Thursday, November 23, 2017

US$100M+ Missing

A funny thing happened at the recently concluded joint UN/Caricom Donor conference in New York; metaphorically speaking, Roosevelt Skerrit got sucker punched by a close friend without a whimper from him. How's that, you say? Well, put another way,  Mr. Skerrit was exposed at the United Nations as a crook by none other than Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza acting on instructions from the country's President, Nicolas Maduro. And Mr. Skerrit kept his mouth shut.

Mr. Arreaza declared to the conference that Mr. Maduro had instructed him to announce that Dominica's debt of over US $100 million to Venezuela under the PetroCaribe arrangement be forgiven as a gesture of solidarity between the two countries.

  • "I bring instructions from President Nicolas Maduro to formally announce before this forum an act of solidarity with our brethren in Dominica" Jorge Arreaza

And just like that, Mr. Arreaza has placed Mr. Skerrit in the uncomfortable position of having to account for a debt that Mr. Skerrit and his minions have told us for years never existed. Where did Mr. Arreaza come up with the idea that Dominica owes Venezuela in excess of US $100 million through PetroCaribe? In fact, the debt has never been recorded in the government's financial statements. So where is the money? Have Mr. Skerrit and Mr. Austrie been hiding all this money in a secret bank account that only they have access to? Have these two corrupt government officials been treating the state's money as their own private slush fund?

What is PetroCaribe?

PetroCaribe is an initiative created by then-President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The plan, put together at a time when fuel prices were above US$100/barrel of crude, was meant to assist member countries with their fuel costs. Under Dominica's arrangement, we would pay Venezuela 60% of our fuel bills on 90-day terms, and the remaining 40% would be treated as a line of credit financed and payable over a 25-year period, allowing the countries to use that money for development projects in their respective countries.

PetroCaribe, being a government-to-government agreement, suggests that the programme would be strictly managed by the government's financial oversight units. Well, that's how it should be, but is that what has happened in Dominica? We do not know, yet.

In Dominica, PetroCaribe has been under the operational management of Energy Minister Reginald Austrie. It's finances are to be supervised by the Ministry of Finance, headed by Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, with the Financial Secretary Rosamund Edwards and Director of Audit Clarence Christian (now retired) playing important roles.

Over US$100/EC$270 million in debt

Over the past 6 years, questions have been posed in parliament to the government relating to the outstanding debt to Venezuela. The government has given us various responses, the last being that we do not owe Venezuela any money. Mr. Arreaza's comments this week has exposed the Skerrit government to be liars and possibly, thieves.

Reviewing the information we have available, we can say with absolute certainty that Energy Minister Reginald Austrie is directly responsible for the accounting of over EC$270 million in missing funds at PetroCaribe. Minister Austrie holds dual responsibilities as the government official responsible for the operation of the programme in-country, as well as operational responsibility of PetroCaribe Dominica, the quasi-government company established to handle its local business. Austrie is the company's Vice-Chairman; he approves the movement of the company's funds.

Oversight responsibility lies in the Ministry of Finance. Mr. Skerrit has held that portfolio for the past decade and he owes us a thorough explanation as to what has occurred here.

Just as responsible is the Financial Secretary and the Director of Audit. From the start of the PetroCaribe operation, the Minister of Finance has never submitted an annual budget that has included this public debt, and both Ms. Rosamund Edwards the Financial Secretary, and Mr. Clarence Christian, the Director of Audit through 2016, have consistently signed off on false government financial statements. While Ms. Edwards' input, or lack thereof, is not known publicly, Mr. Christians' dismal job performance is well documented. On far too many occasions he has failed to deliver proper audited financial statements when required. In fact, Mr. Christian was so incompetent that his reports were regularly completed years after they were due. His long stint as Director of Audit is testament to the corruption which forms the foundation of the Roosevelt Skerrit government.

