Imbert: Wait for Auditor General report probe’s outcome

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Colm Imbert –

FINANCE Minister Colm Imbert has said people need to await the outcome of an independent investigation into the submission of the Auditor General’s report on the 2023 public financial statements to Parliament, before jumping to conclusions on this matter.

In a post on X on May 3, Imbert asked, “Why is waiting for the investigation’s outcome so difficult?”

He gave his view about comments in the public domain about this matter.

“The last week has seen lopsided opinions, uninformed commentary, idle speculation, foolish statements, and sensationalist articles on a matter that is under investigation.”

On April 26, Finance Minister Colm Imbert succeeded in having a motion passed in the House of Representatives to extend the time to submit the public accounts to the Auditor General and the time for the Auditor General to submit a report on the accounts to Parliament, under Sections 24 (1) and 25 (1) of the Exchequer and Audit Act, respectively.

Imbert said it was necessary because his ministry’s officials detected a variance and understatement of approximately $2.6 billion in the 2023 public financial statements.

The same motion was passed in the Senate on April 29 by a 23 to six vote margin.

Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass has defended her conduct in the submission of her report on the 2023 public financial statements to Parliament, and in respect of information provided by the finance ministry on the $2.6 billion understatement.

Since April 26, there has been an exchange of pre-action protocol letters between Freedom Law Chambers (who are legally representing Ramdass), Imbert and Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, on this matter.

In one letter to Armour dated April 29, attorney Aasha Ramlal said Ramdass claimed that she was under political attack and asked whether Armour would pay her legal costs.

In a signed letter dated April 30, the AG’s Secretariat gave a response on Armour’s behalf.

“I write on behalf of the Honourable Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs. I hereby acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 29th April, 2024 in relation to the subject matter. Please be advised that your letter under reference has been passed to senior counsel for advice. This response is not to be understood as acceding to your request.”

Ramlal expressed disappointment in a subsequent letter to Armour.

At a news conference in Chaguanas on May 1, Oropouche East MP Dr Roodal Moonilal claimed the reason Government did not want the report to be presented in Parliament in its current form was because it wanted to keep certain expenditures, outlined in the report, secret from the population.

In a signed letter dated April 24 to the permanent secretary in the Finance Ministry, Auditor-General Jaiwantie Ramdass said she submitted copies of her report on the 2023 public accounts to the ministry, Speaker of the House Bridgid Annisette-George and Senate President Nigel de Freitas.

In a previous signed letter dated April 17 to Armour, SC, the Auditor General asked Armour whether she should consider amended statements on the 2023 public financial accounts.

While the report has been submitted to Parliament, it has not been laid on the floor of either the House or Senate or approved in either place.

A report which has been submitted to Parliament but not approved by either the House or the Senate by the passage of a relevant motion, is not available for public viewing in any form or fashion.

Publication of the contents of such a report is considered a breach of parliamentary privilege.

Moonilal quoted information from a document which he claimed to be the Auditor General’s report to support his claims.

In a statement in the Senate on April 29, Imbert clarified for the record that the national accounts to be audited were prepared, declared, certified and submitted by senior ministry officials including the permanent secretary and cosignees the controller of accounts and the treasury director.

Imbert denied Auditor General Ramdass’ claim that the updated accounts were backdated, saying ministry officials had shown him a copy of them.

“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 (Ministry of Finance), the controller of accounts and the treasury director and the date April 16, 2024, written in their own hands,” Imbert said.

Given this revelation, Imbert said the matter now required 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 did not give any details about how the investigation including how it would be conducted, who would conduct it and what action would be taken arising from its outcome.