28 November 2013 | Will Green
The Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA) has suspended the firms for a range of reasons including submitting forged bid securities, works not completed on time and invoicing for work not carried out.
The suspensions range in duration from one to five years.
Among the firms is Amman Industrial Tools & Equipment Ltd, which has been suspended indefinitely for causing a $1.7 million loss to the government in connection with a contract to provide 70,000 bicycles.
In a statement the PPDA said: “The firms and their directors will no longer be allowed to participate in any public procurement process during the duration of their suspension.
“Some firms like Amman Industrial Tools & Equipment Ltd and their directors have been suspended indefinitely for causing $1.7 million financial loss to the Government of Uganda.”
The presidency of the southern African state said in a statement that Banda, who came to office in April 2012, “will announce a new cabinet in due course.” It did not elaborate.
The presidency had said on Wednesday that Banda would meet her cabinet the following day to discuss the financial scandal and who was responsible.
It did not disclose details of Thursday’s meeting, but a senior government official, who asked not to be named, said Banda told the cabinet that she had “lost faith” in them.
The scandal, known locally as “cash-gate”, forced the government to shut down its payment system last week so that it could investigate over $4 million that went missing, delaying the payment of salaries to teachers, nurses and doctors.
Banda, who faces an election next year, has won acclaim in the West for austerity measures and moves to bolster the economy of the aid-dependent, impoverished country.
But steps such as an IMF-backed devaluation of the kwacha currency have stoked inflation, raised the price of food for the rural poor and eroded Banda’s domestic support.
The police said that about 10 junior government officials had been arrested so far for suspected graft, and that they had recovered tens of thousands of dollars in cash from their car boots and homes.
A small group of protesters marched in the capital Lilongwe on Thursday and delivered a petition calling for the sacking of top officials, including Finance Minister Ken Lipenga, over the scandal. Lipenga has denied any wrongdoing. He was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.
Last week, envoys from eight Western donor nations, whose aid traditionally has accounted for about 40 percent of the state budget, asked Banda to deal with the alleged corruption at the treasury and investigate an attack on the budget director.
“These are worrying developments that potentially risk Malawi’s stability, rule of law and reputation,” the envoys said in a statement.
Budget director Paul Mphwiyo was shot last month, but survived the attack.
After the shooting, the government’s Anti-Corruption Bureau and police launched an investigation into the budget director and unnamed ministers over suspected graft, indicating the scandal extended beyond just a few junior officials.
“People have lost confidence in (Banda’s) leadership and the best thing she can do is to order the arrest of senior officials involved and ask her finance minister to resign,” Lazarus Chakwera, leader of the opposition MCP, said at a public rally over the weekend.
Malawi’s troubled economy has shown signs of improvement in the past few months with inflation that was once running over 30 percent easing slightly, while earnings from its main export tobacco are expected to double this year from 2012.
By Oscar Nkala
October 2, 2013
India’s Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) has closed its eight-year long corruption probe into South African arms manufacturer Denel following allegations that it paid kickbacks to Vara Associates, a company based in the Isle of Man, to help secure five deals between July 1999 and April 2005, to supply the Indian Army with 1 000 anti-material rifles and over 300 000 rounds of ammunition.
Indian defence procurement rules and the country’s Prevention of Corruption Act expressly forbid original equipment manufacturers who bid for contracts with the army from hiring any middlemen or intermediaries to influence or ‘swing’ the adjudication of the contracting process.
According to reports from the Indian capital New Delhi, the CBI dropped the case on Monday after eight of years of trans-national investigations in South Africa, the Isle of Man, Switzerland and the UK failed to prove the allegations levelled against Denel.
The probe started in June 2005, two months after the Indian government stopped all dealings with Denel amid allegations that the South African company had paid ‘commission’ to the value of 12.75 per cent of the total worth of the arms deals secured with the Indian Army to Vara Associates, based in the tax-haven Isle of Man, to ‘swing’ the five contracts in its favour.
The contracts involved the supply of 700 NTW-20 anti-material rifles (bunker-busting and light armour penetrating), knocked-down kits for another 300 rifles of the same make and 398 000 rounds of ammunition. According the CBI case opened in June 2005, allegations against Denel were that it had made the pay-offs to Vara Associates, accused by investigators of acting as an intermediary, disguised as technical assistance and consultancy fees.
