CL Financial Bailout – The Real Case

Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance
Sen. Larry Howai, Min of Finance & the Economy

In 2013 I sued the Minister of Finance & the Economy for his continuing failure or refusal to provide the details relating to the huge $25 Billion bailout of the failed CL Financial group.

On Wednesday 22 July 2015, the High court ruled in my favour by ordering the release of all the requested information.

The basic principle behind the Freedom of Information Act is that the information held by Public Authorities belongs to the public, unless one of the valid exemptions is applicable.

The Court also granted the State a 28-day stay of execution which seems intended to allow them the time to decide whether to appeal before they have to provide the requested information. Given the ongoing Information War and the high stakes to maintain the ‘Code of Silence’ in relation to this bailout, I would not be at all surprised if the State were to appeal against this ruling.

The unexplained gap

On 1 October 2010, the Prime Minister addressed Parliament to explain that $7.3 Billion had been spent on the bailout and that a further estimated $7.0 Billion was required to settle all debts. That is a 2010 estimate of $14.3 Billion to settle the CL Financial bailout, but the current estimated cost of the bailout is in excess of $25 Billion. That means that over $10.5 Billion more than the 2010 estimate has been spent, so where did all that extra money go? That information and the defined official policy of secrecy are at the heart of this scandal. Continue reading “CL Financial Bailout – The Real Case”

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CL Financial Bailout – Steal of a Deal

The CL Financial bailout was a steal of a deal for the owners of that troubled company. After all, the wealthiest man in the Caribbean was able to obtain an interest-free loan exceeding $25 Billion in Public Money at a time when no one else would lend him. Our Treasury was effectively the ‘lender of last resort’, so those terms were hugely in favour of CL Financial and its controlling shareholder, Lawrence Duprey. What is more, the shareholders kept all their shares.

In the previous column, I stated my view that Mariano Browne had taken what seemed to be a position supportive of Lawrence Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO. I also pointed out that Browne was a member of the Cabinet when that fateful and detrimental deal was made to bail out CL Financial in 2009 and called on the significant members of that Cabinet to explain their rationale. I went further to say that Browne was one of the five significant persons who had been requested to testify and refused to do so.

browne-karen-dupreyI am pleased that Mariano Browne has replied on the record, so this column will deal with those valuable points. For starters, it is even clearer than before that former Minister of Finance, Karen Nunez-Tesheira, has serious questions to answer in relation to her central role in this bailout. Given that financial training and experience formed a weak part of her profile, one can only wonder at what prompted Manning to appoint Nunez-Tesheira to that position. We will see. In addition, the terms which were negotiated between the State and CLF are essential to understand today’s dilemma with respect to Duprey’s ambitions. A related issue which needs clarity is the role of the powerful, unelected ‘bigger heads’ who are seemingly in control of our country.

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Duprey and his cohorts benefitted from an unprecedented degree of access to key decision-makers in the Cabinet and the Central Bank.

One of the enduring paradoxes in how our society is governed is the lopsided distribution of information. There is an abundance of relatively unimportant information, alongside a severe scarcity of critical facts on the big issues of the day. It seems that we are now ‘Amusing ourselves to Death‘, to borrow an insightful phrase from Neil Postman.

There is a world seen and a world unseen. The challenge is to discern the scope and influence of the unseen world. The current lexicon describes the unseen world as the ‘Deep State‘. I have no doubt that such a state of affairs exists in our country. So what do we know about the huge decisions in our society’s governance and how do we come to know those things?

For instance, the most serious decisions are taken by the Cabinet, which consists only of members of Parliament – some directly-elected as MPs and others appointed as Senators. Some of those decisions are announced at the Thursday afternoon post-Cabinet Press Conference. But the coverage is always partial with my suspicion being that stories are often presented so as to conceal their less-favourable aspects.

Cabinet seems to operate according to two conventions – the first being ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’ and the second being that the discussions of Cabinet are secret. The Freedom of Information Act gives Cabinet documents a 10-year embargo against publication. So, the first problem is that the highest decision-making Chamber in our Republic is essentially a secret one. I have always felt that the veil of secrecy which covers Cabinet’s deliberations is most times severely detrimental to our collective interests. This sordid CLF bailout fiasco fortifies that view.

