Recently three persons aired criticism of the continuing assignment of the Minister of Finance’s wife to the second most senior position in, and de facto technical head of, the Audit Department. Dr Luncheon in response is reported in the KN of October 19th to have alleged, inter alia, ’that the premature pronouncements by the trio is essentially prejudicing the outcome of ongoing investigations by professional bodies into this putative conflict of interest situation occasioned by Geetanjali Singh’s husband being the Minister of Finance.’
The appointment of Mrs Geetanjali Singh, to that position involving oversight of auditing of entities for which the Minister is both directly and indirectly responsible, has been regarded by non-PPP members of the Committee as a threat to the objectivity of the auditor and the integrity of the public audit process. This is a view shared by most professional auditors and lawyers I have consulted. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the body responsible for approving appointments to the senior positions in the Audit Office, I therefore wrote in June 2012 to the local, regional and international offices of the relevant professional body, the ACCA, seeking guidance on the matter. The Guyana body has not even acknowledged the request and at one point erroneously claimed not to have received it. The regional office and the HQ responded and the latter undertook to have their officers charged with examining professional ethics investigate the matter.
In the course of reviewing the status of this issue subsequently, the PPP representative on the PAC, Ms Teixeira, notified the PAC that she had also written to the professional body challenging my authority to write the letter and refuting the claims that Mrs Singh had any assignments that involved a professional conflict of interest. She has not seen it fit to provide the PAC with a copy of that letter although I am certain that she received all the correspondence between myself and the ACCA from the Parliament Office. Subsequently communication from the London and regional offices ceased. I can only assume that the professional institution has been intimidated into inaction by threats contained, or implied, in the letter/s from Mrs Teixeira and the PPP regime.
For these reasons, Dr Luncheon’s assertion about on-going investigations would be curious, if not completely untrue. He therefore needs to tell the public which investigations and its findings are in danger of being prejudiced, their time frame and the terms of reference.
Indeed, if the government were interested in having this conflict of interest situation investigated, as one might infer from his comments, they would hardly have taken the unprecedented step of calling for a vote during their temporary majority in the PAC meeting last year. That temporary situation was, it will be recalled, facilitated by the unannounced absence of Mr Williams, the AFC member who had only a day prior issued a press statement critical of the proposal to promote Ms Singh.
It goes without saying that Dr Luncheon’s claims about the adverse effects of public discussion of this matter are completely self serving and hollow.
Dr Lucheon’s other comments in keeping with those of Minister Manickchand purport to show that the complaints about unethical behaviour are really evidence of gender bias by critics. The Chronicle carried a letter by Minister Manickchand captioned, ’If Goolsarran, Greenidge & AFC have their way women of Guyana won’t be able to work in their field of choice’. It opened with the words, ‘Geetanjali Singh is an attractive ….. woman ………’. Understandably, that may be a characteristic of interest to Dr Singh. I am surprised that it would warrant consideration let alone mention by Ms Manickchand but it is of no interest to the PAC. Furthermore, the manner of flagging this serious ethical problem as a gender issue shows how easily those who purport to be interested in furthering the cause of women slip into sexist robes. Indeed, it is no surprise that neither Ms Manickchand nor Dr Luncheon, these self professed latter day gender crusaders, have ever done anything meaningful in their public roles to attenuate the plight and further the interests of women in Guyana. This case will do nothing to erase that impression.
In this context it is hard to believe that the author of the letter, published over the name of the Minister, could be a practising graduate lawyer. The latter should not need to be told that the rights of an employee to choose place of employment or preferred profession (the patently bogus ’right to be able to work in one’s field of choice’) are not absolute. Patients also have a right to say who can undertake surgery on their bodies. That is not the sole prerogative of the qualified surgeon. Who would accept that anyone technically capable of being a pilot should be recruited as a commercial pilot? And, just as best commercial practice does not include arrangements for wives or children to audit the accounts of a firm whose CEO or Chairman is related to the auditor, so too in the state and public sectors of non-corrupt administrations across the world.
In Guyana, thanks to such actions by the Minister and her associates we are witnessing the theatre of the absurd where unprofessional behaviour is dressed up as pro-gender rights and nepotism is paraded as a fundamental labour right. This continuous diet of misrepresentation of issues and disparagement of public debate and commentary to which the Government resorts when challenged about impropriety and illegal behavior on the part of their officials is reprehensible. In other countries, when Governments are caught out for behaviour that is inappropriate, it is not unusual for them to first deny then remedy and hope that the squall blows over. In the case of the PPP regime as is evident in this case, they abuse critics, brazen out the issue and along the way seek to muster the most ridiculous arguments in defence of the indefensible.
It is doubly unfortunate but no coincidence that this debate is taking place in a country where nepotism is rampant, where corruption is so pervasive that the country is ranked as the most corrupt state in all of the Caribbean and the second most corrupt in all of the Americas. It is no surprise that with anti-money laundering legislation in place for over 13 years not a single person has ever been prosecuted under any of the two pieces of that legislation. It is significant that none of the numerous scams involving the Ministry of Finance and Government agencies has resulted in any significant and credible prosecutions. In the light of these facts, it is important that the Government be prevented from confusing the public with the usual diversions. The accounts which fall within the remit of the audit office include those of the NICIL, for example, of which the Minister is the chairman, and AHL which is associated with the Marriott fiasco and some very unorthodox financial arrangements.
It needs to be emphasized that in fact, the option of re-assigning either of the Singh family members to another non-conflictual position has always been available to the Government. It would have been appropriate for them to exercise that option in the face of the evident unwillingness of the Minister Singh and Mrs Singh, both accountants, to do the professionally ethical thing. The PAC is not responsible for Ministerial assignments nor is it facing a choice between a male and female. If the Government is as concerned with the gender issue as their spokesmen claim, it is open to them to re-assign the Minister rather than his wife. If a gender issue is involved, it is of the Government’s rather than the critic’s making.
It is not difficult to understand why citizens are asking, why is the appointment of the Finance Minister’s wife to audit the accounts of the Ministry and its agencies seemingly a matter of life and death for this PPP administration? Why can she not be assigned to another task of similar seniority? Her right to work where she and her husband find convenient cannot be greater than the national interest.
When my late grandmother was confronted by similar puerile intransigence on the part of her wards she would ask whose navel string was attached to the specific task, seat or space in dispute? In the same vein, I feel obliged to ask whether the joint navel string of the Singh family has the Ministry of Finance and the Audit Department tied to, or etched on, it!