Auditor General goes to court over public accounts probe

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass –

AUDITOR General Jaiwantie Ramdass has gone ahead with her threat to take the Finance Minister and the Cabinet to court over a decision to appoint an investigation team to probe the $2.6 billion revenue understatement in the Auditor General’s report on the 2023 public financial accounts.

Her judicial review application was filed on May 16 and Justice Westmin James will hear preliminary arguments on Friday.

It comes after attorneys for Finance Minister and acting prime minister Colm Imbert said on May 15, that there would be no cancellation of the investigation headed by retired judge David Harris. They were responding to a pre-action protocol letter sent on May 12, by Ramdass’ attorneys.

In her application, Ramdass’ attorney Aasha Ramlal asked for an urgent hearing as the terms of reference of the Harris team carried the risk of interfering with the independence of the office of the Auditor General. The minister and the Cabinet were named as intended defendants while the Harris team was named as an interested party.

Ramdass is seeking several declarations relating to the appointment of the Harris team. It also seeks to have the decision quashed while in the interim, she wants an injunction restraining the Harris team from investigating anything related to the audit of the 2023 public accounts.

The application recounted the Auditor General’s version of the events involving the imbroglio over the public accounts, dating back to January before the audit of the accounts and up to April when Ramdass was served with a pre-action protocol letter from the Office of the Attorney General in relation to her then refusal to accept the amended accounts, to the exchange of correspondence between the Auditor General’s department and the Ministry of Finance up to her submission of the report on April 24.

On April 26, Imbert did not lay the report in Parliament but a motion to extend the time to submit the report to was passed.

In a legal letter to Ramdass’ attorneys on May 15, Imbert said he would forego legal action against Ramdass and lay the original report in Parliament at the earliest opportunity.

The application also referenced “attacks” on Ramdass in Parliament and outlined the contents of pre-action letters sent to Government by her legal team in the past weeks and a constitutional motion she filed on May 7, in which she alleged her rights under the Constitution were breached.

On May 15, attorney Jo-Anne Julien, of MG Daly and Co, responded to Ramdass’ pre-action indicating that the appointment of the Harris team did not contravene the independence of the Auditor General or section 136 of the Constitution because the team was not investigating if she should be removed from office nor will the team’s findings be binding on the President.

The judicial review application contends the Office of the Auditor General was insulated from political influence, interference and control and the terms of reference were capable of encompassing the Auditor General’s action and conduct in the performance of her duties. It also alleged that the appointment of the Harris team gave rise to “a real risk of bias” and the tainting of the process since its members were selected by the minister and approved by the Cabinet.

It further contended that blame for the public accounts imbroglio was being shifted to the Auditor General who was attacked with “vehemence” publicly and in the Parliament.

“The investigation was initiated by a member of the Executive, exercising a public function, who was required to exercise that public function with impartiality, independently, and without pursuing any personal interest.

“…The investigation offends against an established principle of procedural fairness, namely that no one may be a judge in his cause.”

“The Investigation Team has the power to make adverse findings against the Auditor General in circumstances where she has come under severe political attack, intimidation and pressure… There is a real risk of reputational harm and damage to her office as Auditor General and the State has refused to assist her with her legal expenses.

“It is not unreasonable to infer that the investigations ‘findings,’ if adverse to the applicant, may be relied upon to instigate the procedure under section 136.”

“ It is therefore important that the investigation be conducted fairly and lawfully. If it is tainted, that very bias and unfairness will, in turn, taint, infect and vitiate any consequential decision that may be taken by the relevant authorities and officeholders.

“The report will be the fruit of a poisoned tree and any reliance on same will therefore be legally misplaced.”

It also added, “The audit of the country’s national accounts is governed and regulated by the law.

“…The Auditor General does not wish to appear to be avoiding an independent investigation commissioned by the Executive.

“Indeed, she wishes and intends to participate in any lawful investigation because she has nothing to hide, does not wish to create the impression that she is trying to avoid such an investigation and wants to vindicate the position and action taken by her office in this matter.

She is however concerned that this investigation is unfair and biased and hence illegal and unlawful.”

In an affidavit, Ramdass said, “ I considered that my office was under attack and my integrity and character was being called into question…Should this investigation be allowed, it has grave and serious implications for the Office of the Auditor General.”

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