SBF in court battle to regain fuel licence 

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Director of SBF International Inc., Dorwain Bess

…Director, Dorwain Bess tells of his experience doing business in Guyana 
…says cancelling of license by GEA was unreasonable, irregular and improper  

By Lisa Hamilton  

Director of SBF International Inc., Dorwain Bess, who was once involved in the importation of and wholesale of fuel, has stated that his perception of doing business in Guyana has changed following a series of unfortunate experiences which culminated in the cancellation of his licence to operate and court matters with the Guyana Energy Agency (GEA).

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Bess was born in Belladrum, West Coast Berbice and later migrated to the United States. In his adulthood, while visiting Guyana, he said that he realised that there were many persons who were trying to transport fuel from overseas but were relatively unsuccessful. As such, he decided to invest in the local fuel business. Bess applied and the requirements to become a licensed fuel trader were presented to him. It included meeting the stipulations of the GEA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) and others. He also needed to be registered with a refinery to prove to the GEA that he was able to purchase fuel legally. This registration was acquired through the Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago Limited (Petrotrin) and Staatsolie in Suriname.

The storage facility in Linden, Region Ten

By 2015, about four or five years later, he completed these requirements and the company began trading. Bess said that he faced many uphill battles and a high level of scrutiny of his operations by the GEA as he worked towards the frequent importation of fuel. “It was never a smooth road for me. I don’t think I’ve ever brought a vessel into this country without having to fight tooth and nail to get the product released to me. Every shipment of fuel, there was a challenge. There was one point that I would’ve had to report every movement of the vessel…I was basically on probation the whole time. I was under the microscope,” he said.

Another challenge he faced was that though his licence was one for petroleum products, he was restricted to importing only diesel fuel when most other licenses were able to import all petroleum products. Though SBF applied to expand to other petroleum products such as kerosene and gasoline, it was never granted the same.

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

To store the fuel he imported, Bess rented a storage facility from Omai Gold Mine located in Christianburg, Linden, Region Ten. He also rented three gas stations and a temporary distribution site in Friendship, as well as Buckhall and Bartica. In June 2020, a spillage occurred at the storage facility in Linden. Bess said that the incident was an accident and the EPA did its duty by issuing a fine and SBF International Inc. was given time to clean up the spill. The GEA, however, contends that there were other cases of spills that went unreported amounting to approximately 59,000 litres of diesel. However, SBF contends these such statements are being made without proof. 

There was also another case in June 2020 whereby the GEA made attempts to mark/test the fuel on an occasion but the landlord at the storage facility in Linden refused — an act SBF International Inc. was held accountable for. Bess believes that, in such a case, the landlord should have been made to face the penalty of depriving access which goes contrary to tenancy law, as opposed to SBF being blamed.

Cancellation of License

Fuel marking involves adding covert chemical markers to domestic fuels and testing for such markers in the fuel at different import points to ensure that all gasoline, diesel and kerosene are at a known concentration. Fuel marking helps prevent fuel smuggling and adulteration.

What was considered the third strike was when the GEA — following a request for an updated lease in relation to the storage facility — accused SBF of submitting an altered lease with dates not in keeping with information from Omai which reportedly told the GEA that it had no intention of renewing the lease with SBF. In fact, from its investigations, the GEA stated that SBF’s lease with Omai had expired since March 2018.

However, SBF maintains that a lease existed with Omai and that it has letters and receipts to prove such. Bess noted that the lease in question was updated in November 2018 and, subsequently, the landlord collected rent from that period onward until a Notice to Quit was sent in 2020. He put forward that if it is that there was no existing lease between the two, then the landlord would not have been accepting payments over the period of time.

Subsequently, Bess said that he received a chain of letters from the GEA, including a ‘Notice Before Cancellation’ of his license, due to the allegation of an altered lease.  The letter, received on August 13, 2020, detailed the findings of the GEA’s investigation and requested that the Company ‘show cause’ within 30 days as to why its license should not be cancelled. Bess said that he consulted with lawyers and did the same before the said date. While these matters were ongoing, SBF was also constructing its own bulk storage facility which Bess hoped would be completed soon and be used for the storage of fuel. During this period, the landlord was reportedly interested in cutting ties with SBF International Inc. as another lease was pending which could result in greater income.

Bess said that he requested more time from the landlord because the volume of fuel in his tanks was not easy to liquidate quickly because the country just entered into the COVID-19 pandemic. The landlord refused and reportedly suggested moving the fuel to the vessel but Bess said that he explained that while the vessel may be licensed to deliver it does not mean it is licensed to store fuel.

“He [the landlord] called me back and said I was given approval for me to put almost a million gallons of fuel into a vessel that didn’t have a license because he wanted those tanks. I disagreed because, me knowing the straight line that I have to walk on, that would be another reason for me to be accused of breaking the law. So, I was at the point where I would prefer him to take me to court if he has to to make sure that the other facility is completed before I move the fuel,” he said.  Ultimately, the landlord agreed and allowed for the company to store fuel there for more than three months.

THREATS AND BARGAINS

The first page of the letter sent by Bess to Prime Minister, Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips on September 23, 2020 with approval hand written on the letter.

This was also around the period of Guyana’s 2020 General and Regional Elections and Bess said that a proposition was put to him by an individual as if it were necessary for the survival of his business because of the political changes coming.

