Shoot the Messenger: The NDIA Field Auditor’s Report, Government’s response and the need for Whistleblower Protection Legislation

This article is premised on a belief that any act of corruption within any public or private institution should be exposed.  By extension, persons involved in exposing acts of corruption are morally and professionally obliged to do so and should be respected and legally protected.

On 14 October 2012, the Kaieteur News broke the story of a damning field audit report on the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA). The report uncovered several alleged internal irregularities, potential fraud and other acts of wrongdoing. It also highlighted several well-known areas where corruption commonly occurs, especially in the awarding of contracts and procurement of goods and services. These alleged wrongdoings were reportedly perpetrated through sophisticated acts of malpractice involving false reporting, circumvention of the public procurement process, and sole sourcing by senior managers within NDIA.

The report follows on from previous allegations of corruption at the NDIA, involving at least one senior manager mentioned in the current report. It contributes to an even more overwhelming number of cases in which public funds and assets are alleged to have been misappropriated and public offices abused.

The only difference is that in this case the information came from a very credible source, an auditor. An audit by its very nature is a methodical and thorough assessment of an institution’s personnel and practices, supported by evidence.

An auditor’s investigation is expected to be thorough since the implications of the findings are serious as are criminal acts that are reported.

The findings therefore deserve the highest level of action and should be addressed in a manner in keeping with the gravity of the findings. The response should be in line with the requirements of the law and other regulatory procedures, which govern the work of a public office such as the NDIA. But more importantly, the role that the auditor plays should be recognized and defended whilst those processes that his/her report triggers are being carried out.

In the NDIA case, what was of concern was the response of the government as expressed by the concerned Minster. The Minister publically “refuted” the content of the auditor’s report and immediately labeled it as “mischievous”. He also used very strong language to condemn the action of the auditor in not reporting the matter to him but instead to the President. The Minister’s response and chastisement of the “mischievous” auditor appears highly irregular for someone who is responsible for ensuring highest standards of accountability and management practices within NDIA.

The Minister also made the bold assertion that the auditor was “hired by the very man he wants to smear”. This choice of words reflects not only a lack of appreciation of the auditor’s function, but also a view that a report on corruption is a personalized campaign to “smear” an individual rather than being seen as a genuine effort to assist in stamping out corruption wherever it exists.

The implication is that a subordinate staff member within a public institution has no right, or role in exposing a superior who may be involved in corruption. Persons like the NDIA auditor are also wrongly described as “snitches” and “traitors”.

Although this may not have been the Minister’s intention he has immediately and publically demonstrated exactly why public sector employees are thinking twice before reporting known corrupt practices in their departments, and involving their superiors.

A decision to do so may come at great personal risk and subject that individual to public chastisement. In this instance, the reporter was an auditor who is trained and who has a professional responsibility to present his/her findings without fear of retribution. But what if a junior member of staff has evidence of corruption and mismanagement?
If corruption in the public sector is to be stamped out, the NDIA case highlights a major obstacle. It is the lack of motivation to report acts of corruption since a government Minister or other senior functionary can publicly chastise a member of staff.

This opens the door to a wide range of personal and professional vilification and retribution.

Transparency International (TI) defines whistle blowing as “the disclosure of information about a perceived wrongdoing in an organization, or the risk thereof, to individuals or entities believed to be able to effect action.”  TI views whistleblowers as “invaluable in exposing corruption, fraud and mismanagement.

Early disclosure of wrongdoing or the risk of wrongdoing can protect human rights, help to save lives and preserve the rule of law.” TI also believes that the individual’s right to freedom of expression includes the right to point out acts of wrongdoing. The public increasingly is demanding greater levels of transparency and accountability in the use of public resources, securing good value for money and the efficient delivery of public services.

In Guyana, given the limited access to information and participation in public processes, whistleblowers will continue to be one of the primary catalysts for highlighting issues of corruption within government.

The NDIA case clearly highlights the need for the introduction of legislation and for policy directives to be developed and implemented to protect such persons. It often takes great courage to blow the whistle on corruption that may involve very senior persons like heads of corporations, ministers of government, or even Presidents.

No public servant in Guyana should be vilified for bringing a potential act of corruption to the public’s attention. Instead, he or she should be respected and protected by law. TIGI is supportive of the introduction of legislation and programmes to protect whistleblowers in Guyana. Transparency International has also developed a set of guiding principles for preparing whistleblowers’ legislation. These are available on the TIGI website.

Finally, TIGI welcomes the decision of the Auditor General to investigate the matters highlighted in the Field Auditor’s report on NDIA.

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