FINANCE BY DAVID WALKER ACCOUNTANT & DATABASE EXPERT
In our wonderful country, it has been disheartening to witness the unrelenting failure of so many of our institutions. Our gatekeepers have disappeared from the battlefield and we are left defenceless against the corrupt, the incompetent and the maligned. It is widely recognised that improvement in our circumstances can only be achieved when our gatekeepers, our validating elites, return to full and effective operations.
Why is almost every agency that engages in transactions with public funds allowed to operate without effective audits for years on end? Why are those with suitable connections allowed to break rules and regulations with impunity? Why are we unable to obtain replies to requests for public information without having to go to court? Why do breaches of traffic regulations, our tax rules, our town and country planning regulations go unpunished?
The answer is simple. Our regulators and gatekeepers are asleep on the job. With few exceptions, the agencies that we should rely on to keep miscreants in check have failed, and continue to fail. That makes it so much more important for us to recognise success stories. Moreover, where effective gatekeepers are being attacked, we the society must come to their rescue. Regulators and gatekeepers who are delivering yeoman service must not only be recognised but defended and supported.
Two very important examples come to mind. I will illustrate just how effective they are, how they have come under scurrilous and possibly illegal attack and what we can do to defend and support them. We will be looking at the Auditor General’s Department (AGD) and the Judiciary. I start with a media report about AGD by CNC3.
“Successive Auditor General reports have raised serious questions about how public funds are being accounted for by the Tobago House of Assembly. It is a tale of failure by the THA to provide the Auditor General with the appropriate documents, missing vouchers, poor accounting and a general lax approach to accounting and spending of public funds.
Auditor General’s Department (AGD)
A 2016 report of the Auditor General which looked at the 2015 financial year, revealed that vouchers totalling almost 500 million dollars were not produced by the THA for examination. The 2015 report has a section titled “Individual Areas of Concern”, which highlights “Documents Not Produced”.
In item 15 relating to the THA, it stated: “Vouchers to support two transfers totalling $396,900,677 and Schedules of Accounts recording another two transfers totalling $101,307,055.73 to the Tobago House of Assembly were not produced for audit scrutiny.”
I’ve highlighted just two examples of the failure of the THA to report as required by relevant Acts of Parliament to AGD. The THA does this every year with absolute impunity. Over the past fifteen years, they are responsible for billions of dollars of unaccounted expenditure. These are taxpayer dollars.
Every year AGD does a magnificent job of holding the feet of the THA to the fire. Their report is reliably sent to Parliament for scrutiny by a committee. We are then failed by the toothless Parliamentary watchdog which holds its annual meetings then does absolutely nothing to rein in this THA unaccounted spending.
If the Parliamentary committee does not have the authority or resources to follow up the AGD reports with actions then they have failed. After more than a decade of hand wringing, they should already have presented a Bill to Parliament for the implementation of a mechanism to follow through on these excellent AGD reports. We need Parliament to act in defence of its credibility and its responsibility to ensure that all public expenditure is properly accounted for.
In the absence of such an initiative by Parliament, civic society should take the lead. As with other critical pieces of legislation recently like the Procurement Act, both citizens and professional bodies must step into the fray and design the legal framework and ancillary processes to ensure that these reports get the attention and action that they and that the country deserves. For the avoidance of doubt, this suggestion is not limited to the THA but must encompass all expenditure of public funds through whichever Ministry or agency.
Holding the THA to account via AGD report will be challenging and we can expect obstruction of the highest order. I recently partook in a tv panel discussion that included the current Chief Secretary Mr. Ancil Dennis. During the discussion, the matter of failed or missing audit reports was raised, not least by myself. The response of Mr Dennis was jaw-dropping.
He claimed with a straight face that the failure of the THA to obtain clean audit reports for any of those years lay not at the doorstep of the THA but the AGD.
Yes, that’s right! He, who is now Chief Secretary of THA blames the good guys (AGD) for THA failing to even present supporting documents for audit. I am yet to hear anyone in the THA contradict him so one must assume that he accurately reflected their official position. In the absence of any external pressure, we can safely assume that there will never be satisfactory accounting for THA spending under this administration. Why should we expect them to change something that they take no responsibility for?
The THA holds the Judiciary in contempt
Now on to the judiciary in a matter also involving the THA. Some of you may have read my reports spanning five years about a Vendors Mall that is being built by them in Charlotteville. The work was challenged in court by a vendor who objected to the project. To summarise, the court ordered a cessation of work because THA failed to present the most basic of statutory approvals despite promising them to the court on multiple occasions. They complied by stopping work for a period, then presented some documents which they claimed met the judge’s requirements without having them approved by the court.
On that flimsy basis, they resumed work. The plaintiff is a man of limited means was unable to return to court to challenge their action. However, in another action in the courts, a second judge pronounced on the resumption of work relative to the first judge’s ruling.
He wrote in absolutely clear language that the THA had failed to satisfy the terms set out in the first judge’s order. We all knew that the THA was acting in open defiance of that first order. Now we have it from the court that they are in breach.
Nevertheless, THA continues with its development. We even have the MP for the area boasting about the progress they expect to make with it in advance of the next General Election. I always understood that THA holds people like the vendor in withering contempt. By their actions here, they demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that they hold the judiciary in similar contempt.
They defy the requirements of gatekeepers like the EMA and Town and Country Planning Division. They defy the order of the first judge. They defy the written opinion of the second judge. They defy the taxpayers of the country by expending large sums of public money on illegal activity.
As a society, we must hold them to account if we are to emerge from our current crisis. Are we powerless against such brazen disregard for the judiciary itself? I don’t know what powers the judiciary has to deal with blatant contempt for their orders and opinions. I’m asking those who have the expertise or the resources to hire such expertise to come to the nation’s aid at this time.
We must cherish, defend and support those institutions that lead the way in holding the powerful to account.
I will be returning to this issue in due course. Any of you who wish to assist in any way can contact me at my email address at the foot of this column.