PM awaiting outcome of revenue understatement probe

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Acting Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, speaks at a post cabinet briefing, White Hall, Port of Spain on May 16. – Photo by Angelo Marcelle

THE Prime Minister says he is eagerly awaiting the outcome of an independent investigation into a $2.6 billion revenue understatement in the 2023 public financial accounts by a team appointed by the Cabinet.

Dr Rowley also expressed surprise and disappointment that this matter has been converted into an unnecessary bacchanal in the public domain.

He made these comments during a news conference at the VIP lounge of the Piarco International Airport on May 19.

Rowley returned home from visits to Ghana and India last week.

Finance Minister Colm Imbert acted as prime minister during Rowley’s absence.

Rowley told the media that he was briefed by Imbert about government matters during that time.

“I am quite surprised at this development and very disappointed that it would have happened. There is an investigation taking place. I like everybody else would want to see what the investigation says because this is not the kind of thing that I anticipated.”

He said, “I was first informed there was a problem. I think it was in early March.”

Reminding the media that he has been a parliamentarian since 1991, Rowley said, “I am very familiar with auditor general reports coming to the Parliament. I have been in Parliament for decades.”

He added this is not a matter which turns the country upside down.

“On this occasion, something happened which…I’m still quite stressed about it because as prime minister of the country, I don’t take very lightly, a public official, especially one involved in audit, telling me and the rest of the world that the minister of finance has been engaging in backdating the books. That’s a very serious allegation and it has far reaching consequences.”

This claim was made in pre-action protocol letters sent by Freedom Law Chambers, the legal representative of Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass, to Imbert.

This claim has been rejected in correspondence from law firm MG Daly & Partners, who are representing Imbert, to Freedom Law Chambers.

Rowley recalled an instance some years ago where the Energy Ministry had an error with respect to reporting data on natural gas production.

“When the rating agencies came to look at us to be able to rate the country, it was serious consequences for its financial situation. That error was picked up by the minister of finance and the minister of finance drew it to the minister of energy and it was rectified.”

Rowley said, “The ratings agencies knowing of this, that there was an error that was corrected, took the position well the fact that you had to correct something means that there might be something here that I should be concerned about and this could result in you being downgraded.”

He added, “That was just a number from the ministry of energy. So you could imagine when the Auditor General is saying to the world that the minister of finance has backdated the finances and all kinds of interpretations are being put on that alleged action.”

Reiterating his first knew about this issue in March, Rowley said, “This came to a head in a public spat towards the end of April and I just had to look on helplessly as prime minister.”

He added, “I have no role in it. None whatsoever because it’s all a matter between office holders who are specifically put to handle specific actions in handling our finances. No room in there for the Office of Prime Minister.”

As prime minister, Rowley does not direct the Comptroller of Accounts, Treasury Division, any other department which falls under the jurisdiction of the finance ministry or the Auditor General.

He said, “But I do know and that a problem arose for cause, requiring sane and sober behaviour and just as we have done with many other things, it has been converted into an unnecessary dangerous bacchanal.”

Rowley reiterated, “I too wait on the outcome of the investigation to see and to confirm what has happened here.”

Asked whether he was confident the matter was being handled properly between Imbert and Ramdass, Rowley said the way Government has conducted its business, “it is my view and I have confidence that people who are reasonable will treat with government statements as statements requiring their serious consideration.”

While some people prefer other statements, he continued, “I believe that the people who have a respect for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, will give value to the Government’s statements in this matter.”

Rowley acknowledged that this matter is now in court.

“These are places where one can separate fact from fiction and I hope that in the not too distant future this matter will be clarified and be behind us.”

At a virtual news conference on May 7, Imbert announced the team to investigate the revenue understatement.

The team is led by retired 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 from Norway.

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

In a signed May 15 letter to attorney Aasha Ramlal of Freedom Law Chambers, attorney Jo-Anne Julien of MG Daly & Partners said the investigation will not be cancelled or recalled as called for in Ramlal’s May 12 letter to Imbert.

On May 16, Ramdass’ attorneys filed for judical review on this matter.

Justice Westmin James said he will give his ruling on this matter on June 3.