In the course of its eight-year probe, the CBI sent requests for information to judicial and investigative authorities in the UK, South Africa, the Isle of Man and Switzerland which all reported that they could not find any evidence to support the charges against Denel.
Several employees of Vara Associates and the Indian Ministry of Defence were being probed alongside Denel on allegations of conniving with Vara Associates to swing the five contracts in question in favour of the South African company.
After the Denel deal fell through, India’s Ordnance Factory Tiruchirappalli began manufacturing the locally developed Vidhwansak multi-calibre anti-materiel rifle, which bears many similarities to the NTW-20. Available in 14.5 mm, 12.7 mm and 20 mm calibres, it has an effective range of approximately 2 000 metres.
29 February 2012 | Angeline Albert
As well as overseeing public purchasing, the agency will provide an independent forum to assess suppliers’ complaints. In addition, a code of conduct for public sector procurement officials will also be adopted.
The changes come as a result of the country’s Procurement Act of 2010, which gained assent from His Majesty King Mswati III last year. The act also disqualifies public sector workers and politicians from supplying government with goods and services.
In his budget speech, Sithole said: “Government understands that improving public procurement can generate savings without compromising services to the public. It is also an area prone to corruption. That is why we have a new procurement act. In 2012, the government will apply the changes required.”
The minister emphasized the need for stronger fiscal discipline in government by investing in cost-saving policies, improving procurement and public finance management and fighting corruption.
Johnson-Sirleaf, a Nobel peace laureate, has pledged to fight graft as the West African country strives to recover from a sporadic 14-year civil conflict that ended in 2003 and left its once-prosperous economy in tatters.
A presidency statement said Auditor-General Robert Kilby, who took office last year, was being dismissed for a clear conflict of interest due to his private business dealings.
Pearine Davis-Parkinson, director-general of the General Services Agency (GSA), was dismissed for approving contracts involving Kilby in violation of Liberian law.
Davis-Parkinson told a parliamentary committee last week the GSA had employed an accounting firm owned by Kilby to set up an asset tracking system for the government.
“Join me in our continued fight against corruption,” Johnson-Sirleaf said in a statement announcing the dismissals.
A recent audit of resource contracts by the accounting firm Moore Stephens showed that almost all the $8bn worth of resource contracts signed since 2009 violated Liberia’s laws and showed irregularities.
Johnson-Sirleaf told Reuters that the audit had been designed to highlight problems so that they could be addressed, and her government was taking action to do so.
She has forecast that economic growth, which has averaged 6.5% over the past four years, will hit double digits within two years as foreign investment starts to have an impact.
2 July 2013 | Adam Leach
Lack of attention to detail and poor market research by buyers are to blame for more than 99 out of every 100 public sector contracts in Uganda last year running over budget, according to the Inspector General of Government.
In its third annual report into corruption within government, the IGG found that the number of procurements that kept to budget had dropped to just 0.7 per cent of those let over the past year. It blamed purchasers for leading to unrealistic estimates of overall costs. The situation also appears to be deteriorating as in 2009, only half of contracts were found to have gone over their original budget.
The report said: “Price increase during execution, through change orders in specifications or cost, may be grounds for corruption. This is a significant red flag of a possible entry point of corruption and calls for integration of risk management into public procurement.”
The report, which covered contracts in 2012, also criticised public sector buyers for taking too long. It found that less than a third of procurements – 29 per cent – were completed when they were supposed to.
By Matthew Campbell, Jesse Riseborough & Franz Wild - May 9, 2013
BSG Resources Ltd., the diamond producer controlled by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, was among those firms that came calling starting in 2005. The perks allegedly offered: A gift of a $60,000 diamond-studded gold watch and the promise of a $2.5 million commission to Conte’s wife if BSGR got the mining license. In 2008, BSGR was awarded the license.
Today Conte is dead, three people are under arrest and Steinmetz’s $8.9 billion fortune is threatened. U.S. prosecutors are probing whether a man linked to BSGR paid Guinean officials as much as $12 million in bribes for obtaining mining rights to a portion of the site. Citing similar suspicions, the new Guinean government has said it might strip Steinmetz’s company of the license — putting at risk a $2 billion payment he’s due and the reputation of a key figure in the global trade in high-end diamonds.
