Finance Minister denies Auditor General’s claims, says probe needed

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Finance Minister Colm Imbert. – File photo

FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert has denied claims by Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass in a pre-action protocol letter over an alleged backdating of accounts, and said an independent investigation will be needed into the ongoing dispute between the two state bodies.

In a statement in the Senate on April 29, Imbert clarified for the record that the national accounts to be audited are prepared, declared, certified and submitted by senior Ministry of Finance (MOF) officials. These are the permanent secretary and are cosigned by the controller of accounts and the treasury director.

“The Minister of Finance is not involved in this exercise,” he said.

Imbert denied the Auditor General’s claim that the updated accounts were backdated after he said he was shown a copy of them by ministry officials.

“I was subsequently sent a copy of the statement of declaration and certification submitted by ministry officials to the Auditor General with the amended public accounts on April 16, 2024. From what has been shown to me, this statement of declaration and certification of the amended public accounts is dated April 16, 2024, and not January 31, 2024, as falsely alleged in the letter from Freedom Law Chambers. I have seen on that declaration, the April 16 one, the signatures of the permanent secretary in the MOF, the controller of accounts and the treasury director and the date April 16, 2024, written in their own hands,” he said.

Given this revelation, Imbert said the matter now requires an independent investigation followed by the appropriate consequences.

“If the document shown to me is authentic and the true date on the statement of declaration and certification of the amended public accounts for the financial year 2023 submitted by the ministry officials is in fact April 16, 2024, and not January 31, 2024, then a blatant untruth has been put into the public domain.

“This matter now requires a full independent investigation, the findings of which would be reported to the Public Service Commission and any other relevant office holder for their review and whatever action these independent institutions deem appropriate.”

Imbert later added he had a photo on his phone of the signed amended accounts which was verified by a senior counsel.

Given the differing accounts of what happened, Opposition Senator Wade Mark asked Imbert if he would lay all the documents and records in Parliament “in the interest of transparency, openness and accountability.”

The minister declined.

“I wasn’t born yesterday and I didn’t come in town last. In a letter from the Auditor General, the letter I referred to in the statement, I was called upon to retract statements, otherwise (legal) action would be taken, and therefore it would be foolish in the extreme for me to accede to Senator Mark’s request, since, clearly, they are all acting in concert, because this is from Freedom Law Chambers.”

Freedom Law Chambers is headed by former attorney general in the UNC-led People’s Partnership administration Anand Ramlogan, SC. Opposition senator Jayanti Lutchmedial-Ramdial is also an associate of the firm.

On April 26 the government successfully moved a motion in Parliament to extend the deadlines for accounts to be submitted to the Auditor General and for her report to be submitted. The constitutional deadline for the MOF to submit accounts to the Auditor General is January 31, while she has until April 30 to submit her report to be laid in Parliament.

In explaining the rationale for the motion last week, Imbert said in March, senior MOF officials realised the accounts submitted in January were wrong and undervalued the national revenue for 2023 by $2.6 billion. This, he said, was because of an issue in processing tax refunds due to a new electronic chequing system.

He said the error was brought to the Auditor General’s attention and despite discussions, she refused to accept the new, updated accounts. However, she later reversed her decision but did not factor the new figures into her completed report.

In the debate, opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar accused the government of pressuring the Auditor General and threatening her with legal action to get her to accept the updated accounts.

While Attorney General Reginald Amour confirmed a pre-action protocol letter had been sent, he said it was because the MOF staff were being prevented from delivering the updated accounts.

On April 28, Freedom Law Chambers sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Finance Minister and Attorney General on behalf of the Auditor General. It asked the government officials to set the record straight on their statements and offered a differing view of what had happened, including the backdated accounts.