Alleged $639m theft from ministry should have been probed by accountant general, audit office – Edghill

Juan Edghill

The alleged theft of $639M from the Public Service Ministry, which resulted in the former subject minister Jennifer Westford and her aide being criminally charged, should have been investigated by both the Office of the Auditor General and the Accountant General, according to member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Juan Edghill, who says that the absence of this element raises questions.

“The police eventually made a case but I would have thought that you should have had an Auditor General check as well as the Accountant General, whose officers have to approve these monies before it gets out of the system, do an investigation and I don’t know that either of the two was done or I don’t know that either of the two were warranted in the first instance because there was probably no red flag or breaches that were identified”, Edghill, a PPP/C member on the parliamentary committee told Stabroek News.

On February 1, 2016 Westford and Margaret Cummings were slapped with a total of 24 counts of the charge, larceny by a public officer and after denying them, they were granted $200,000 bail on each charge read, amounting to a total of $4.8 million to be paid to the court. Based on the available information the charges stemmed from a police investigation and were based on a review of the case by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). There is nothing to indicate that either the Auditor General or the Accountant General conducted a separate investigation.

It was alleged that between the period October 19th, 2011 and April 28th, 2015, they stole a total of $639,420,000, belonging to the Government of Guyana, which they received by virtue of employment.

On August 24th all the charges were dismissed as the magistrate found that they were “bad in law”.

Contacted recently for his perspective on the absence of an investigation by these two offices, Edghill indicated that neither the Auditor General nor the Accountant General raised any issue that “I am aware of as it relates to Minister Westford and her aide and that six hundred and something million dollars”.

Asked whether it isn’t the usual protocol for both offices to look into to such a matter even though there is a police investigation, he responded “I would have thought that was necessary but if the police get some report that they handled…I don’t know that there was a report of any wrongdoing or any system breaches or any misconduct that the Auditor General or the accountant general or their staff [discovered] that caused them to be investigated. That is one of the reasons why we said over and over that it was a political witch hunt”.

Edghill, a former minister in the ministry of finance, pointed out that the release of money goes through a three-tier process and as such an audit would have picked up suspicious activity.

“In the process of processing monies for payment there are checks and balances, there are people who have to verify first of all that the money is voted, that it is being voted for a particular line item, that this was catered for and has been expended in keeping with the profile that was set up during the budget and then that money is released. So money just can’t be released because I request 600 million or several times and [it] add up to 600 million. It has to be checked to see that this money is voted for in a particular line item or for a specific activity. It is followed through in those activities and then the vouchers are prepared at different levels, you have to prepare the check and approve. It’s three layers of people”, he explained.

Edghill stressed that when the issue broke as a police matter shortly after the PPP/C left government, he was surprised and opined that the police probe could have been initiated by a report or someone saying something.

According to Parliament’s website, among the Committee’s responsibilities is the examination of audited accounts, as presented in the Auditor General’s Report, showing the “appropriation of sums granted by the National Assembly to meet public expenditure and such other accounts laid before the Assembly as the Assembly may refer to it” and the exercising of general supervision over the functioning of the Auditor General in accordance with the law.

When asked if the matter could be raised at the level of the PAC, Edghill informed that that may not be within its mandate. “I guess, our mandate is limited to the reports that come before us. If there is no query, there is no report that initiates a discussion on this particular matter, I don’t think there is anything that the PAC can do”.

He stressed that the PAC can’t request that the matter be investigated. “I don’t know that to be a mandate…Our powers are derived based upon the reports whether it is a statutory body or the Auditor General report for public agencies”, he said.

Countless

Stabroek News made countless efforts to contact Auditor General Deodat Sharma for comment on this issue but was unsuccessful.

According to the website of the State Audit Office of Guyana, it scrutinises the expenditure of public funds on behalf of Parliament. The Office, it informed, conducts financial audits of all publicly funded entities, including donor-funded entities, local government agencies and trade unions, in Guyana.

The Office which is stablished by the Constitution  is an independent agency.

The Accountant General’s Office is tasked with the responsibility of supervision of the country’s Accounting Systems on behalf of the Minister of Finance.  Among its key functions is that it should advise the PAC “on matters of a financial nature”

Then Deputy Accountant General Jennifer Chapman had testified during the trial. In November 2016 from the witness box she had testified that she handed over 23 cheques, dated from August, 2011 to March, 2015, to the police for the investigation.

She had said that the police visited her and questioned her about the alleged theft and it was during this time that she was required to hand over the documents.

She had said that the cheques, dating from 2011 to 2014, were returned to the Accountant General’s Office by the Bank of Guyana at the end of the year, while those dated for 2015 were requested from the Bank of Guyana. She explained they had to be requested since the bank only returns cheques at the end of the year.

Chapman had also explained that the cheques reflected transactions from the Inter-Departmental Warrants issued by Public Service Ministry. Chapman said the warrants were issued by the ministry to the former Office of the President. She said the funds would then be released by the Ministry of Finance, but before that a statement has to be prepared to define the purpose of the warrant.

Based on this newspaper’s records, no mention was made of the Office calling in the police or launching an internal investigation.

Investigation warranted

Several legal minds said that the Auditor General has a responsibility to investigate instances of alleged missing government funds.

An attorney who asked not to be named told Stabroek News that, whenever state money is discovered to be missing it is the responsibility of the government of the day to investigate that matter to determine where the money is, who took it and how it as taken. He said that the dismissal of the case against Westford and Cummings, doesn’t mean that the money was not taken. According to the attorney, the Auditor General also has a responsibility to investigate. He pointed out that the Constitution gives the Auditor General the power to investigate state funds and made it an independent body for a reason.

He opined that a special investigation by that office in this particular instance “should have been done”.

Meanwhile, Edghill indicated that he is pleased with the work of both offices.

He said that he found the Audit Office to be highly proficient and efficient in the discharge of their responsibilities. “I think they have been alert….bearing in mind that they don’t do a 100 per cent audit. It is a sample audit that they would normally do but I think they are on the ball”, he said.

With regards to the Accountant General’s Office, he said that the staff there has also been “quite professional and they have been giving the best advice and looking at the system and ensuring that the levers are being controlled to ensure that the public purse is preserved”. He said that both Offices should be “highly commended” for the work they are doing.

The Chambers of the DPP last week signalled its intention to appeal the dismissal of the charges against the two women. It has already given oral notice and is currently in the process of preparing legal documents which will soon be filed in the Guyana Court of Appeal.

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