“As a scion from a notable traditional diamond family, he grew up knowing that what makes a man is his reputation,” said Chaim Even-Zohar, the author of “The Steinmetz Diamond Story,” a book on the billionaire’s business. “My guess would be that he is deeply hurt.”
The allegations of payoffs are detailed in a 28-page report, obtained by Bloomberg, prepared by U.S. law firm DLA Piper. The firm was hired by Guinea at the recommendation of hedge fund billionaire George Soros, 82, who’s advising the government through his foundations. Soros, who regularly backs young democratic governments in eastern Europe and Africa, funded the initial DLA Piper investigation, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing a private issue. His aim was to provide legal counsel to the government that could match the resources of big mining companies, the person said.
Steinmetz and BSGR, based in Guernsey, deny wrongdoing in Guinea and describe themselves as victims of a conspiracy by current Guinea President Alpha Conde and Soros to revoke the firm’s mining license.
BSGR “became the victim of numerous extortion attempts by individuals who were seeking economic gains,” it said today in an e-mailed statement. “The modus operandi of these attempts involved at times the use of forged documentation, blackmail and harassment. BSGR is confident that its activities and position in Guinea will be fully vindicated.”
The 57-year-old Steinmetz’s troubles show the high stakes for resource firms as increasingly assertive African countries, backed by Western donors and governments, re-open mining contracts to hunt for past impropriety and win better terms for citizens. The probes have slowed development of the Guinea site, known as Simandou, whose mining rights are also held by companies including Rio Tinto Group (RIO) and Vale SA. The mountain-top site contains an estimated 26.5 billion metric tons of iron ore resources, said Paul Gait, a mining analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. in London.
“This is the most prospective, highest-grade deposit of as yet undeveloped iron ore in the world,” Gait said.
Born in Israel, Steinmetz grew up in the family diamond business, Steinmetz Diamond Group, founded by his father in 1940. The closely held company specializes in the largest and most valuable stones, among them the 203-carat Millennium Star Diamond unveiled by De Beers SA to mark the year 2000. New York-based Tiffany & Co. (TIF) loaned BSGR $50 million in 2011 to expand a mine in Sierra Leone. Steinmetz also supplies diamonds to New York-based Sotheby’s Holdings Inc. for the auction house’s product line.
The diamond group is valued at about $3 billion, accounting for the biggest portion of Steinmetz’s wealth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The family’s other interests include mining, oil, gas and real estate.
“In business he is very hard-nosed, maybe bordering on the ruthless — but always legitimate and fair,” said Even-Zohar of Steinmetz, whom he counts as a “good friend.”
The Simandou controversy traces back to 1997, when London-based Rio Tinto was granted a government license to explore the iron ore mine. In 2008, a few months before he died, Conte stripped Rio of half its license, claiming that it wasn’t developing the site quickly enough. The government then awarded it to BSGR for free, which is typical in the industry. The company began spending $160 million preparing the remote site for mining.
After 18 months, in 2010, BSGR agreed to sell 51 percent of the stake to Brazil’s Vale for $2.5 billion. Vale paid $500 million upfront and the two firms set up a joint venture to develop the site. The remaining $2 billion has not been paid.
“It was an extraordinary deal given its scale,” said John Meyer, an analyst with London-based SP Angel Corporate Finance LLP.
Vale has said it’s not implicated in the investigations.
A New York grand jury started its probe earlier this year into whether BSGR violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by delivering bribes, according to prosecutors. The law bars companies with American links from engaging in bribery abroad. A portion of the alleged payments were sent to the U.S., prosecutors said.
On April 25 the grand jury indicted Frederic Cilins, a French citizen, on charges of witness tampering and obstructing the Guinea investigation. Cilins was described by Guinean Justice Minister Christian Sow as an “agent” of BSGR.
In March he had met in Jacksonville, Florida, with a woman who was wearing a wire, and offered her more than $1 million in exchange for help burning documents related to the BSGR deal, according to the federal complaint.
