AG: Auditor General got bad legal advice

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC. – File photo by Roger Jacob

DISBELIEF and exasperation were on the face and in the voice of Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, on Monday at the fact of an erroneous report by the Auditor General being laid in Parliament.

He was in the Senate speaking in support of a government bill to allow more time to Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass to consider corrections to the public accounts on which her report was to be based.

The Government has asked her to consider some $2.6 billion inadvertently omitted from the accounts, but which the Treasury had since notified her about.

The Senate passed the bill. All but one independent senators voted in favour (as Sunity Maharaj abstained), while the Opposition voted against.

The AG said it is was an important debate affecting the national interest. The material statements the Treasury was trying to send to the Auditor General will affect TT’s reputation, Armour said.

He said as a new person, Ramdass needed all the assistance she could get.

Armour said 2005 Court of Appeal decision by Chief Justice Sat Sharma said the doctrine of the separation of powers meant no arm of the State must exercise “whole power” over another, but it did not mean they do not speak to each other or each exist in an ivory tower.

“It is the Auditor General’s duty, under international auditing standards and section nine of the Exchequer and Audit Act, to audit those accounts.

“When the Treasury gave her more information, it was her duty to accept it.”

The AG said in the course of her duty, errors may be discovered.

“How do you verify?

“You don’t lock yourself away. You don’t lock your doors.

“She was misadvised. You don’t lock your doors to people are trying to help you to get it right.”

He said it was a fallacious piece of advice that because she was an independent institution she must not discuss matters.

“With all the promise that she has, she is being given bad advice.”

There was nothing untoward or illegal about the Treasury notifying her of errors, Armour assured.

“It was their duty.”

If they had failed to notify her they would have been in breach of their statutory duty, the AG advised.

He said on March 25, she was called by telephone but had said she could not speak, but neither did she later return the call.

On March 26, the Ministry of Finance permanent secretary (PS) sent Ramdass a WhatsApp message and said the Treasury needed to meet her, and the next day an assistant auditor general attended a meeting set by the ministry.

The AG said on March 28, the PS called the assistant auditor general but was told Ramdass said the ministry must write to her, which it then did immediately.

On April 5, the PS sent Ramdass further material, including setting out an error with the Central Bank and its new electronic clearing system.

On April 8, the Comptroller of Accounts sent Ramdass an e-mail promising a CD of the amended public accounts for her on April 9, on which day a Treasury official tried to deliver it to her.

“Upon arriving at the Auditor General’s office, that Treasury executive was told by personnel in the Auditor General’s Department that they had been instructed by the assistant auditor general that he was instructed not to accept the CD containing the amended public accounts.”

After learning of this, the Comptroller of Accounts then tried to call the Auditor General on a landline on April 9.”The calls went unanswered. A WhatsApp message was sent – no acknowledgement!”

Armour said on April 9, the Treasury Director and two officials went to Ramdass’s office to deliver a letter from the PS plus the CD.

“On arrival they were told there was no one there to receive those items.”

They returned on April 11 and met the assistant auditor general, who said he had been instructed by the Auditor General to accept only one item, the CD with the original financial statement (dated January 31, 2024), but not CD containing the amended public accounts. Likewise, the legal adviser at that office was also debarred (by Ramdass) from accepting the amended CD.

Armour remarked, “It is bizarre! There is no explanation for this! No matter what one reads on the front pages of newspapers or pre-action protocols written by others misstating the facts.”

He related the Auditor General’s response on April 15 to his pre-action protocol letter.

Her response said the ministry may submit an original signed and dated letter to her by April 16 noon to recall the public accounts of January 31 2024, and to confirm the previous declaration as inaccurate and to provide the revised public accounts. Such a letter would be published in the Auditor General’s report, her response had said, the AG related.

“I was told by the attorneys in my office that it was their expectation, having received this letter and the Treasury Division persons having complied with this request, they had assumed the situation had been resolved.

“They had assumed the Auditor General would receive the documents and she would consider what had been provided to her, so she could include it or say otherwise in her report due to Parliament on April 30.

“And the next thing we knew is the Ministry of Finance gets word that on April 24, with no further word, a report has been laid in Parliament, which does not include any of the material which had been provided and the Auditor General had agreed to accept. It is nothing short of bizarre!”

He said during the saga, he got a letter from the Auditor General asking him for advice, but as he was already advising Imbert it would be a conflict of interest also to advise the Auditor General.

The AG said, “In the circumstances of the conflict I found myself in, it would be inappropriate.”

He wrote on April 19 to advise her to retain independent counsel for reasonable fees which his office would pay.

Armour said that letter from him was their last communication.

“The next thing we knew the report had been laid, April 24 – five-six days before the (April 30) deadline.”

He said the Auditor General was being misadvised, even as an incorrect report omitting significant information was before Parliament.

The AG said an offer was available to give her all the help she needed to conclude her report.

“All we are asking for, in this very unfortunate situation that we find ourselves in today, is that this house (Senate) extend the time so that we can bring the heat down – very regrettably, there was no need for the heat to go up – and give the Auditor General some time to do that which she is required by law and by international audit standards to do.

“That is, to take into consideration relevant information to verify her audit between the date when she received the financial statement and the date which hopefully this house will extend by which she must submit her report.”

Armour said, “This is about the national interest of TT.”It was not about gamesmanship, scoring political points, embarrassing anyone nor attacking any constitutional office.

“It is simply about the fact that what is good for this country is that the true accounts should be stated, so that at the end of the day we can continue to do business with the world on a verified, true and correct audit report.”