give citizens the assurance that this deception will not be repeated. Instead, he opted to do damage control by shifting the focus of his remarks to the transgressions of the past administration.
But note that the past administration committed transgressions and the people, the official bosses of this country, fired them. In the same way, if transgressions are being committed again, the people will fire the transgressors.
I find it strange that President David Granger, a man I have respect for, would take so long to acknowledge that he was responsible for the clandestinely entombed account. Being a man of honour, he must realise that people have a high regard for him. Is it possible that he did not know about the entombed account and only claimed responsibility for politically expedient reasons?
Roshan Khan Sr