My heart goes out to Wilfred Espinet, the latest victim in this Naipaulian tragi-comedy we call life in Trinidad and Tobago.
He did not have to respond to the call to do “public service” and take on the biggest problem in the public sector since Caroni (1975) Ltd. He didn’t have to face the most powerful trade union in the country, with its known tactics of intimidation and personal denigration, or the political Opposition with its snide remarks and superficial critiques. He didn’t have to try to restructure a bloated, inefficient company that was not performing and was potentially an albatross on the Exchequer. But he did, when he could have been enjoying his grandchildren or a cruise in the Mediterranean.
Now, the ritual platitudes and insincere paeans notwithstanding, he has been rather unceremoniously turfed out because in a State-owned enterprise, the principles of corporate governance do not apply and the provisions of the Companies Act in respect of the duties of directors are set aside when it is convenient to do so.
While Espinet was there, I entertained a glimmer of hope that Petrotrin might be successfully restructured, though deep down, I felt it was already too late. Espinet is nothing if not determined, and he is able, like all good leaders, to attract capable people to his cause. His perseverance allowed him to get quite far, doing much of the heavy lifting and the dirty work. But at the end of the day, a State enterprise director in this picaroon society is embedded in a political system which can be capricious, petty, ruthless and short-sighted.
Interfering intravenously, as Martin Daly describes it, is compulsive. The power of the board, the duties of the directors must be subordinated to politically motivated decisions and dictates which are deemed to always be right and in the public interest, simply because those decisions emanate from the duly elected Government. “And who elected you?” they would ask. This righteousness is maintained despite egregious decisions such as World GTL, Tidco road paving, resumption of flights to London by CAL, restarting TTT, and the list goes on and on.
And if that doesn’t get you, you might well find yourself at the receiving end of a lawsuit for “negligence” from an incoming board of directors when governments change and perceived supporters of the previous administration are pursued and persecuted, forcing them to incur significant legal costs at personal expense. Ask Prof Ken Julien and the eTecK and UTT directors! When that happens, do not look for help from those who would have appointed you, and you will have to mount your defence without access to company records and board minutes. And it will not avail you in the court to protest, “But I told the minister/cabinet!”.
It doesn’t end there. Once you’ve become a director of a State board, you are now a “politically exposed person”, a PEP, and your bankers and insurers are obliged to give your transactions and those of your family and close relatives extra scrutiny. Applications for visas to certain countries require you to disclose your PEP status. Further, as a “person in public life” you must file those onerous returns annually with the Integrity Commission, although the collection and filing of those returns are an exercise in futility, an utter waste of time and resources, whose only purpose now it would seem is to try to embarrass the hundreds of persons in public life who fail to comply on time by publishing their names in the newspapers.
When I ask professionals why they would want to go on a State board, they tell me it is because they “want to give back to the country” or “to do public service”. This is highly laudable, though one suspects that, for some at least, status-seeking and the scent of power are as powerful motivators as public service. But most are naive about politics and how the Public Service operates and therefore have no idea of the costs and the risks they run when they become a State board director. Others, the cronies and party hacks, serve willingly wherever and whenever because their party is in power, and loyalty to the party trumps good governance and the best interest of the company. A former attorney-general told assembled State board directors that, indeed, their duty of loyalty was owed to the government of the day. Forget the Companies Act.
Espinet joins prominent, independent private sector persons like Penny Commissiong and Arthur Lok Jack, who went to do public service and ended up thrown under the bus. My advice to independent, professional people who think they wish to serve on State boards is, “Think, research, think again, and don’t think it can’t happen to you!”.
—Dr Terrence Farrell is a former deputy Central Bank governor and former chairman of the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB).