A VEIL OF INCORPORATION OR A SHROUD OF SECRECY?

SOES INCORPORATED UNDER THE COMPANIES ACT

State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) in Sri Lanka come in a bewildering variety of forms, ranging from departments, authorities, boards and state corporations, to limited companies. The traditional forms are the first four, which are usually created by a special act of parliament. The advantage of this is that it creates direct accountability of the SOE to the parliament.

When SOEs are formed through acts of parliament, they are subject to the stringent financial and administrative regulations of the state and are obligated to report to the parliament.

The Companies Act is intended for use by private businesses and the principal accountability is to shareholders. There is no obligation under the Act to comply with the regulatory and accountability mechanisms that govern state entities.

The Auditor General reports that, unless the majority of shares are owned by the government, even the audit of limited companies is beyond their purview. Therefore, the recent trend for increasing numbers of SOEs to be incorporated under the Companies Act instead of by an act of parliament is unusual. A list of 452 state entities includes 149 incorporated as limited companies, a fact that the Auditor General (AG) has drawn attention to in his Annual Report of 2016:
“In recent years, it was observed that a considerable number of limited liability companies have been incorporated under the Companies Act by certain Public Enterprises and the universities even sometimes without the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers.”

Another trend is the evolution of complex corporate structures within SOEs, some having multiple subsidiaries and associate companies. The list includes 100 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries. Is there a rationale for this? A perusal of the COPE and Auditor General’s reports reveals some systemic problems (examples are highlighted in the boxed sections).

Even within the private sector, complex corporate structures present governance challenges as risks can lie undetected within subsidiaries/associates. These risks, if left unchecked, can expose the group to significant liabilities, and the same is true for SOEs. Vigilance of subsidiary activity is essential for risk management and compliance, but as the AG notes:
“However, it was observed that most of the Public Corporations do not exercise their controlling power over the subsidiaries although their members constitute the majority of the Board of Directors” (Auditor General, Annual Report, 2016)

A classic example is the Ceylon Electricity Board, which has some 22 associate companies, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries. Such structures are difficult to penetrate, obscure transparency and leave room for corruption.

The subsidiaries may provide goods and services to other companies within the group via transfer pricing arrangements instead of open tendering. When the directors or key management of these companies are also employees or associates of the parent body, it gives rise to serious conflicts of interests that are difficult to avoid; a point highlighted by the first COPE report.

The failure to disclose details of related party transactions (with subsidiaries) was one of the reasons that compelled the AG to qualify the audit opinion on the financial statements of Ceylon Electricity Board for 2013.

The Ceylon Electricity Board had eight contracts with LTL Project (Pvt) Ltd , a related party to build transmission lines and strengthen infrastructure. The value of four contracts amounted to Rs5.9 billion; the values of the others were not disclosed in the report. Contrast this with the governance of listed companies. Local listed companies are now required to have a Related Party Transactions Review Committee made up of independent directors who must review and report on related party transactions to the Board. The CEB has failed to disclose details even to its auditors! In some cases, it appears that complex group structures have evolved to conceal transactions, hide assets, divert revenue streams or simply enrich connected parties; the very reason such structures are also encountered in instances of money laundering. Some selected examples appear below.

If we leave aside for the moment the government accountability mechanisms and simply view SOEs as businesses, how good is their governance record? The critical tests for a private company are the auditors’ report and timely publication of reports. An analysis in the COPE report of 2014 showed that, of 46 institutions that were reviewed, only 15% had unqualified or clean audit reports. A full 75% of reports were qualified, while 4% were disclaimers of opinion and 6% failed to submit accounts. Things were not much better in 2017. The AG notes that, of 218 entities reviewed, only 80 (36%) received ‘clean’ audit opinions.

These are shocking revelations and the problems appear to be systemic. The complex structures created under the Companies Act seem to provide a shroud of secrecy that hampers oversight and enables systematic corruption. A select list of examples is listed here. The government should shine some light on the dark corners of these SOEs, first by compiling a full list of entities and second by implementing basic regular reporting structures to establish a minimum degree of control.