Another critical aspect of the current arrangements is the role of the powerful Party Political Financiers, which is rarely revealed, but often suspected. In the case of the CL Financial group, we know that CLICO was a major funder of both major parties, which gives this bailout fiasco its lingering, bitter, flavour. There are few opportunities for us to get a real insight, beyond rumours, as to the true role of the party financier. Apart from the role of CL Financial as financiers, we also learned in the Colman Commission that Nunez-Tesheira’s 2007 campaign benefitted from Hindu Credit Union (HCU) financing.

The 2009 negotiations

One question I always ask is whether Karen Nunez-Tesheira told her colleagues that CLF had paid a dividend three days after it requested a bailout? As a shareholder, she would have been in receipt of dividends. If the Cabinet was told, they should have insisted on immediate repayment of any dividend since an insolvent company cannot pay a dividend. If the Cabinet was not told, we are dealing with a most deceptive course of action. Which was it?

So, what did Browne say about those negotiations?

…I have said that Duprey’s (and other shareholders) legal position is strong as the government depended on a MOA (memorandum of Agreement) the time frame of which has long since passed. On that basis, the shareholders have rights. Even if the state has expended money, the State and or its agents (the Central Bank) must do so in way that protects both the policy holders and the shareholders.

That was my advice in cabinet and at the Finance Policy Committee. The view of the Minister of Finance prevailed. I am of the opinion that Karen Nunez Tesheira was wrong then and is wrong now…

Browne is concurring with my view that the State’s position is weak in this bailout endgame, the key point being “…the shareholders have rights…”. Being bound by the first convention of ‘Collective Cabinet Responsibility’, Browne kept his silence during the raging controversy of the past 6 years, but he has now chosen to break the secrecy convention. I am grateful to him and it is telling that the most expert Cabinet member in that critical arena of finance and economics is now revealing his recollections of these critical events.

karenandlawrenceNunez-Tesheira needs to share the rationale for the bailout formula which let Duprey and the other shareholders keep their shares and loaned those huge sums of Public Money to the wealthiest man in Caribbean on an interest-free basis. What were the public policy considerations which could possibly have supported such a course of action?

Browne goes further to outline a situation in which he seems to have been excluded from the negotiations –

…And for the record I have not been part of any negotiations with Clico or CLF as part of the bailout action. Neither was I a part of the cabinet which took the decision to support the CLF/ CLICO Group. Those decisions were taken at a Cabinet meeting of which I was not a part on 29th January 2009 as I was in Barbados representing the Minister of Finance at a COFAP meeting. This bailout was always the province of the Minister of Finance and the Governor of the Central Bank and (sic) had no part in those decisions.

Further, Clico/CLF/Duprey made no contributions to the PNM during my tenure as Treasurer…

I can remember Browne telling me before that he had been involved in negotiations related to the CLF Shareholders Agreement of June 2009. That Agreement, at para A of its preamble, undertakes to protect the interest of shareholders. Note – Browne has since denied this claim of mine, so that has to be noted.

Of course, we know that Browne was part of the Cabinet which made those decisions, even if he was not in attendance at those particular meetings (I have no reason to doubt him), it is immaterial. As a member of that Cabinet he bears collective responsibility.

Duprey’s intended re-entry

Browne contested my statement that he seemed to be supporting Duprey’s attempt to regain control of CLICO –

…With regard to your opinion, I am am (sic) supporting nothing…The state only owns 49% of the company. If the shareholders act in concert there is nothing to prevent them from having an extra ordinary shareholders (EGM) Meeting and replacing the state appointed Directors. It is unlikely that Lawrence Duprey can pass the fit and proper rule and therefore cannot be appointed to CLICO’s Board, but he can be appointed to the CLF Board…

Browne listed the reasons which seemed to favour Duprey’s position, which position is fortified by his interpretation of the fit & proper rules. In his view, those rules would have prevented Duprey’s appointment to CLICO’s Board, but he would have still been eligible to sit on CL Financial’s Board. If we are considering a situation in which CLICO would still have CLF as its majority shareholder, that is an entirely misplaced view.

In the Central Bank’s ‘Fit and Proper Guideline‘, the question of ‘Who should be Fit and Proper?’ is addressed at page 2 –

“…4.1 According to governing legislation the following persons referred to in this Guideline as holding “key positions” are required to be fit and proper: -…
…4.1.4 Controlling Shareholder – may be an individual or a corporate entity

  1. Under the IA, any person who is entitled to control at least one-third of the voting power at any general meeting of the company.
  2. Under the FIA, any person who controls twenty five per cent or more of the voting power at any general meeting…

Before the bailout about 89% of CLICO’s shares were owned by CLF, so Duprey cannot regain control of CLICO, either directly or via a holding company, if the fit and proper regulations are enforced. As I said previously, the acid question is whether the Central Bank will summon the will to apply those rules without fear or favour.

