OPINION: Audit of Exxon’s expenses: the harder Minister Bharrat tries, the harder he falls

Last Updated on Friday, 3 February 2023, 6:26 by Denis Chabrol

by GHK Lall

Thanks Minister of Natural Resources, Mr. Vickram Bharrat (Minister) for disclosing that the long overdue, much-anticipated, audit report of Exxon’s US$7.3B in expenses is on tap for March.  That is, March 2023.  What was initially scheduled for September 2022, then December of last year, is now estimated to be March.  I use ‘estimated’ since intervening circumstances could emerge in the next 50 plus days.  It is almost an eternity, those 50+ days, and any unforeseen development could more months to what the Minister announced.

Unfortunately, I cannot thank the Minister for his combination of medieval alchemy and PPP Government sorcery.  It centers on “working days” rather than calendar or “running [consecutive] days” relative to the delivery date for the audit report.  Though the clarification is well-received, the Minister only succeeded in digging a deeper hole for himself, and his ever-clever government.  The harder he tried, the harder he fell.

The Minister noted that the audit was originally scheduled for 4 months or 120 days, but those were to be measured in “working days” only.  Agreed.  What the good Minister failed to elaborate upon was how 120 working days, accounting for nonworking weekend days, mushroomed into a total of 270 days.  I make accommodation for four months of weekends (nonworking days), and I come up with 32 nonworking days in those 16 weeks.  I help the Minister, by arbitrarily throwing in 8 national holidays to make a total of 160 days, inclusive of the 40 nonworking days.  By my acolyte arithmetic that equals 160 days, at the end of which the audit report was due.  Hence, it ought to have been in the government hands, and the public space, since mid-November last, given the end of September deadline.

For 4 months or 120 days to not be 160 days, to delivery (accounting for weekends, holidays) first promised was troubling, but not surprising.  Almost all who know about these kinds of audits-one of this size, with a trusted Exxon thrown in, had opined that four months was too short, a farce at work, and that a year made sense.  They were closer to what is right since altogether, the audit is now taking up nine months, possibly more.  The Minister may have an artful answer re how 160 days, (accounting for working days only) became 270 days.  There is a huge difference of over a hundred days in what the Minister shared versus what was insisted by the people involved was going to happen.  It didn’t; with not one, but two delays of three months each, with the initial four months more than doubled to 10 months.  This does not instill too much confidence in anything that Minister, or Government, or the auditors puts on the table.  Said differently, credibility has been stretched too thin, too long.

Thinking of all this, I admit to sympathy for the Natural Resources Minister, who finds himself saddled with thankless dirty jobs for the big boys in his political posse.  Bosses make speeches, he must set things right.  He has been given a bucket of tar to deal with a fence, and to insist to Guyanese that they have a lily-white result.  I understand that he has to cleanup after his uber boss (not the President), but some jobs don’t pay enough (perks and all).  Clearly, the one-time educator either got his almanac (days, months) or his abacus (10 months as opposed to 4) in some sort of tangle.  Perhaps the PPP Government is of the view that Guyanese are so starved for information that anything can be dumped on citizens, and they swallow hook, line, and stinker, and that’s it.

Exclude me, please.  The questions linger.  Why is this audit taking so long?  What are the material issues, challenges (or pushbacks) being encountered by the audit team?  What has it flagged that causes consternation for both Exxon and the PPP Government?  Why the need for all this extra time to resolve?  Or is it to doctor, given ring-fencing absence is a highway for corporate antics?  Why when all these assurances and reassurances were given by politicos and professional practitioners that the time was adequate to get the job done, a proper one?  I firmly believe that Minister Bharrat is a noble man, except that this business about “running days” and “working days” was not his most knightly or valiant effort.  He certainly worked hard at running around, running over, and running away, as to why this audit report is taking so long.