Tancoo: Probe into Auditor General is a ‘witch hunt’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Oropouche West MP Davendranath Tancoo. – File photo

OROPOUCHE West MP Davendranath Tancoo has claimed that the independent investigation announced by Finance Minister Colm Imbert into the understatement of revenue for the last financial year and other related matters is a witch hunt against Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass.

Auditor General Jaiwantie Ramdass. –

Tancoo made this claim in a statement on May 8.

At a virtual news conference on May 7, Imbert announced Cabinet’s appointment of a team to investigate this matter.

The team will be chaired by retired High Court 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.

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

Imbert said great care was taken to select members of this team who are beyond reproach and eliminate any perception that the investigation into this matter is not independent.

He explained the process he used to select the team which was approved by Cabinet.

To lead the team, Imbert said, “I decided that I wanted to have somebody beyond reproach to chair the committee or the investigation team.”

He decided the best person to perform this role was a retired judge.

“Somebody at the highest possible level in terms of integrity and in terms of competence and ability.”

Harris fit the bill.

“He retired (from the Judiciary) just a couple months ago, a very highly respected High Court judge to be the chairman. I don’t think there is any question there is any question that this retired judge could not be independent, would not determine the true facts.”

Imbert said it was important to have another member of the team who is not an employee of his ministry.

“There are many employees in the ministry of finance who have worked at the Auditor General’s department and have been promoted out of that department to become permanent secretaries, deputy permanent secretaries (in the ministry).”

He disclosed one permanent secretary and a deputy permanent secretary were former senior officials in the Auditor General’s department.

“I didn’t want to use somebody like that because there would be allegations of lack of partiality and bias. We did a search for someone who had never worked in the ministry of finance but preferably would have experience at a senior level in the Auditor General’s department.”

This was how Benjamin was selected. Imbert said the process took a while because of the intensive search, conflicts of interest and health issues.

Imbert said there was no question about the integrity of the IT professionals on the team.

“The IT consultants are actually from Norway. They are in no way associated with Trinidad and Tobago. They are completely impartial consultants.”

In his statement, Tancoo rejected all of Imbert’s comments about the independence of this team.

“This whole investigation is a witch-hunt against the independent Auditor General, upon whom they have already publicly pronounced guilt! “

Tancoo attributed this to what he claimed were criticisms made against Ramdass by Imbert and Attorney General Reginald Armour, SC, in the House of Representatives on April 26 and in the Senate on April 29.

On those days, the House and Senate, respectively, approved a motion to extend the times for financial statements to be submitted and for the Auditor General to submit a report on such statements under the Exchequer and Audit Act.”

Tancoo said this investigation will “yield no results and provide no justice to the people of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Pre-action protocol letters have been exchanged between Freedom Law Chambers, which is representing Ramdass, Imbert and Armour.

In these letters, 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.

Ramdass filed a lawsuit with respect to this matter in the High Court on May 7.


Terms of reference of investigation

The terms of reference of the investigation, the Ministry of Finance said, will include:

What circumstances led to the understatement of revenue in the public accounts for the financial year 2023 and what should be done to avoid a recurrence of this?

The efficacy of the new electronic cheque-clearing system introduced by the Central Bank in February 2023.

The efforts made by the officials at the Ministry of Finance and its various divisions to correct the understatement of revenue, and to advise the Auditor General of the understatement and provide her with an explanation, clarification and further information on it.

What was the response of the Auditor General to the efforts of the public officials described above and what action did the Auditor General take in relation to the understatement of revenue in the audit of the public accounts for financial year 2023?

What are the facts in relation to the allegations and statements made by the Auditor General in her report on the public accounts of TT for the financial year 2023, including the addendum and appendices, with specific reference to the understatement of revenue in the public accounts for the financial year 2023?

Any other related matters.

Findings and recommendations going forward