GOB overspent by millions; laws broken, say PUP senators
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 25, 2018– Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) senators Eamon Courtenay and Valerie Woods called a press briefing this morning to update the media on government’s very late Supplementary Appropriations Schedule for fiscal year 2016/2017 that the Senate was asked to approve yesterday.
The two senators are alleging that the United Democratic Party government of Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow is in breach of the Finance and Audit Reform Act and “somebody has to be held accountable.”
Senator Courtenay told the press that the purpose of calling the media’s attention to the issue was to highlight firstly the gross financial irresponsibility by the government and secondly, the fact that a number of the non-compliances by the government amount to criminal offences.
“We believe that what happened in the Senate yesterday was historic, because not only was it pointed out that the laws were broken, but the Financial Secretary himself attended the committee and accepted that in fact, there has been non-compliance with the Finance and Audit Reform Act, and there has been non-compliance with the regulation made under that act for financial transparency and responsibility,” Courtenay said.
Senator Courtenay added, “What we wanted to do was to give the Belizean people a little bit more detail of what in fact happened, so that they can understand that this is an extremely serious matter that civil society ought to become very interested and take steps to ensure that what was revealed should be dealt with according to law. In short, a supplementary appropriation bill came before the floor of Senate after it had been passed by the House of Representatives, and the purpose of that supplementary was to approve spending for 2016/2017. The first point we made was, why so late?”
“There is a procedure under the Finance and Audit Reform Act and the Constitution where excess spending is required; what needs to be done, and this was clearly not done,” said Senator Courtenay. “This appropriation is for expenditure from Hurricane Earl from 2016 and they are now seeking approval,” he said.
“Then of course there was the massive overspending by Belize Infrastructure Limited, which they seem to be seeking approval for now. All of this was very unusual because of the significant delay and the lack of details, and so we called for the Financial Secretary to come and he came to the committee; all he did was one: confirm the noncompliance, and two: promise to provide us the details so that we could understand what the overspending was done for,” Senator Courtenay explained.
Senator Courtenay said that the PUP Leader was briefed and what the party will do now is await the details from the Financial Secretary and then call the executive of the PUP to meet and take a decision.
“A complaint can be made to the police for an investigation to be done and for prosecution to be launched for criminal violation of the Finance and Audit Reform Act,” he said.
The senators were asked what explanation was given for why it took so long for these appropriations to take place.
Senator Woods said that they were told that “it is a slippage and we [the government] just got busy and we missed deadlines.”
“The Leader of Government Business (Senator Godwin Hulse) concedes that ‘we have missed deadlines.’ It is important for Belizeans to understand that very admission is also admitting that the government had violated the law,” Senator Woods said.
“In my contribution I did say that I find the excuse to be pathetic,” Senator Woods added, “We were given approval for x amount of millions of dollars and we went over by x amount of million dollars. These are the reasons why we went over. We are not provided that. There’re pathetic excuses because it is a matter of providing explanations. In the case of Belize Infrastructure Limited, they were approved $500,000. That’s the monies they had to spend in that fiscal year. They got a supplementary of $5 million. They went over by $4.5 million. We still don’t know why. We don’t know what that was used for.”
“They got another one for $7 million in the same year. So, it went up to $12.5 [million]. By the time that fiscal year was over, it went further and the final tally was over $19 million. So the obvious question is, okay, we understand you went over; can you tell us why, can you show us how that money was spent?” Senator Woods pointed out.
Senator Woods explained that the Financial Secretary sits on the board of Belize Infrastructure Limited.
“There is no audit report; if you go on their website, if you can find it; there is no information on any of this. So the explanation given was that we gave you the figure, that’s transparency, and that’s accountability. All we are saying to the Belizean public, if you accept that, then the term transparency and accountability has lost all meaning and all values. It’s very important to understand where the money went,” Woods commented.
“We do not have a Contractor General. We don’t know what the status of that is, we have asked for it, and we have gotten no response. Did the Contractor General review any of the contracts? How do we know, he, too, has not submitted any report? It is very serious and we find the explanations to be weak. We don’t think they hold water. To his credit, the Financial Secretary has committed to providing us with a list of where these expenditures went,” explained Senator Woods.
Senator Woods was asked what she would conclude if the government’s explanation was that there is value for money spent.
“There is a road, I believe it’s called Lake I Boulevard; the Prime Minister said that it was botched up. I believe the figure touted was $3 million spent. Is that value for money? There is report that the plumbing in the new Civic Center building is not up to par; that has to be investigated,” Senator Woods said.
“But if we are saying that transparency and accountability is what any minister or politician can say to you, ‘lower down you window, look outside, do you see the building, that’s where we are putting your money’; if you accept that, then you will have to determine if that is a reasonable excuse,” said Woods.
“That’s separate and apart from what Senator Courtenay is saying. Even if you come with those explanations, how do you explain not complying with the law? These monies were approved in 2016, so why is it that in 2018, if you were given moneys to do ‘ABC,’ we are asking, where is the ABC?” Senator Woods said.
Senator Courtenay was asked if the PUP were trying to make political mileage out of this, considering that municipal elections are right around the corner, and he was also asked whether the government can attach the overspending to some expenditures in the upcoming budget.
Senator Courtenay replied, “We cannot be faulted by saying that we are attempting to make political mileage out of this; they were the one who brought the bill to the National Assembly at this time and they were the ones who set the date for the hearings, and we are doing our job. In terms of timing, they are the ones who control timing.
“Secondly, why this is of concern to us, and why it should be of concern to people, is you cannot have a hurricane on 4 August 2016, then on the 16 August 2017 approve $300,000 for the cleanup of Belize City. Something has to be wrong there. Now if you tell me that the expenditure was approved in 2016, but we missed it and so we are approving it now in 2018, then something is even more wrong.”
He further went on to say, “Let me be clear; until we receive the support documents, we cannot suggest that anyone did anything wrong with the money, but there appears to be smoke. Now, in terms of the ability of Parliament to go back and correct the situation, you will note that when it came to Petrocaribe and the supplementary for Petrocaribe, it was because the People’s United Party was moving in court to say that those expenditures were illegal that they brought the supplementary and they made them retroactive.
“The reason for that was, one, to try to cover the tracks to say from the time it was done, it was legal, but emotionally, to rub out any possibility of someone going and making a report to police and say, look at these expenditures made without approval, they violate the Finance and Audit Reform Act; we retroactively covered it.
“The bill that was debated in the Senate is not retroactive. And it would be, in my opinion, a breach of legislative power if they now go and pass a law making it retroactive. Well, we have highlighted to the Belizean people where we have seen an acceptance by the government senators that there has been a violation of the law to pass a law to protect somebody from a criminal prosecution.”
Senator Courtenay said someone must be held to account. “You can’t say that the PUP was doing it, now the UDP is doing it, so it will continue forever. It was because of what was complained about in the last PUP administration that the law was changed, and the transparency regulations were brought in to ensure that this does not happen again. Until somebody is held accountable, it will just continue,” he said.