Auditor General appeals ruling on public accounts probe, gets urgent hearing

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass. –

AUDITOR General Jaiwantie Ramdass has appealed the court’s refusal to grant her leave to challenge the Ministry of Finance and the Cabinet over a decision to appoint an investigation team to probe into a recent impasse between her office and the ministry.

A procedural appeal was filed on June 4 and an application was sought to have it heard urgently since her lawyers say the investigative team, led by retired High Court judge David Harris, is expected to report to the minister by July 7.

On June 4, Justice of Appeal Peter Rajkumar granted the order to have the matter heard urgently and fixed a hearing at the earliest available date.

In support of the application, attorney Aasha Ramlal said unless a stay was granted or if the appeal was not deemed urgent, Ramdass could suffer irreparable prejudice and damage.

In a written ruling on June 3, Justice Westmin James refused Ramdass leave to pursue her judicial review claim.

This cleared the way for the Harris-led team to continue its Cabinet-ordered probe. Harris, a retired judge, and former audit director David Benjamin were appointed in early May to probe the circumstances surrounding the $2.6 billion understatement in the Auditor General report on the 2023 public accounts.

James held the investigation did not amount to an unjustified interference with the independence of the Auditor General’s office.

“He said the probe and the remit of the Harris team were not disciplinary but investigative.”

“In this case, the minister used a discretionary power for the purposes of the recommending an investigation.

“It can be agreed between the parties that there was a serious matter of public importance that required investigation…”

However, Ramdass’s attorneys argued in the appeal application that the judge’s ruling was contrary to law and against the weight of the evidence.

The application raised some 13 objections to the judge’s findings as it sought an order reversing the dismissal of the leave application while also granting leave for the Auditor General’s challenge to progress.

Her lawyers are contending the investigation is is unconstitutional and illegal because neither the Finance Minister nor the Cabinet has the jurisdiction to probe the conduct of the Auditor General.

The dispute arose in April after the ministry sought to deliver amended public accounts to explain and rectify the error.

Ramdass initially refused receipt, as she claimed she needed legal advice on whether she could accept them after the statutory deadline for submission. Ramdass eventually accepted the records and dispatched audit staff to verify them. She then submitted her original annual report. which was based on the original records, to Parliament.

In subsequent legal correspondence between the parties, Ramdass claimed her audit team was unable to reconcile the amended records based on documents it audited. She also contended the amended records appeared to be backdated to the original statutory deadline date in January. Ramdass also took issue with the fact that the discrepancy was initially estimated at $3.4 billion.

Imbert has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. His lawyers claimed the reconciliation after the initial estimate revealed that the variance was in fact $2,599,278,188.72, which was attributed to Value Added Tax (VAT), Individual, Business Levy and Green Fund Levy contributions.

They also claimed that checks in relation to the approximate $780 million difference between the initial and final estimated variances attributed it to tax refund cheques to taxpayers issued for the 2022 financial year being cashed in the financial year 2023. They attributed the error to a switch by the Central Bank from a manual to electronic cheque-clearing system.

Lawyers also claimed there was no backdating, as they noted the allegation was made because a document related to the original public accounts was inadvertently included in the revised documents. They also contended that Ramdass acted illegally in initially refusing to accept the amended accounts. However, they claimed their client had decided against taking legal action against Ramdass over this.

On May 19, the Prime Minister said he was awaiting the outcome of the independent investigation. He also expressed surprise and disappointment that the matter had been converted into an unnecessary bacchanal in the public domain.

The Auditor General’s report has since been laid in Parliament.

Ramdass is represented by Anand Ramlogan, SC, Jodie Blackstock Kent Samlal, Natasha Bisram and Ramlal.