ALFRED Sears misled Parliament.
It has taken some time to reach the moment when the Minister of Works and Utilities has admitted that fact.
The matter is simple.
On October 26, Mr Sears was asked whether he had received any briefings on carrying out hedging transactions at BPL.
The question was important because not carrying out those transactions appears to have cost the public purse a significant sum of money by not buying fuel at a lower rate before prices soared. That extra cost is being felt in our fuel bills already.
Mr Sears said: “Not only was I not provided, but what this honourable member for Marco City [Michael Pintard] has failed to disclose - is that what was on the table was a rate reduction bond to borrow $500m.”
He added: “I can say for the record that no draft Cabinet paper prepared by the honourable member or any of his colleagues has been presented to me.”
However, FNM leader Mr Pintard then tabled a letter written by then CEO of BPL Whitney Heastie discussing the hedge programme.
Mr Sears said that he did not recall receiving the document, and that it was only a description, not a recommendation.
And so begins the slow turn of his tale from a denial to the admission on the front page of today’s Tribune.
He said last month that actually there was indeed a Cabinet paper on the need to execute fuel hedging trades, which was addressed to the Minister of Finance, and that the ministry decided to reject the recommendation.
He said: “The Ministry of Finance in October (2021) made a determination that the proposal that the honourable member [Pintard] is referring to was not supported.”
It was deemed that the move “was not in the interest of the country at that time”.
The Prime Minister, Philip “Brave” Davis, was also caught up in the concerns about whether the House had been misled.
On the same day as Mr Sears made his statement, Mr Davis said: “No recommendation came to me, and the Minister for Works said there was no such information coming to [him] - There was no such recommendation that I was aware of.”
He added: “I received no advice or recommendations, saw no papers in that respect. I never saw any. None reached my desk, and as far as I am aware, it did not reach, the minister will speak for himself, that never happened.”
Then, when Mr Sears said a Cabinet paper had been addressed to the Ministry of Finance, Mr Davis said: “I saw no documents about that – I had no knowledge of it. He (Alfred Sears) said the Ministry of Finance had knowledge of this. That’s a big ministry. It was not me.”
And now, months on from his original statement to the House, Mr Sears says that actually he did mislead Parliament.
He said he did indeed receive a briefing on the fuel hedging scheme, in an email on October 9, 2021 – though he did not recall having done so when first asked about it.
He said: “I did not recall having received that e-mail. And I stated that I wrote BPL, and I also wrote the PS (permanent secretary), and I asked: ‘Could you refresh me and did I receive it?’ I didn’t get a response, a confirmation.
“For several weeks, I was in New York, and I took a day and I brought my old iPad. I went back personally and did a search, and I found that I did receive - I think it was on October 9 - I did receive an e-mail with the attachments. It would have gone on to be sent on to the financial secretary, which is normal because they are the technical review in terms of financial clearance. It really was to access a loan which is managed by the Ministry of Finance.”
Mr Sears said that, having realised his mistake, he had a duty to correct the record in the House of Assembly. “The Leader of the Opposition made the allegation again,” he said. “I could not sit there, knowing that the first representation I had made was not correct and, as is my duty, I got up and I stated on the record of the House of Assembly that I had done a search of my e-mail and I had found the e-mail of October 9, 2021, and the response of the financial secretary.
“I stated it on the record because it was incumbent upon me to correct the previous statement that I had made.”
Mr Pintard has previously called for Mr Sears to resign over his misstatements – and now Mr Sears agrees that he did indeed mislead Parliament.
Regardless of the decisions that were made – that is another matter – Parliament needs to rely upon the information that is being provided to it in order to properly do the business of governance.
Mr Sears says he forgot about an email relating to a matter that involved a decision involving sums worth tens of millions of dollars.
Upon the accusation being made that he misled Parliament, it was some considerable time before he admitted having done so. He did not go right away to check his information, he did not provide a response with the urgency that such an accusation merits. And he was wrong.
The correct course of action for misleading Parliament is to resign. Whether one misled Parliament intentionally or not – in this case Mr Sears says it simply slipped his mind – the act of having done so in the Westminster system would normally lead to a resignation. That is the convention. It is the right thing, and the decent thing, and we now wait to see whether Mr Sears will follow the tradition.