Auditor General hits back at Imbert, Armour: Billion$ in revenue unverified

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Reginald Armour –

Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass has sent a strongly worded legal letter hitting back at Finance Minister Colm Imbert and Attorney General Reginald Armour over statements made in Parliament about her conduct in preparing a national audit report.Their statements were made during a government motion to extend the time for the submission of her audit report for the 2023 financial year.

The letter, by Freedom Law Chambers head Anand Ramlogan, SC, came two days after the government secured an extension in Parliament on Friday to the deadline for Ramdass to submit her report.

On Friday, during the parliamentary debate, Imbert said the revenue for fiscal 2023 was mistakenly understated by $2.6 billion in his ministry’s report to the Auditor General in January. He said the discrepancy was caused by challenges in processing tax refunds with a new electronic system.

He said the error was discovered after the January 31 deadline for submissions and the ministry alerted the Auditor General. He said despite meetings, Ramdass declined to accept updated accounts, but later reversed that decision.However, he said when Ramdass’s final report was produced, it was not based on the updated accounts.

Imbert said the extension was needed to allow the Auditor General enough time to incorporate the updated data into her report.

Also on Friday, in response to Imbert’s claims during debate on the motion, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar claimed Ramdass was pressured into accepting the updated data from the Finance Ministry after she initially declined to do so.

Persad-Bissessar said, “I am being told that the Auditor General was being pressured to accept these accounts. I am also being told that the Auditor General was sent a pre-action protocol letter…that the Auditor General must accept these accounts.

Colm Imbert –

“I’m further being told that after the pre-action letter, the Auditor General did consider the supposedly corrected numbers, supposedly, and still, she couldn’t find any evidence of this $3 billion in revenue.”

Attorney General Reginald Armour later confirmed that a pre-action protocol letter was sent to the Auditor General.

He said it was in response to senior Treasury officials being barred from entering the Office of the Auditor General when they tried to deliver the updated figures earlier in April. This, he said, was after several other unsuccessful attempts.

Armour said the Auditor General was obligated to accept the correct information and use it to paint an accurate picture of the country’s finances.

On Sunday, Ramdass’s legal letter (with supporting documents attached) offered a different perspective and listed several concerns which she claimed justified her behaviour.

The letter said the ministry initially flagged the error on March 28, saying the government’s revenue was $3,379,777,908 of which $2,598,130,761.72 billion was reconciled by correcting the error with the tax rebates.The memo from the ministry admitted that it was unable to account for the difference of $780,499,791.27, but checks were being made.

Letters from the Ministry of Finance (MOF) in April lowered the final change of revenue to $2,598,130,761.72. No mention was made of the additional $780 million it was initially unable to account for.

The letter also disputed Imbert’s claim that the new accounts were not taken into consideration.

It said while Ramdass was not obligated to accept the new figures after the deadline had elapsed. she did,. However, the ministry was unable to produce the relevant financial records and documentation to back up any of the increased revenue figures, be it the reconcilliated $2.6 billion or the initial $3.4 billion mentioned.

Furthermore, the letter said when the Auditor General received the updated accounts, it was dated January 31, meaning she now had both old and new accounts bearing the same date of submission.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar –

“It is clear from this that the MOF simply backdated the original accounts and replaced the old revenue figure with the new one. It did so without showing any amendment to the national accounts. This would give the impression that the original accounts which were submitted within the statutory deadline had all along carried the higher revenue figure where this is not factually correct.”

The letter said Ramdass properly viewed the move as an unethical attempt to backdate the original national accounts which were submitted to her “to cover what was a financial mistake of unprecedented magnitude with grave financial economic and political implications.”

With the constitutional deadline for her report to be submitted approaching, Ramdass said she completed her audit, including the increased revenue figure that could not be verified, and submitted it with a disclaimer.

In the disclaimer, she outlined the events and said an opinion could not be formed on the state of the national accounts owing to the factors mentioned.

“Our client will not be prepared to give the Government a clean bill of health on this issue until and unless she is satisfied that the alleged increased revenue is true and correct and can be properly proven and substantiated by the relevant financial records.”

The letter also took umbrage at the government’s attempt to extend the deadlines, given that the audited accounts report was completed and submitted on time. It said it would be improper for Ramdass to withdraw the report.

The letter added that Ramdass never asked for any extension of time to submit a new report.

However, it said  Ramdass was willing to prepare a special report on the national accounts if the supporting documents for the variance were produced.

It also added if the government officials did not set the record straight, Ramdass would be forced to take legal action to protect her professional reputation.

Ramdass has a master of business administration (MBA) from Heriot-Watt University, United Kingdom and spent the last 30 years working at the Auditor General’s office. She was appointed to the substantive role on November 15, 2023, by President Christine Kangaloo.