The woman was Mamadie Toure, a widow of former president Conte who turned FBI informant in the hopes of reducing her own charges, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The DLA Piper report described Cilins as an intermediary for payments from BSGR to Conte’s wives and for “gifts” to members of the president’s family and government officials. Cilins denies wrongdoing. BSGR today said it sought to work with Cilins and two other men, through a company called Pentler Holdings, from 2006 because BSGR lacked a “permanent presence in Guinea.”
Pentler took a 17.7 percent stake in BSGR’s Guinea unit in March 2006 before it was bought out by BSGR two years later, which is when the arrangement with Cilins ended.
In U.S. federal prosecutions, lower-ranking defendants are often offered lighter sentences in exchange for agreeing to testify against figures more central to alleged crimes.
The Guinean government began reviewing the Simandou license soon after Alpha Conde took office in 2010 as the country’s first freely elected president. Based on the DLA Piper report and its own investigation, the government last month arrested two BSGR employees in connection with the probe: Ibrahima Sory Toure, Mamadie Toure’s brother who was director of external relations, and Issaga Bangoura, a security official. Both men have denied wrongdoing.
BSGR has fought back vigorously. It’s taken aim at Soros, Conde and Rio Tinto, which it says established a “covert special project group dedicated to committing espionage” and harassed its workers by buzzing them with low-flying helicopters.
BSGR has also sued its former public relations adviser, FTI Consulting, accusing it of abetting a “smear campaign” directed by Soros. Soros is “determined to ensure” that the mining license “was withdrawn/canceled” by the government of Guinea, according to the lawsuit. It cited alleged comments by FTI executives that Soros had a “personal obsession” about BSGR.
Soros rejects the claim that he engaged in a smear campaign and that he conspired to strip Steinmetz’s license, a spokesman for Soros Fund Management LLC said in an e-mailed statement.
FTI and Mark Malloch-Brown, its chairman for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, deny working against BSGR and said they will contest the claim. Rio Tinto declined to comment.
Conde, who took office promising to root out corruption, has attracted significant foreign backers. Soros’s Revenue Watch Institute, an offshoot of his Open Society Foundations, advised Conde on a new mining code and anti-corruption measures, the person familiar with his activities said. Global Witness, an anti-corruption group whose advisory board includes Soros’s son Alexander and which he funds, chronicles alleged wrongdoing in Guinea.
And former British Prime Minister Tony Blair established a relationship with Conde through his African Governance Initiative, which set up an office in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, to assist his presidency. Conde last year secured $2.1 billion in debt relief from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, a recognition of his move to civilian rule.
“The personal relationship between Mr. Soros, Mr. Blair, and Mr. Conde is really important, and has an impact in terms of reassuring leaders that we are going in the right direction,” Guinean Finance Minister Kerfalla Yansane said by phone. “At this juncture we need big support to challenge these companies, who can hire lawyers and PR firms and have resources we don’t.”
Guinea isn’t the only African state where deals with middlemen have led to controversy for international mining groups. Eurasian Natural Resources Corp., a London-based, Kazakh-backed mining firm, is being probed by U.K. prosecutors into allegations it paid bribes to win business in Kazakhstan and Africa. The company said on April 25 that it is cooperating with authorities. And countries including Ghana and Zambia are driving a harder bargain with mining firms, reviewing taxation and state-ownership clauses.
The stakes for getting Simandou mined are high for Guinea, whose population is about 11 million. It ranks 178th out of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators of poverty and health.
“The economic growth profile of the country is expected to completely be changed” by the mine, Yansane said.
Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has said the company, which says it has spent $2.3 billion at the site, is committed to developing its portion of Simandou. It predicted production would start in 2015.
BSGR has also said it’s committed to developing Simandou, and remaining in Guinea despite the corruption allegations.