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BOX 1

Electricity Piracy

THE ARBITRARY NATURE OF THE SUBSIDIARY AND SUB-SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES OPERATING UNDER THE CEYLON ELECTRICITY BOARD AND THEIR LACK OF RESPONSIBILITIES TO THE BOARD

The Committee on Public Enterprises undertook a study on the members of the Boards of Directors of 20 subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board and observed that the same person represents the Boards of Directors of many of those companies.

For example, the Committee observed that the chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board is a member of Boards of Directors of 6 subsidiary companies, which enables him to take different positions in regard to the same issue, thus jeopardizing the main aim of the Board to provide electricity to the consumers at an affordable price. The following traits of the subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board were identified: Taking steps to retain a majority of dividends in those companies The Ceylon Electricity Board has no control over those companies. It was observed that the meetings of the Board of Directors of those companies are not represented by an official of the ministry or the Treasury. Those institutions are informed only of matters of specific importance Even though the Ceylon Electricity Board holds a majority of shares of these companies, they are reluctant to be responsible to the Board.

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BOX 2

At Arm’s Length?

PEOPLE’S BANK: CONSTRUCTION WORK WORTH RS1.9 BILLION BY SUB-SUBSIDIARIES

The People’s Leasing Property Development Company, a sub-subsidiary company of People’s Bank that was established through the People’s Leasing Finance Company, has made 13 construction works worth Rs1.96 billion.

An unusual payment of Rs11,000 per square foot, exceeding the ordinary payment of Rs6,000 per square feet, was made in the case of these construction works. Further procurement processes have not been followed, and a Bill of Quantities has not been prepared.

The chairman has stated that a decision has been taken not to award construction contracts to this company at the moment and to carry out construction work by People’s Bank itself.

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BOX 3

Unauthorised Formation Of Subsidiaries To Perform Services For The Group?

THE FOLLOWING FOUR PRIVATE COMPANIES WERE FORM ED UNDER THE ROAD DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY:

1. Maganeguma Emulsion Production Company (Pvt.) Limited
2. Maganeguma Consultancy and Project Management Services Company (Pvt.) Limited
3. Maganeguma Road Construction Equipment Company (Pvt.) Limited
4. Expressway Transport (Pvt.) Company

“It was discovered that neither the ministry nor the authority possessed any information regarding the methodology that had been adopted in establishing the aforesaid companies as per the decision taken by the Cabinet. It was further discovered that share certificates and records of minutes were not available, and that annual general meetings had not been conducted.”

COPE requested a report from the Attorney General around all matters related to the ownership of these four companies, on the matters that should be examined at ministry level and on the significant matters that should be examined in a criminal investigation. (COPE Report, 2014)

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BOX 4

Dud Number

SRI LANKA TELECOM’S RS108 MILLION ACQUISITION OF SKY NETWORK LTDv

“Even though Sri Lanka Telecom had purchased 75% of shares of Sky network Ltd. for Rs108 million to obtain the frequency required for the continuation of service related to WiMax technology, the company had been closed down after a couple of years with no adequate business activities done on the ground that the technology had become obsolete. The transaction looks suspicious as the said company, which had been formed in 2006, had carried out no business activities other than retaining a frequency until it was purchased by SLT in 2008. It was also revealed that Rs10,468,000 had been paid as director fees during the period in which the company did not function and the person who had been paid as such had happened to be a director at Sky network Ltd”. (Page ix) (COPE Report 2014)

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BOX 5

Wholesale No Transparency

REFUSAL TO SUBMIT ACCOUNTS OF SUBSIDIARIES TO AUDITORS

“It was revealed that account details of C.W.E. Construction and C.W.E. Securities had not been submitted to the Auditor General despite reminders being sent and replies to only 13 out of the 26 audits queries had been submitted to the Auditor General.” (3rd COPE report p7). COPE also notes an instance of selected employees drawing two sets of salaries, from CWE and its subsidiaries (p10).