“It was brought to my attention that I needed to make some changes with my company…I was approached by someone and that someone would have said to me — I’m saying this because I believe there is a move afoot to dispossess me of my company — that I have to make some changes because obviously there’s going to be some changes. I asked what the changes were and he went on to say, you’ll have to give up 85 percent of your company,” Bess said, opting not to name the individual.

Summarising the events which followed, Bess said that there was a follow-up meeting with the individual to sign over 70 percent of his company and threats were also issued. He said that he played along with what was occurring and agreed, verbally, with the intention to gather evidence.

The same day, a document was drafted to seal the deal. When he was told of the swift developments and with no intention of actually signing the document, Bess said that he became defensive and the individual issued calculated threats. Bess said that when he sent someone to uplift the documents to further avoid contact, some of the threats became reality when the individual sent to uplift the document was arrested.

Bess then visited the police station as well and was kept there for some time and later released with the documents because the police allegedly stated that the situation wasn’t what they perceived it to be — a Ponzi scheme. “I am of the view that that person wanted me to believe so much that all the threats that he made that would have happened was real, that he decided to start what he needed to start…that Monday morning, I called a board meeting and I made some decisions. I was reminded again that because of me doing this the roof is going to cave in because of where this message came from. I don’t know whether it was true or a lie but the roof actually caved in, just like he told me,” Bess said.

CANCELLATION AND COURT

Shifting back to matters relating to the GEA, the SBF International Inc. Director said that the company received a notice from the GEA on August 13, 2020, to ‘show cause’ within 30 days as to why the company’s license should not be cancelled. Bess said that he consulted with lawyers and did the same before the said date.

Prior to the receipt of the ‘show cause’ notice, SBF had ordered and paid part for a shipment of 791,000 litres of fuel to the country that arrived on September 2, 2020.  When SBF International Inc. attempted to pay the taxes, Bess said that the GRA denied this request noting that it received communication from the GEA that the company was disbarred from entering into any fuel transactions.  Bess said that he questioned this because the cancellation date had not yet arrived which meant that he still possessed a valid licence. The undischarged shipment was causing the company to incur demurrage charges of US $5,000 per day and other damages.

Then, on September 14, 2020, the GEA wrote to SBF to alert the company that its Importing Wholesale License had been cancelled.  Even though SBF, through its attorney, had responded to the GEA within the 30-day period. With the fuel still unclaimed, to receive it Bess wrote to Prime Minister, Brigadier (Ret’d) Mark Phillips on September 23, 2020, for permission to pay taxes on the fuel and to discharge and wholesale the fuel in question. Approval was granted the following day and approval also then came from the GEA, which took note of the correspondence with the Prime Minister, and the GRA was duly informed.

SBF has since applied for licence renewal to the GEA which has not been granted.

On February 17, 2021, SBF filed a statement of claim to the High Court against the GEA and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the GEA, Mahender Sharma which contested that prohibiting SBF’s importation of fuel to Guyana was against the Petroleum and Petroleum Products Regulations 2014 and that cancelling of SBF’s license was unreasonable, irregular and improper and the decision should be quashed.

Months later, on April 14, 2021, a Complaint Without Oath was made against SBF by Sharma at the Georgetown Magistrate’s Court for being in breach of Regulation 4(2)(a) of the Petroleum and Petroleum Products Regulations 2014. The complaint stated that between September 28 to December 27, 2020, SBF International Inc. conducted the business of a wholesaler of petroleum and petroleum products selling approximately 14,000 litres of gasoline and approximately 416,000 litres of diesel to Guyana Industrial Minerals Inc. (GINMIN) without authority to do so by license.

Apart from the complaint, the GEA, in letters to SBF, had contended that a Prohibition Notice dated June 22, 2020, was issued to SBF by the EPA under which all operations related to fuel storage should be ceased. The GEA also stated that, by way of letter on March 4, 2020, that authorisation from the EPA would be required to continue the transfer of fuel and noted that SBF made an application to the EPA but it was not privy to the response at the time.

However, SBF has subsequent approval from the Prime Minister and the GEA in September 2020 to support the one-time discharge and wholesale of 791,000 litres of fuel. He told this news entity that the fuel aforementioned was aboard the shipment he received permission from the Prime Minister to discharge and wholesale. However, the matters are now before the court for a legal and final judgement.

Over the years, SBF has contributed close to two billion dollars in taxes and provided employment to some 300 persons thereby positively impacting their families which amounts to approximately 1,000 individuals. SBF’s employees experienced a loss of income with the cancellation of the company’s license. “To see what is transpiring is very mind-boggling,” Bess said, contending that several businesses are obtaining fuel licenses without meeting the necessary requirements while he continues to face resistance for his efforts to meet all requirements.

Bess told the newspaper that these events have not only affected him financially and mentally but his perception of doing business in Guyana. “I’m Guyanese and to know that I have left Guyana, went abroad, worked for as long as I have, acquired the first world knowledge experience, brought it back here to share and to be part of the development of Guyana, that has to be frustrating,” Bess said.

“To be able to develop myself in a first world country the way I did, and to come back here to be the first person to pioneer outside of these franchise companies, it’s definitely heartrending because I don’t think it should only bother me, it should bother every Guyanese. I’m not the only 43-year-old in Guyana today that’s an entrepreneur. What if you or anyone else gets up tomorrow morning and develops what I have done and it’s going to be taken away from you because of whatever reason? Who would want that?”



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