Bharath, Browne question probe into revenue understatement

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Vasant Bharath. – File photo

FORMER ministers in the ministry of finance Vasant Bharath and Mariano Browne have questioned the rationale behind Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s announcement of an independent investigation into an understatement of revenue in the 2023 public financial statements.

Bharath and Browne raised their questions on May 13, one day after an attorney representing Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass issued a pre-action protocol letter to Imbert, calling on him to cancel or recall this investigation by 4 pm on May 15.

Imbert announced Cabinet’s decision to appoint this team during a virtual news conference hosted by his ministry on May 7.

Bharath said, “I do not believe that the minister of finance has any authority whatsoever to investigate/probe the Office of the Auditor General. In fact there is no such provision in the Constitution so to do as that is an independently enshrined office in the Constitution.”

But he added that Imbert can direct that an investigation be conducted into matters giving rise to to the $2.6 billion shortfall of revenue and subsequent divergent stories between the Central Bank and Board of Inland Revenue (BIR) on this matter.

Bharath said it appears that efforts to sway the Auditor General privately and by legal letter, on this issue have failed. He claimed this points to a continued overreach by several government ministers into independent institutions of state.

“It is a practice that it harmful and destructive to our democracy.”

Browne said three out of five terms of reference of the investigating team now focus on what has become a court matter.

“The efforts made by the officials at the Ministry of Finance and its various divisions to correct the understatement of revenue, and to advise the Auditor General of the understatement and provide her with an explanation, clarification and further information on it.

“What was the response of the Auditor General to the efforts of the public officials described above and what action did the Auditor General take in relation to the understatement of revenue in the audit of the public accounts for financial year 2023?

“What are the facts in relation to the allegations and statements made by the Auditor General in her report on the public accounts of Trinidad and Tobago for the financial year 2023, including the addendum and appendices, with specific reference to the understatement of revenue in the public accounts for the financial year 2023?”

Browne said the inference here could be that “the purpose of the probe is to allocate blame and criticism in what has now become a battle in the court of public opinion.”

Cabinet ministers, he said, can make statements in Parliament which the Auditor General cannot defend herself against. In such a scenario, Brown said a possible defence the Auditor General could turn to is that the probe is in breach of section 121 of the Constitution.

Section 121 (1) says, “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, power to appoint persons to hold or act in offices to which this section applies, including power to make appointments on promotion and transfer and to confirm appointments, and to remove and exercise disciplinary control over persons holding or acting in such offices and to enforce standards of conduct on such officers shall vest in the Public Service Commission.

Browne said if Imbert and the Cabinet is serious “the real importance of the probe should be identify the system failure which gave rise to such a significant mistake and to concentrate on ways to ensure that the error is not repeated.”

He added this is important as the finance ministry is responsible for producing the public accounts.

“The Auditor General’s only role is to express an opinion thereon. This horse has already bolted and the report issued two days before the changes to the Audit and Exchequer Act.”

Motions to extend the time for the finance ministry to submit accounts to the Auditor General and the Auditor General to submit a report on those accounts to Parliament were passed in the House of Representatives and the Senate on April 26 and April 29 respectively.

Browne suggested it may be necessary for Imbert to adopt a different approach to resolving this matter.

“Perhaps it is time for the Minister to eat humble pie and diffuse this fight rather than doubling down at taxpayers’ expense. The taxpayer is best served by knowing that the accounting systems that gave rise to the errors that caused the differences are being fixed and taxpayers’ funds are properly used and accounted for.”

On May 7, Imbert said the team will be chaired by retired High Court Justice David Harris.

Other members of the team include David C Benjamin, a former audit director at the Auditor General’s department and information technology (IT) specialists.

The team is expected to report to him within two months.

Imbert said great care was taken to select members of this team who are beyond reproach and eliminate any perception that the investigation into this matter is not independent.

Imbert was unavailable for comment.