The US$18M signing bonus which the government received from Exxon Mobil has become part of a magician’s bag of tricks. It is appearing and disappearing with ease. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Last year, the government played a dodging game when it came to answering the question as to whether a signing bonus had been negotiated. Then it flatly denied its existence. When the signing bonus was finally exposed, one denier said that he answered a question about a specific amount. Polemics at its best!
The secretive signing bonus did not pass through the Consolidated Fund as it ought to by law. It was also not placed in a deposit fund. It ended up in a foreign exchange account at the Bank of Guyana.
The legality of holding the signing bonus in this account has been challenged in the Court. Just recently, the government indicated that the signing bonus would be passed through the Consolidated Fund when it is ready to be used.
Well, the government is now saying that the signing bonus has been invested in US treasury bills and Canadian bonds. Yet, it has not passed through the Consolidated Fund as promised. The signing bonus has now been invested overseas, without notice to the public.
With this one stroke, the government has pulled the rug from under the challenge to the legality of holding the bonus outside of the Consolidated Fund. The Court can rule whatever it wants; the money has already been invested in financial instruments overseas.
Under the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act, the Minister has the power to invest public monies. But there is a danger in such an investment. By placing the signing bonus overseas, it can now escape scrutiny by the National Assembly. And this is extremely worrying. Why would a government which claims to be committed to transparency, be cryptic in its handling of the signing bonus?
US$15M of the US$18M signing bonus is expected to end up being used to pay the lawyers involved in the case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But will the approval of the National Assembly be utilized for paying the legal fees for Guyana’s case before the ICJ?
The government has not produced a contract for the legal fees of the lawyers prosecuting Guyana’s case. Therefore, the public is no wiser as to what the lawyers are charging the government or how much has already been paid to them.
This column believes that Guyana’s case is premature, because of the absence of jurisdiction by the Court. This column had urged the government to seek independent advice on the issue of jurisdiction. This column is convinced that Guyana’s petition will be thrown out on the basis that the ICJ has no jurisdiction to hear the case, unless there is an agreement between Guyana and Venezuela to do so.
The Geneva Agreement provides for peaceful options to settle the controversy. It does not grant jurisdiction to the ICJ. In fact, the Geneva Agreement does not even mention the ICJ. But we shall have to wait and see whether Venezuela will object to ICJ jurisdiction.
If the ICJ rules that it has no jurisdiction, will Guyana get back the legal fees that it paid? And will the unutilized portion of the US$18M be returned to Guyana and passed through the Consolidated Fund?
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