The government realizes the Steinmetz controversy may spook the investors it needs to raiseliving standards, Yansane said. For that reason, “We want this problem resolved as quickly as possible,” he said. “We don’t want the name of the country to be on the front page of newspapers all the time.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Matthew Campbell in London email@example.com; Jesse Riseborough in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; Franz Wild in Johannesburg at email@example.com
- Steinmetz $9 Billion Fortune at Risk in Soros-Funded Bribe Probe – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Guinea Arrests Steinmetz Group Executives as U.S. Probe Widens (bloomberg.com)
- Steinmetz-Linked Probe Seen Spurring Race for $50 Billion Mine – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Corruption probe raises questions over Guinea mine’s future (uk.reuters.com)
- Labour peer accused of smearing mining magnate’s firm (guardian.co.uk)
- Billionaire Steinmetz sues ex-adviser over Soros link (theglobeandmail.com)
- Guinea detains official from Israeli mining company in corruption probe (haaretz.com)
What’s a cash-tight government to do when it wants to modernize a hospital, build a railway, or expand the power grid to reach underserved areas? It might explore outside, private sources of financing—that’s where public-private partnerships (PPPs) come in. The acronym has a promising ring to it, yet going back to the 1970s, its impact has been mixed. At their best, PPPs can provide rapid injections of cash from private financiers, delivery of quality services, and overall cost-effectiveness the public sector can’t achieve on its own.
But at their worst, PPPs can also drive up costs, under-deliver services, harm the public interest, and introduce new opportunities for fraud, collusion, and corruption. Our experience at the World Bank Integrity Vice Presidency is that because PPPs most often are geared toward providing essential public services in infrastructure, health and education, the integrity risks inherent in these sectors also transfer to PPPs.
On April 17, the Integrity Vice Presidency convened a public discussion on corruption in PPPs (pdf) bringing together finance, energy, and fairness-monitoring perspectives. Looking at the landscape, in the last eight years, 134 developing countries have implemented PPPs in infrastructure, and in the last decade the World Bank has approved some $23 billion lending and risk guarantee operations in support of PPPs.
Opening the event, World Bank Managing Director Sri Mulyani recounted examples from her previous life as Indonesia’s Minister of Finance. She reminded the audience that while fraud in PPPs can seem abstract, the quality, safety, and human costs are very real—such as when a bridge crumbles after only five years, though it was supposedly built to last 15.
CBS News State Department correspondent, Margaret Brennan, moderated the discussion and did not let panelists get away with being too polite. She tried to pinpanelists (pdf) down on which countries consistently faced the biggest corruption problem, and how we can fix it. As my colleague Rashad Kaldany, Vice President and COO at IFC said, “This happens everywhere in the world, all countries, bar none.” The problem is global, which is why the solutions also should be similarly global and applicable in diverse situations.
If there was a theme to the discussion, it was the desire to level the playing field with global standards on PPP transparency. Roger Bridges, president of Knowles Consulting in Canada, suggested the World Bank design a certification system for transparency and governance. Receiving that certification would be completely voluntary, but also demonstrate a credible commitment and capacity for internal governance. Roger said that ultimately the certification could be rolled into an overall grading system for PPP participants. Participants might, for example, receive 10 out of a possible total of 100 points for being certified. A carrot—not a stick.
Rashad suggested an initiative in the integrity area modeled on the Equator Principles. Start with a few, major international players who agree to standardized practices and principles in PPPs. Once established, media and civil society groups can help mobilize others to sign on, gradually expanding adherence to the principles until they become a broadly accepted norm of conduct.
Establishing new norms sounds like it could take forever, but attitudes and norms can change faster than you think—Paul Clifford said in the past 8 to 10 years he has seen “difficult conversations” with clients about conforming to the Equator principles’ environmental and social standards become accepted as “automatic.”
Corruption is deliberate, serious and bad business. Based on the discussion yesterday, I believe there would be broad support for what I like to call Global Integrity Principles. PPPs are inherently opaque and risky because they are often long-term, complex financial arrangements. Those risks can be reduced if the terms, costs, and benefits are made more understandable and accessible to governments, private parties, and consumers.
The questions we want to address at the World Bank are, specifically: How should integrity due diligence be adapted for PPPs? What do integrity principles in national PPP laws look like? What should regulators do to review concession and other related arrangements for red flags? Are additional disclosure requirements needed to flush out politically exposed persons? And finally, how do we obtain more effective public scrutiny of PPP deals throughout the PPP project cycle?
No doubt, we have a number of difficult and complex issues to sort out. The way forward is to embrace optimism, even though in 1911 Ambrose Bierce described it as an intellectual disorder.