Ms. Edwards and Mr. Christian's actions are at best, a display of incontrovertible malpractice of the highest order, or worse, complicity in the defrauding of the state by Reginald Austrie and Roosevelt Skerrit. We firmly believe that both Ms. Edwards and Mr. Christian are well aware of the shenanigans that passes for regular business in the Ministry of Finance but instead of being resolute in commitment to their fiduciary responsibilities as the checks on the proper management of the country's finances, they apparently chose to turn their heads and close their eyes to the malfeasance within the government system and at PetroCaribe, thereby facilitating the disappearance of over US $100 million, or EC $270 million. Although now retired from his post as Director of Audit, Mr. Christian continues to enjoy the trappings of government, doing contract work for the state auditing reports that date back to when he was Director. In other words, Mr. Christian is doing work for the Roosevelt Skerrit government that he was already paid to do when he was employed as Director of Audit, but since he was years behind, the Skerrit government has chosen to rehire him on contract to audit reports years after they were due, allowing him to paid twice for the same job. In the meantime, he champions the Roosevelt Skerrit government, on radio and in social media. Life must be good.

Mr. Skerrit's defenders will undoubtedly excuse this behavior in some fashion. We urge or readers; do not be deceived. As a practical matter, money held in unreported accounts is essentially a slush fund; with no record of the actual balances as well as transfers in and out, it is anyone's guess exactly what amounts entered in or transferred out, as well as the source and destination of funds transferred. Mr. Skerrit and Mr. Austrie may tell us that all is accounted for but how would we know that for sure since there is no official record in our government-held bank accounts?

  •  US$100/EC$270+ million of government money has passed through the fingers of Roosevelt Skerrit and Reginald Austrie and may be in private bank accounts

Of further concern to us is Mr. Skerrit's representation to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Mr. Skerrit was recently in Washington D.C. soliciting assistance for post-Maria reconstruction. Did he inform these institutions that our sovereign debt includes this amount owed to Venezuela? If not, how will that affect any assistance we may receive in the future?

Skerrit and Arreaza; a curious combination

We find it very interesting that Jorge Arreaza has ended up being the Venezuelan official charged with announcing the forgiveness of that massive debt. Arreaza and Skerrit go back a long way; Arreaza, once Venezuela's Vice-President, is suspected of having a stake in a private offshore bank based in Roseau.

Brilla Bank, located on the 2nd Floor at 36 Grt. George Street, was registered in Dominica in February, 2011. There have long been rumors in Venezuela about Mr. Arreaza's business dealings, but he remains a close confidant of President Nicolas Maduro.


Since publishing this report, our correspondent Lizzy Drigo, now in Dominica assisting in repairs to her family's home, has called in to say that she is getting feedback from people on the ground. Lizzy is reporting that she is being told that Minister Reginald Austrie once availed himself of over US$60,000 of PetroCaribe funds to purchase his first Toyota Vigo pickup truck. We would like the minister to address this allegation.

Lizzy has also been made aware of activities of former Soufriere MP Ian Pinard, who now runs the company since his resignation from government stemming from a case of aggravated child molestation. It appears that Mr. Pinard may have been in the past using 3rd party individuals to cash PetroCaribe checks on his behalf. We're hearing of at least 3 individuals may be involved in that scheme. Not to be outdone, some employees of PetroCaribe themselves were having their siblings cash company checks on their behalf. The extent of bobol within that company is massive.

Also, Mr. Pinard's successor in the Soufriere constituency, Denise Charles, herself an employee of PetroCaribe, is known to be a profligate shopper of jewelry and various accessories in St. Maarten, all charged on the credit cards of the company. It seems that Ms. Charles has a favorite vendor in SM, said to be a man of Indian descent, who she would call to place her orders. All paid for by PetroCaribe. Ms. Charles is a close confidant of Mr. Skerrit's wife, Melissa. Lizzy reports that she has been seen driving the Infiniti SUV known to belong to Ms. Skerrit.

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