This is no academic dispute, since Duprey has made it clear that he is seeking to regain control of CLICO, so that financial company and the rules which govern it, must be central concerns in this matter.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Come clean.

AUDIO: Election Hardtalk interview on Power 102FM – 16 Jul 2015

Power 102 FMAfra Raymond and Peter Permell are interviewed on the ‘Election Hardtalk‘ show on Power 102FMFM by Tony Fraser about the continuing impact of the CL Financial bailout on the economy and the request to get back the company by Lawrence Duprey. 16 July 2015. Audio courtesy Power 102FM

  • Programme Date: Thurday, 16 July 2015
  • Programme Length: 1:19:47

Raymond & Pierre and Afra Raymond v Harry Harnarine

Harry Harnarine, former HCU president. Photo © newsday.co.tt
Harry Harnarine, former HCU president. Photo © newsday.co.tt

The High Court decision of Wednesday 18 December 2013 now formally bankrupts Harry Harnarine, of Hindu Credit Union infamy, with the debt owed to our firm, Raymond & Pierre, and myself – the Chief State Solicitor was appointed as the Official Receiver.

The actual debt is some $868,000 with 12% simple interest since July 2008, plus costs fit for Senior & Junior Counsel. This effectively debars Mr Harnarine from any further participation in our financial system. The original action arose out of libellous statements uttered by Harnarine on HCU’s Radio Shakti in October 2005 and our side was well represented by a strong legal team, headed by Seenath Jairam SC.

Congratulations are due to those hard-working advocates and advisers.

I am attaching/linking these other important items –

  • Ernst & Young Report to Colman Commission on HCU, evidencing at pg 30 in the Statement of Affairs for Hindu Credit Union a shortfall of $486.5M as at 31 May 2008.
  • Final Straw to Kill me‘ Express article of 6 May 2013 detailing Harnarine’s final defeat at the Appeal Court to his challenge to the Bankruptcy Order we obtained.
  • 19 December 2013 – Newsday and Guardian articles on the High Court ruling making a Receiving Order against Harry Harnarine
  • 20 December 2013 – Newsday reports Harnarine to be baffled by the High Court ruling.

The Colman Commission – The Importance of Money

Sir Anthony Colman, QC. Photo courtesy Guardian Media Ltd.The Colman Commission was established about a year ago as a Public Enquiry into the failure of the CL Financial group, some of its subsidiaries, and the Hindu Credit Union.  The Commission is also mandated to report on the causes of these costly failures, so that it can make recommendations for possible prosecutions and the regulatory or systemic changes needed to avoid further collapses.

There has been a lot of fresh information revealed at the Commission and that is good, since the public now has a much better view of the various episodes behind the scenes.  The sole Commissioner, Sir Anthony Colman, has now made a statement which outlines his progress in this huge and complex matter.  Colman expects to take at least one more year and will be continuing his examination of the HCU matter when the CL Financial stage is completed.

Despite all the evidence about staggering sums of money and the heated public discussion that has sparked, I am perturbed by the way the essential information is being handled.

Since it is a Public Enquiry into a huge financial collapse, the financial information has to be front and centre if we are to get at the facts.

It is common knowledge that the link between performance and pay is essential in obtaining quality results in any competitive situation.  That basic fact, with which most people would agree, is now seriously challenged by some of the key events in the global financial meltdown.  It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into the new learning emerging from this global crisis, suffice to say that the old learning has literally been ‘tested to destruction’.

An unhealthy relationship between pay and performance would be a problem for any company, but in a financial company the issue is worse.  That is because the investors expect those companies to endure and prosper, so that they can collect the expected returns.

The Colman Commission will be unable to fulfill its mandate if it does not uncover the relationship between pay and performance in the failed companies.  Colman will also need to consider the motives and behaviour of the investors, who must also form a significant part of the story.  Without their participation and investments, the failed companies would have had no money to lose.