- Public to bear costs of state-guaranteed profits in LRT privatization (bulatlat.com)
- Public-private partnerships a winning strategy (miamiherald.com)
- PPP Law Panel: ‘The state needs the investor and not the other way round’ (dailynewsegypt.com)
- Corruption, time and indispensability (kaieteurnewsonline.com)
- Ministry of Finance promotes PPP agreements (dailynewsegypt.com)
- Japan bank targets PPP acceleration (vietnamnews.vn)
- Stephen King: PPPs need better ways to handle risk (nzherald.co.nz)
By: Natalie Greve
Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel has said that all the major South African civil engineering and construction companies currently active in the sector have been involved in infrastructure-related collusion and price-fixing.
“This problem is huge and pervasive in the infrastructure space,” he said at the inaugural Project and Construction Management Professions Conference on Thursday.
The State reportedly lost billions of rands through large-scale collusion and price-fixing by private sector companies during several past infrastructure projects, which instigated investigations by the Competition Commission into several completed public build projects.
These enquiries, which included investigations into the Gautrain project and several stadium developments, uncovered substantial evidence of collusion and price fixing by private sector participants, the Minister noted.
In cases involving critical projects, a number of companies came forward to acknowledge their involvement in the unlawful practises, Patel added.
“We have received about 400 admissions of incidents of collusion by companies in the sector,” he commented.
South African Council for the Project and Construction Management Professions (SACPCMP) president Professor Raymond Nkado said he was “shocked” that registered members of the SACPCMP had been found to have been involved.
“As a council, we have decided that we might take additional disciplinary action against these [companies],” he said.
Based on the evidence gleaned from the commission’s investigations, which indicated the pervasiveness of the involvement by private companies, it was decided to introduce a “fast-track settlement process”, which would avoid lengthy legal processes that could persist for up to eight years, and which Patel said could potentially distract the project management process.
“We approached the industry and said we were prepared to put a voluntary disclosure process on the table, which would bring this to a conclusion expeditiously. In return, what is required is full disclosure, a commitment to end the cartels and an acceptance that the law must take its course,” he explained.
Once the disclosure process had been completed and admission of guilt received, the commission would then determine appropriate fines or penalties related to the value of the project.
Several such processes between the Competition Commission and private companies were currently under way, with most in the final stages, where the extent of the penalty was being determined in cases where organisations were “improperly enriched”.
Patel added that the first company to come forward and admit collusion would receive preferential treatment in terms of the penalty levied.
“We also take into account the extent of cooperation, so that there is an incentive to come clean. However, these companies will still have to pay substantial penalties as prescribed by the Competition Act,” he cautioned.
In cases where investigations implicated public servants, this information would be referred to law enforcement agencies.
There would be public disclosure once settlements had been reached.
Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi added that the findings of the investigation challenged the common perception that corruption and malgovernance was only pervasive in the public sector.
“The opinion that only government has such problems has been proved incorrect. There are huge problems in the private sector and we must expose them,” he said, encouraging the private sector to engage in “self reflection”.
Nxesi noted that key to the prevention of corruption in infrastructure projects was the establishment of a strong financial system, transparent procurement processes and incentivisation.
Moreover, Patel advised that the competition authorities had used the findings of the investigations to identify networks and channels used by companies in collusive practises and had identified the lead players and managers.
This would be used to develop internal preventive controls to reduce the opportunity for future collusion.
In addition, Patel said the CEO of any company awarded an infrastructure tender would be required to sign an “integrity pact” that committed them to competitive and noncorrupt practises and to create a culture in their organisation in which anticompetitive behaviour was discouraged.
“This will require executives to commit personal responsibility and liability,” he said.
The integrity pact was currently being piloted in a number of infrastructure tenders and would be fully implemented throughout the course of this year.
Patel said it was critical that the new phase of national infrastructure development not be characterised by similar high levels of collusion and price-fixing.
“Companies will have to make an important calculation. In the past, they thought collusion was a no-brainer; that they would secure the contract and walk away with the money. Now they see that we have developed the investigatory capacity to track the evidence down and to bring companies to book. That is the most important breakthough for us,” he said.