Ex-minister: Government embarrassing itself in Auditor General fiasco

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Mariano Browne –

ACCOUNTANT and former minister in the Finance Ministry Mariano Browne says the government is embarrassing itself in the ongoing saga involving Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass. He said he has never seen something like this throughout his career.

On Monday, the debate for the extension of time for the submission of Ramdass’s submission of an audit report for the 2023 fiscal year continued in the Senate.

On April 26, Finance Minister Colm Imbert revealed the revenue for fiscal 2023 was mistakenly understated by $2.6 billion in his ministry’s report to Ramdass in January. This, he said, was caused by issues processing tax refunds with a new, electronic system.

The error was only noticed after the January 31 deadline for the report’s submission, and Imbert said Ramdass was immediately notified.

However, he added that when Ramdass’s final report was done, it was not based on the updated accounts. Because of this, he said the extension was needed to give Ramdass enough time to include the updated data.

A pre-action protocol letter was later sent to Ramdass after senior treasury officials were not allowed to enter the Office of the Auditor General to deliver the updated figures in early April.

Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, said Ramdass was obligated to accept the correct information.

But Ramdass has since responded denying several claims made by Imbert and Armour.

She is being represented by Freedom Law Chambers, which is headed by Anand Ramlogan, SC, a former UNC attorney general.

The letter said Ramdass accepted the new figures after the deadline, despite not being obligated to do so. But it added that the ministry was unable to produce the relevant financial records and documents to back up any of the increased revenue figures, be it the reconciliated $2.6 billion or the initial $3.4 billion mentioned.

It added that the updated accounts were dated January 31, which meant Ramdass now had both old and new accounts bearing the same date of submission.

In Senate on Monday, Imbert denied claims made in Ramdass’s letter.

He denied that the updated accounts were backdated after he said he was shown a copy of them by ministry officials.

He further asked for an independent investigation.

Browne said at the end of the day, there is a time limit to submit such reports.

“It’s clear she (Ramdass) attempted to reconcile the situation by, according to her letter, by bringing a team together and auditing the numbers, but couldn’t verify the additional $3.4 billion in revenue.”

He added, “I haven’t seen the report, so I don’t know what is the nature of the audit qualification, but she would be well within her right if she couldn’t verify…She’s an independent person.”

She said the Constitution says she must take instruction from no one.

“Her job is to present an independent opinion on the numbers as presented. And all the evidence suggests that’s what she was doing.”

Browne said auditors must have access to all numbers.

“You can’t tell me where the numbers are. I have to see them and I have to be satisfied independently…There’s nothing that tells me she was wrong. I don’t know what else she could do in these circumstances.

“I think it embarrasses the government, because I don’t think we’ve ever been in this position before.”

He said the government was clearly responsible, and ministers must be viewed as managers.

“So something happened. I don’t know what it is, but it is not a small number. And in those circumstances, you can’t tell the auditor, ‘You have to do it’ and ‘You must do it.’ That will not work.

“The circumstances would suggest that she attempted to fulfil the responsibility and to work with them to basically determine what the problems were.

Her duty is to express an opinion. She doesn’t have to express a good opinion if she is not satisfied. You can’t be vex with the woman for that.”

Former finance minister Winston Dookeran told Newsday his only comments on the matter were that he was “surprised and concerned.”

Former Central Bank deputy governor Dr Terrence Farrell told Newsday he preferred not to comment.