There is a strong interest in keeping the real figures and circumstances out of the news and some of the main items are –

  • The Accounts
  • The true levels of salaries, fees, dividends and bonuses
  • The identities and sums of money returned to those who have benefited from the bailout
  • The delinquent borrowers who owe the failed companies huge sums of money
  • The extent to which the failed companies and their chiefs complied with our tax laws

In The Colman Commission – Cloudy Concessions’, published here on 1 September, 2011, I pointed out the danger of allowing the HCU claimants to testify without stating the amounts invested for the public record.  It was my view that those concessions represented the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ in terms of the entire exercise being a Public Enquiry into a series of financial collapses.

In this recent, third session of evidence Hearings, we have had three examples of the ‘widening wedge’ in respect of financial information.

  1. The first example is the recent imbroglio on the testimony of the CEO of Methanol Holdings (MHTL), in which significant financial information was excluded, apparently by agreement between the various parties and the Commission.  This is exactly the kind of danger I had been warning about, since MHTL is a significant, supposedly healthy, part of the failed CL Financial group and there is bound to be considerable public interest in its financial performance.  Yet, the Colman Commission agreed to exclude that financial information, so the public is none the wiser as to the overall health of the CLF group, despite paying for a public Enquiry.  This issue was highlighted in the Guardian editorial of Tuesday 15 November, 2011, which ended by emphasizing the public’s right to know.
  2. The second example was the decision on Directors’ monies – as reported in the Business page of this newspaper on 16 November, 2011 “Commission Colman has ruled that the means of remuneration for CL Financial officials should be disclosed  to the Commission but not the actual quantification of them…”.  That bizarre concession removed any possibility of reporting on the real state of affairs at these failed companies.  If the Commission continued with that arrangement, it would have been impossible for any real understanding of the crisis and its causes to be derived from their work.
  3. The third, most notable, example was even more noteworthy, being the reversal of that decision and the grounds for that reversal, as reported in the Express of 16 November, 2011

    …The board appearance fee was revealed yesterday on the same day that Sir Anthony Colman, the lone commissioner in the Commission of Enquiry, ruled that the remuneration packages of those involved with the conglomerates collapse could be made public….

    Colman yesterday reversed a decision he made on Tuesday…

    My attention has been drawn to the fact that in fact some evidence has already been circulated in regard to Mr (Michael) Carballo’s remuneration package and also Mr (Lawrence) Duprey’s remuneration,” Colman said.

    “I have come to the conclusion that it would be grossly unfair if there were a general bar on further evidence as to remuneration of participants so I reverse the ruling which I made yesterday and the result would be that the remuneration of participants can be put into evidence,” he said.

    “I do not accept that if the remuneration emanated from any of the companies involved there could be any question of confidentiality,” Colman said”

    It is remarkable to me that an appeal restricted to the principle of fair-play seemed to have caused this reversal, in a situation where the initial concession was toxic to the fundamental enquiry which is being conducted at public expense, supposedly for our benefit.

This is an Enquiry into a colossal financial collapse, so therefore the money must be front and centre at all times.  We must have scrutiny as to its origin, rationale/contract for payment and its disposition for tax purposes.

Sir Anthony Colman needs to be watchful of the wily attorneys, who may seek again to tempt him to agree to conceal some more financial information which might be awkward for their clients.  The fact is that all those companies are now being funded by the Treasury and we have a right to know what caused this huge mess.

It is not a concession, we now own the mess, so we must be allowed to see all of its parts.  No sacred cows.

Sidebar: Colman’s Challenge

Colman’s statement as to the difficulty of running the Enquiry was most instructive, with a total of 49 lawyers appearing for various parties and a further 5 for the Commission.

Colman has had to maneuvre between 18 parties to the Enquiry, three non-parties and over 800,000 documents.

Which only makes it all the more important that the Colman Commission be given the necessary administrative/legal support and multi-media resources so that it can better serve the purposes for which it was established.

We have the resources in this country to give each SEA student a new laptop, so it should be no challenge to provide those resources to the Colman Commission.

CL Financial bailout – The Final Solution?

The new bailout formula was approved, as two new Acts, by our Parliament on 14 September –

The first one prevents any lawsuits against the Central Bank by claimants, while the second gives the Minister of Finance the right to borrow up to $10.7Bn and places the Republic Bank Ltd. (RBL) shares formerly held by CLICO into a new investment vehicle, NEL 2.

These seem to represent what I am calling the Final Solution, in that the clamour and protest which had marked the last year seems to have been fading away.  There have been queries from the various ‘Policyholders’ groups’, but those have been limited.

