If former Trinidad Petroleum Holdings Company (TPHC's) chairman Wilfred Espinet had a dollar every time someone demanded his resignation during his turbulent two-year tenure, his net worth may have been higher than estimated.
By yesterday calls had morphed into declarations of vindication on his removal by Government. Still, there may be issues regarding his replacements on Petrotrin successor company boards—attorney Michael Quamina and HDC chairman Newman George.
Quamina who meets TPHC's management on Monday, was attorney for Prime Minister Keith Rowley (regarding "US bank account" allegations), Camille Robinson-Regis (bank withdrawal issues), Marlene McDonald (writing the Integrity Commission on status of investigations), Team Rowley (in 2018 PNM elections), the Works Ministry (on Curepe Interchange issues).
In December 2015 PNM's Maxie Cuffie described George as Rowley's "friend" (sic) and assistant campaign manager for the 2015 polls.
For Espinet, however, duties as Government's "frontman" for Petrotrin's restructuring have ended, days shy of a year after the August 28, 2018, date when Espinet confirmed 1,700 Petrotrin workers would be retrenched—first of the varying figures.
He'd have appeared to possess the necessary business savvy and strength to handle rerouting an entrenched segment of the national economy, confronting Oilfield Workers Trade Union on it and severing the mainstay of almost 10,000 workers.
Turns out Espinet's much-touted private sector business approach didn't adequately outfit him for being hatchetman regarding T&T's largest public-sector energy company—a century-old institution to which generations had emotional ties and whose future was a major political issue.
Handler help was inserted into what became national debate after Espinet's helmsmanship. To some, however, his signature statement remains, "All! All! All...! regarding numbers being retrenched. In October 2018 he was muzzled by Petrotrin lawyers after criticising the Industrial Court. Whether living abroad properly assisted him in understanding how the closure affected citizens, he did the job as he saw fit, given the mandate for a profitable entity.
That Government had to enter the process repeatedly to clarify issues—including when his statements contradicted theirs—is as much part of Espinet's history, as is OWTU's contempt for his work.
After an August 2018 meeting with Petrotrin's board, OWTU's Ancel Roget warned "...(We'll) take away the jobs of the PNM Government...and that's not a threat old man, that's a promise.”
While Imbert and Khan praised Espinet's restructuring, their statements also signalled Heritage isn't on par regarding production and staffing. Speaking loudest was Imbert's argument against ailing Heritage CEO Mike Wylie's retention while he continued cancer treatment in the US for the next six months—a position Espinet defended.
While Khan and Imbert initially seemed at odds on whether there'd be a temporary replacement for Wylie (Khan's statement) or permanent one (Imbert's quick correction), Khan didn't disagree.
Wylie who arrived on August 2018, was on the job up to June before going overseas—ten months into his three-year contract. With his (US)$450,000 annual salary plus housing, transportation and health perks, consideration of his exit package may include whether he was incapable of fulfilling the contract. It remains ahead whether he'll be paid for the part and whether Government pays his US medical bills. His family who relocated from Texas last year returned with him.
This, after high hopes for Wylie's intervention. In a 2018 Sunday Guardian interview with this writer (his first), Wylie said he empathised with Petrotrin workers since he'd watched his parents struggle after losing oil industry jobs in the 1980s. He'd detailed how the Petrotrin exploration/production job he'd applied for morphed into Espinet's offer to head Heritage, and his big plans.
Uncannily, Wylie also said, "My interest was to come here and do something meaningful towards the end of my career. This isn't a three-year assignment, this is a job—this is my last job..."
The Espinet experience has revealed the challenges of operating Government's state enterprises as businesses, alongside political concerns—aspects which don't always mesh—and the selection of boards which can handle both counts. If not finessed, while businessmen like Espinet have something to return to after public service, governments will have to strive doubly to return.