Probe it, Prime Minister!With that demand yesterday, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar called on Government to halt the sale of assets of Trinidad and Tobago NGL and First Citizens Holdings Ltd – proposed in the 2017 budget – following concerns about alleged conflict of interest in the issue.
"This appears to be a financial transaction designed by a few to benefit a few at the expense of honest, law-abiding tax-paying citizens... I challenge the PM to directly treat with this matter, publicly and transparently and not allow it to go the way of the Malcolm Jones write-off," Persad-Bissessar said in her budget reply.
"The case threatens to be bigger, involving billions of State assets and what appears to be a network of wheeling and dealing that goes on in the boardrooms of high rolling friends and financiers and seems to reach right into the Cabinet...I expect this matter will be developed further in legal action which I am researching."
Persad-Bissessar built her case, naming TTNGL shareholders, and attempting to link some with National Gas Company chairman Gerry Brooks in his former business world incarnation prior to his Government post.
She also raised questions on the issue about Dr Terrence Farrell, Government's Economic Advisory Board chairman.
Immediately after she concluded, Finance Minister Colm Imbert came over to the media section and denied her claims, saying they were a figment of her imagination and a "straw man." (See other story)
Persad-Bissessar said the budget was a "colossal failure, an exercise in superficiality, vagueness and even deliberate obtuseness... riddled with miscalculations and misrepresentations... clearly designed to bamboozle a population still waiting to hear the minister present any tangible measure that will adequately address T&T's security, safety social and economic challenges."
In the centrepiece of her statement, Persad-Bissessar targeted Imbert's budget announcement of the planned sale of TTNGL and FirstCitizens Holdings (FCHL) shares, taking issue with the timing and manner of sale. She said Imbert had said he'd put "special arrangements in place for existing shareholders" to access the initial public offering (IPO).
Persad-Bissessar said that involved a "rights" issue – when a company offers existing shareholders a right to buy additional new company shares in the company – and the usual approach was to offer shareholders a specific number of shares at a specific price.
She asked: "Is he (imbert) offering a discount in the price of the shares in relation to the value at which they are currently being traded? Offering the shares at lower value to these shareholders? If so, why?
"Rights issues tend to be invoked when markets are rising. This doesn't describe present market conditions. To the contrary, market conditions have changed dramatically and in particular the excess liquidity in the system that existed at the time of the earlier IPOs has long since evaporated. So why is Government proposing to pursue this initiative in this way now?"
She said TTNGL's 2015 annual report stated the company's main shareholders were the National Gas Company, National Insurance Board, Unit Trust Corporation, National Enterprises Limited, TATIL Life Assurance A/C CC, TATIL Life Assurance Limited, Deposit Insurance Corporation, Republic Bank Limited, Michael and Helen Moses and Anthony N Sabga. She noted four of the five TTNGL directors held nominal amounts of shares as well.
"They are Mr Gerry Brooks, Andrew Jupiter, Anand Ragbir and Ashmeer Mohamed... very interesting revelations emerge when you search the directors of those companies listed as shareholders and cross reference them," she said.
"Here's just one example. Soon after last year's election, Mr Brooks retired as the Chief Operations Officer (COO) of the largest conglomerate in T&T. At time of retirement, he was a member of the board of the parent company of the said conglomerate. He's also previously served as a TATIL director, i.e, one of the companies listed as a TTNGL shareholder.
"In fact, TTNGL's 2015 annual report reveals that five of the ten shareholders of TTNGL are companies or individuals that are part of the conglomerate that Mr Brooks was CEO of. Those entities as per the 2015 annual report hold 5.64 per cent of the shares of the TTNGL. The NGC at all material times was and is the single largest shareholder of TTNGL."
Persad-Bissessar added: "So now, instead of controlling 5.6 per cent of this lucrative corporate asset, as a direct result of his appointment by this Government to the State-owned companies NGC and TTNGL), Mr Brooks and his associates now control 57.64 per cent of TTNGL... honourable Prime Minister, please investigate this matter.
"The plan is to divest the 51 per cent shareholding of TTNGL and place it in the hands of existing shareholders and I have already told you that five of the ten main shareholders and Mr Brooks himself are associated with the same conglomerate. What does it tell you about the supra-elitists? And (Government is) suffering the average citizen with taxes!"
The statement by Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar that five of the top ten shareholders of TTNGL are associated with the ANSA McAL group is plainly incorrect.
Seven of the top ten shareholders of the company are not associated with ANSA McAL. They are: National Gas Company, National Insurance Board, the Unit Trust Corporation, National Enterprises Ltd, Republic Bank, Deposit Insurance Corporation and Michael and Helen Moses.
The three TTNGL shareholders that are associated with ANSA McAL are Tatil Life A/CC, Tatil Life and Anthony N Sabga, the group's chairman emeritus.
The information on the top ten TTNGL shareholders is disclosed in the company's 2015 annual report, which is a public document.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar is also incorrect that Mr Brooks retired as the chief operating officer and manufacturing sector head at ANSA McAL after last year's general election. According to a T&T Stock Exchange filing on April 2, 2015, Mr Brooks retired from the group effective April 30, 2015, more than four months before the general election.