Whatever one thinks of the actual bailout, which I maintain is a perversion of our Treasury, there are valuable lessons to be learned from all this.  The main lesson for me is the Power of the Few.  In that although only about 16,000 investors were affected, they were able to mount a successful campaign to improve their position.  We need to note that lobbying and campaigning can be effective in gaining benefits for limited groups.  To all the weak-hearts who say nothing ever changes, please take note.

We also saw the position set out by the PM in her important speech on 1 October 2010 being reversed, in that the claimants’ rights to sue the Central Bank have been extinguished.  There are rumblings about a challenge to the constitutionality of that restriction, but we will have to wait on that one to play out.  The fact that the right to challenge the Central Bank’s actions in respect of the bailout has been removed opens fresh dangers in terms of the payout process.

We have all had bad experiences of what usually happens when serious unrestricted power is held by someone who does not have to answer for their actions.  My concern is that there does not seem to be any avenue for oversight of or appeal/redress against the Central Bank, in the event that claimants feel they are receiving unfair treatment.  That concern will have to be addressed at some stage.

Even as an account of the payout, we have deficient reporting with no true profile of the wealth being returned having been presented for public consideration.  The Central Bank and Ministry of Finance is in possession of this critical information as to the amounts of money to be returned to claimants, but that is being suppressed, for whatever reason. This episode has been a real stain on our stated ambitions towards accountability, transparency and the ever-distant ‘Good Governance’.

A related point is that the PM gave a clear commitment to revealing who benefited from the first wave of bailout funds, said at the time to be of the order of $7.3Bn. The PM’s speech is at pages 19 to 34 of Hansard – at pg 24 –

The previous administration injected $5 billion into Clico and they spent $2.3 billion to bail out the other distressed entities such as CIB in particular, so coming to a total of $7.3 billion has gone into that hole and yet today the Government and, therefore, the taxpayers of this country have been called upon to come up with another $16 billion to $19 billion. So what happened to that $7.3 billion? Where did it go? Who are the people that were paid? How was it utilized? What happened to that $7.3 billion?…

The concern here is that we are not at all sure that this new arrangement will in fact yield the required information as to who are the real beneficiaries of this bailout.  In view of the fact that the entire deal is a burden on our Treasury, this opaque arrangement is unacceptable.

After all –

Expenditure of Public money – Accountability – Transparency = CORRUPTION

Quite apart from those concerns, the fact is that provisions should have been made for Anti-Money Laundering and Tax Evasion screening.  The Treasury must not be used for Money-Laundering and the proper safeguards need to be put in place to prevent this.

The lack of accounts for the CL Financial group, after 31 months under State management, is also unacceptable.  The essential terms of the bailout are being sidelined, since the original agreement was for the State injections of cash to be repaid via asset sales.  Both 2009 agreements – the January MoU and the June CL Financial Shareholders’ Agreement – also spoke to the preparation of accounts and provision of information.

The perturbing aspect is that there continues to be a uniform silence as to the preparation of these overdue accounts, so the taxpayer must wonder just how, or if ever, these vast sums of bailout money are to be recovered.  This is the burning question which is at the root of my outrage.

The new arrangement is also silent as to the position with respect to other creditors of the CL Financial group, so there is no certainty as to how those claims would be treated.  On 31 October, Trinidad and Tobago Newday reported on ‘CLICO Bahamas seeks $365M from CL Financial’.  There are substantial regional and local claims outstanding, so the entire cost appears is an unknown quantity at this time, given the lack of accounts.

As I pointed out previously, the Directors and Officers of the CL Financial group and its subsidiaries ought to be subject to the provisions of the Integrity in Public Life Act, by reason of its being a State-controlled company.  The Integrity Commission needs to demand the required declarations from those persons, if we are to secure the required level of transparency.

The continuing failure of the Central Bank to make rulings as to the extent to which CL Financial’s Directors and Officers at the time of the collapse are ‘fit and proper persons’ is the final piece of the sorry picture.

The State’s period controlling the CL Financial group, ends on 11 June 2012 – a mere 7 months away – at which time the group will return to its owners.  Given the fact that the Central Bank has not made an adverse ‘Fit & Proper’ finding against Lawrence Duprey, in the absence of accounts and with a significant part of the RBL shares divested in this fashion, what will be the out-come?  Is the stage now set for Lawrence Duprey to return?

I spent last Wednesday afternoon in New York’s Zucotti Park, with so many points to share on that experience.  For now, I leave this striking slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement –

If you are not outraged, you haven’t been paying attention…