As a nation, we are left defenceless against incompetent gatekeepers of our many institutions

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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.