It is with sadness, though not surprise, that I’ve been following and commenting upon the developments at the Guyana Chronicle. When I indicated months ago, when he was initially hired, that Sherod Duncan was unfit for the position of General Manager of the state paper, it was because that I foresaw exactly this sort of embarrassing fiasco.
I’ve seen a great deal of speculation about whether the spending as exposed in the original Demerara Waves article was justified or not, and debate on whether or not it was a positive thing for the paper. Anyone familiar with basic management best practice should have automatically seen red flags in the fact much of the expenditure was spent on developing a free distribution channel for the very product the company is supposed to sell. According to news reports, we had a $5 million dollar expenditure on social media interventions, trips, comfort furniture, vehicle repairs to the GM’s vehicle, all within three months of what was supposed to be Mr. Duncan’s probationary period, and then the company stating that due to a ‘budget variance’, the company had to engage in a period of austerity, cutting the sort of critical expenditure that comes standard in producing a newspaper – electricity, telephone, fuel and lubricants, meals, and overtime. I know of no newspaper that runs on social media likes but not electricity.
In my original letter on Mr. Duncan’s appointment, I made the observation of his having held an absurd prayer breakfast celebrating his patently unethical appointment – we now learn courtesy of Demerara Waves that it was the company that ended up paying for that breakfast.
The most telling revelation in the initial expose however had to do with Mr. Duncan stating that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo personally approved his expenditure. This is troubling for the very basic reason that, unless my understanding is wrong, the appointment of a board to run Guyana National Newspapers Limited, a state company, is the statutory obligation, not discretion, of the minister with portfolio responsibility for information. This is a governance best practice that both shields the company from undue direct government intervention, while it shields the government from liability.
When Mr. Duncan was hired, I pointed out that it would have been by a vastly diminished board – one that was suffering from the resignation of four members, yours truly included, and consisting of five members, of whom he was one. As I detailed, prior consideration of Mr. Duncan’s application by the more or less full board had resulted in the consensus that not only was he not the best applicant in general but that he fell far short of the minimum requirements for the position.
I had stated that there were only two ways in which Mr. Duncan could have been appointed to the post. The first is if the diminished board of five people, including himself, deliberately disregarded the other applicants and appointed an under-qualified candidate, who had a hand in the decision, as GM. The second scenario, which Mr. Duncan was pushing at the level of the board, was that the board use its authority, as allowed by the company regulations, to appoint him directly as managing director, which would naturally entail disregarding more qualified applicants.
To learn that there was no board in place and Mr. Duncan was getting approval for spending directly from the Prime Minister is troubling in either scenario. If he were directly appointed as managing director from the board under the second scenario, his tenure would have automatically come to an end when the life of that board came to an end, which was virtually immediately after his appointment, rendering his acting as GM over the past three months illegal.
If it was a case of the board appointing him ahead of other more qualified applicants, presuming that he had resigned before this appointment, what we have is a board taking the decision to make the most senior administrative appointment at GNNL days before it would be dissolved and hence incapable of providing any supervision of his performance during what should be a standard three-month probationary period.
Now, perhaps the case could have been made that there was the understanding that there would have been continuity in the next board, one that would provide supervision of an already ethically tainted appointment. However, as of the time of the Demerara Waves article, no board was in place. This means that for the entirety of Mr. Duncan’s ‘probationary’ period, in a job that he is unqualified to hold, he had no supervision by a statutorily required mechanism. The result was the austerity-invoking spending spree in which he has directly implicated the Prime Minister as complicit. What it now presents the PM’s office with is the further ethical dilemma in which the PM’s office has ordered an investigation into spending that Mr. Duncan said was directly sanctioned by the PM.
The other embarrassment that has been visited not only on GNNL itself, but on the PM’s office and hence government as a whole is that Mr. Duncan – while on probation – exercised authority that he would not have even if he were confirmed in the job that he is unqualified for, issuing a letter of dismissal to the Finance Controller, Moshamie Ramotar, a respected Chronicle staffer of 22 years, and someone who successfully acted as his direct predecessor in the post of GM. With no evidence given, and with no due process in the dismissal, Mr. Duncan opened up the company to the sort of wrongful termination lawsuit that his million-dollar unsupervised expenditure would have made difficult in settling. We now have the other absurdity of the PM’s office having to rescind the dismissal letter and ordering the very sort of investigation into the leak that should have preceded any termination, with no explanation given by the GM on why the dismissal letter was handed out in the first place.
I’ll be frank. What it appears to be is that Mr. Duncan’s elevation is a machination of the PM’s Office, one that has resulted in an ever-increasing ethical quagmire. If it takes a diminished board bypassing qualified applicants to enable an unqualified appointee, and the absence of any board at all to ensure that he passes his probation, and there is still this level of scandal and mismanagement, perhaps another pathway is more sustainable. Mr. Duncan should be fired, a new and credible board sworn in, applications opened up for the position of General Manager, and the job awarded to the best applicant. Either that or we dispense completely with the façade of good governance and credibility.