Friday, Nov 16, 2018

Dark chapter

BPL fiasco leaves lingering stench
Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister.

Desmond Bannister has proven to be a disappointment as minister.

His petulant remarks and personal attack on the former Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) Executive Chairman Darnell Osborne spun an already nasty fiasco ensnaring BPL completely out of control.

It seems the minister grossly underestimated the professionals who were members of the board.

Did he think Osborne and the others would curl up and go under a rock never to be heard from again after their reputations were slaughtered?

They did not.

As a professional accountant, Osborne’s integrity and reputation are really what she trades on. So for Bannister to seek to demean and damage her by claiming she submitted personal bills to BPL for payment was a completely ill-considered move.

Darnell Osborne.

While he claimed that Osborne submitted her makeup bill to BPL to the tune of hundreds of dollars, a makeup company that charged BPL $750 clarified that it made this billing for 15 people as a part of a BPL PR project.

There is no evidence of any bill connected to Osborne that amounts to hundreds of dollars.

If only on this point, Bannister owes the former executive chairman a public apology unless he has some evidence to prove his claim.

Neither Bannister nor BPL made public those personal bills he claimed would be made public for the Bahamian people to see for themselves.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, obviously seeking to suck the oxygen out of the controversy, claimed there will be a probe into matters surrounding the BPL saga. But Minnis provided no information on who will conduct this investigation, the projected length of the investigation and the terms of reference.

Further, the board’s appointment is the prime minister’s prerogative.

Minnis got rid of the board. Presumably, he knew why this was necessary. The prime minister and his minister had access to all of the facts surrounding BPL decision-making. They already know what transpired. What will this probe now prove? Will we ever hear anything of it?

In his obvious attempt to kill the worsening debacle, the prime minister claimed he met last Wednesday with the former BPL board members. He said he “had a great meeting with them” and informed them that “in light of what has been transpiring, the government will initiate a proper investigation into the BPL saga and when we complete that investigation that will be made readily available”.

Minnis’ pledge came after Bannister made all sorts of claims against Osborne and former board members Nick Dean and Nicola Thompson.

The day after the prime minister announced there will be a probe, the three released a detailed statement responding to Bannister’s various claims. The statement denied that Osborne had sent BPL a makeup bill of hundreds of dollars.

It also provided context to his remark about her making BPL pay for her security cameras at her house.

The statement explained that the board decided on the upgraded security after Executive Director Patrick Rollins reminisced about an incident involving the destruction of his vehicles while serving as chair of Nassau Flight Services.

Osborne also denied that she had sought the executive director post and had asked for a salary of $300,000 as claimed by the minister.

Bannister claimed he has that in writing and said it will be made public, but it never was. The excuse now is that as the probe will be conducted, nothing is now being released. We would be surprised if any documents are ever released as the government is likely banking on this embarrassing affair dying down.

Bannister also suggested Osborne and others were attacking board colleagues.

“I didn’t set out to attack Mrs. Osborne,” he was quoted as saying in The Tribune. “They have been relentless in attacking Rollins, [CEO Whitney] Heastie and Ferron [Bethel]. I’m in public life, they can attack me.

“What I was really trying to do this morning is tell them leave Rollins, leave Ferron, leave Heastie, stop the nonsense. I’m fair game, but these things coming out are wrong, they’re attacking people who are giving service.

“If I had agreed to this $300,000, none of this would have come up. Up to almost the last meeting I met with her in December, she personally said that to me; she said I promised her the executive director post.”

The accusation about the attack on board colleagues was significant. Again, Bannister has not provided any evidence showing where Osborne and the others have been “relentless in attacking Rollins, Heastie and Ferron”.

Irresponsible

His statements were irresponsible and provided fuel to a controversy that ought not have gotten this far.

Bannister went further in his claims against Osborne and Nick Dean.

In another Tribune article, he accused Osborne and Dean of exposing New Providence residents to power outages by blocking the purchase of critical parts. He said BPL was facing a $10 million-plus loss after Osborne and Dean, who headed the procurement committee, refused to authorize the acquisition of equipment needed to restore 10 percent of BPL’s generation capacity in New Providence.

He said Heastie had “made arrangements” to order the turbochargers necessary to restore the affected engine to service but the former board and its procurement committee blocked the purchase.

Firing back, Dean said he was “horrified to learn that not only did Minister Bannister continue his public onslaught, but he intensified and expanded it by dragging me into the situation”.

“I am troubled by Minister Bannister’s lack of civility in this discourse,” Dean said.

He explained that a “turbocharger had failed on one of the engines at the Clifton Pier power plant” on May 30.

He said the board was not made aware of this failure until July 25, when Heastie provided a memo requesting funding.

Dean said $4 million in funding was requested.

But he said he could not in good conscience request $4 million to be spent on behalf of the Bahamian people with deficient supporting documentation.

So it seems we have been getting half the story on these various claims.

It just does not seem to be plausible that after years of power cuts, load shedding and a failing grid, just two people are to blame for our recent outages.

It is odd, insulting and unprofessional that the minister would engage himself in this level of finger pointing in regards to a few members of the board. All of the previous board members are professional people who deserve a certain level of respect and fair treatment.

After agreeing to serve, they did not deserve these unfortunate attacks on their reputations. Bannister surprised us in how he handled this affair, which has left many people thinking there are much larger issues at play that have not yet been brought to light.

Osborne, Dean and Thompson made an important observation in their August 22 statement.

They observed that members of the general public are now opining “that the defamatory reaction by the minister supports the reason that few individuals are willing to serve on national boards”.

“The other regret is to hear reactions from Bahamians living abroad that the minister’s remarks to humiliate private citizens confirmed their resolve to continue contributing to the brain drain and contribute their talents to other countries.”

MOU

It seems a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between BPL and Shell North America for a new generation and liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant was also a source of some consternation for the old board.

In the August 22 statement, Osborne, Dean and Thompson addressed the matter.

The first version of the MOU was issued to board members on June 28, 2018 by Heastie, according to the statement.

As directors were giving their input, Dean had put forward a number of questions which had been primarily ignored by the Technical Committee, the statement said. In seeking to have all board members’ views and the legal issues addressed, Osborne specifically asked that Dean’s queries be addressed along with a few posed by her.

“After noticing a delay in progress, she sought out the manager of legal about the urgency of finalizing the document and was informed that Director Rollins issued instructions to put the MOU on hold. This direction was given days before the agreed signing date with Shell and without the knowledge of the chair and other members of the board,” it added.

“Chair Osborne then issued an e-mail to Director Rollins inquiring on what basis the Shell MOU was put on hold to which a response was never received. A few days prior to Director Rollins’ issuance of the ‘on hold’ instructions, Minister Bannister issued a directive to Chair Osborne via Director Rollins to sign the MOU by end of the same day. Chair Osborne responded that all of the directors’ concerns and some other legal issues had not been settled and the document was not ready.”

A new board has been appointed. In a charge to the board on Monday, Bannister said the government has determined that BPL will enter into an agreement with Shell North America for the new plant at Clifton Pier and the board cannot change that.

“Your job now is to seek as quickly as possible to enter a memorandum of understanding with Shell,” he said.

BPL has been plagued by chronic issues over years. It is unfortunate that the previous board, which started out with such promise, ended up embroiled in controversy with the minister’s claims triggering an even messier spat. 

There is an urgent need for the newly incarnated board of BPL to get to work to address the critical power generation issues, but many Bahamians have lost confidence in Bannister’s ability to effectively handle BPL within his portfolio.

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