Finance Minister, Cabinet get green light to appeal to Privy Council in Auditor General impasse

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Colm Imbert –

THE Finance Minister and the Cabinet have been granted conditional leave to take to the Privy Council their complaint of the Appeal Court’s decision to permit Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass’s challenge to an investigation of her office by a team hand-picked by the government.

On June 28, Justices of Appeal Mark Mohammed, Peter Rajkumar and Maria Wilson granted conditional leave to the minister and the Cabinet. It was not opposed by the Auditor General’s lead attorney, Anand Ramlogan, SC.

Final leave will be granted once the minister and Cabinet’s legal team, led by Douglas Mendes, SC, completes the necessary processes for filing an appeal to the apex court.

The Appeal Court judges also approved Mendes’s undertaking for his clients to advise the investigation team, led by former High Court judge David Harris, not to proceed with those terms of reference that pertain to the Auditor General until the hearing and determination of their complaint to the Privy Council.

Ramdass had complained that Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s recommendation to Cabinet to initiate the probe, select the investigation team, set its terms of reference and have it report directly to him was biased. She also complained that the Harris team was mandated to make findings on her conduct and that Imbert was responsible for their remuneration.

The Appeal Court held she had raised an arguable point.

Its ruling effectively stops the Harris team from any investigation involving the Auditor General over the 2023 national accounts for now.

The order approved by the Appeal Court on June 28 also effectively put a hold on Ramdass’s judicial review claim in the High Court until the Privy Council rules.

However, the team was still permitted to pursue aspects of the probe on the $2.6 billion understatement in the Auditor General’s report on the 2023 public accounts that do not involve Ramdass and her office.

Harris’s team was expected to report to the Finance Minister by July 7.

In support of the application, attorney Sonnel David-Longe, one of the instructing attorneys for the minister and the Cabinet, said the understatement in the original public accounts for 2023 and the Auditor General’s disclaimer were “clearly matters of grave national concern given their obvious potential to create uncertainty about the country’s economy, to undermine the economic reputation of the country internationally, and to have other adverse effects on the economy.”

She said, “To avoid similar understatements in future public accounts, and similar disclaimers in future reports prepared by the Auditor General on such accounts, it was important that the investigation team be allowed to complete the investigation and report its findings and recommendations to Cabinet as soon as possible.

“Cabinet needs to have these findings and recommendations made available to it as a matter of urgency if such findings/recommendations are to be used to assist in the preparation and audit of the public accounts for the financial year 2024 to be submitted on or before the statutory deadline January 31, 2025, and to avoid understatements or errors being made in those public accounts and to avoid a disclaimer

On June 21, Justices of Appeal Mark Mohammed, Peter Rajkumar and James Aboud unanimously upheld Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass’s appeal of the High Court’s refusal to permit her to challenge the lawfulness of the Cabinet’s decision to appoint the team, led by retired judge David Harris. Their written decision was delivered on June 25.

The dispute over the public accounts 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. She 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 with the disclaimer.

The minister and the Cabinet are also represented by Simon de la Bastide, SC, Jerome Rajcoomar and Jo-Anne Julien. Ramdass was also represented by Ganesh Saroop, Kent Samlal, Natasha Bisram and Aasha Ramlal.