The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) held two public meetings this week—on Monday, September 23 and Wednesday, September 25, 2013—when they reviewed an old audit done under the administration of the Opposition People’s United Party, and one audit done under the ruling United Democratic Party.
Pro-tem chair John Saldivar said that they are not engaged in a witch-hunt, but they are trying to see what systematic flaws exist within government’s financial system which should be corrected.
A total of five witnesses were called: the current Auditor General (who is also a former Accountant General) Dorothy Bradley; her predecessor – Edmund Zuniga; former Accountant General, Carmen Barrow; former Accountant General Anita Eck; and Income Tax Commissioner Kent Clare.
The Opposition People’s United Party—which has dubbed the proceedings illegal—boycotted the meeting. Neither PAC chairman Julius Espat nor PUP member Rodwell Ferguson was present. Espat had previously indicated to us that he would not participate, because the PAC should only look at the last audit (2010-2011) – the only one filed under his tenure. He said that what the PAC is doing—in conducting “forensic audits”—ought to be done by a Special Select Committee.
On both days, Saldivar was sworn in as chair because of Espat’s absence. This was done under House Standing Orders 75(2), which makes provision for a chairman to be elected when the substantive chair is absent.
“If the Chairman is unable to be present at any meeting, the Committee shall elect another Chairman whose tenure of office shall be for the day of his election,” says Standing Order 79 (2).
Espat had proposed a radical reform of the PAC, to give three seats to the social partners – the unions, the private sector and the churches, which means that the political parties would no longer control the oversight committee.
The ruling party rejected that reform proposal – and instead extended an invitation to the social partners to sit in the meetings as observers. Parliament confirms that senators Ray Davis (union), Mark Lizarraga (private sector), and Noel Leslie (church) attended the meetings. However, Saldivar made it clear that the social partner senators can have no input during the proceedings, despite their attendance.
The PAC’s mandate is to examine, consider and report on the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the National Assembly to meet the public expenditure of the country, as well as other accounts which may be referred to the Committee by the House or under any Law. The Committee has never functioned as intended.
Saldivar said that one glaring issue raised by the audits is the problem of record-keeping. He said that indications are that there has been “a dereliction of duty” on the part of some senior public officers – but, he said, as the meetings progress, more “juicy matters” such as “fraud and corruption” will be dealt with.
In an exchange with former Auditor General, Edmund Zuniga, who held that post from September 2005 to August 2011, UDP member of PAC, Patrick Faber, said, during the meeting, that there appears to be a blame game over the dearth of information for the audit reports.
Faber said that “whenever there was something that wasn’t handed in, you [Zuniga] have indicated that it is not your responsibility and in fact, it is the responsibility of the Accountant General. I am very much looking forward to what the Accountant General might say, and am assuming that the Accountant General might well say that it is not her fault if the ministries don’t hand it in, and the blame game continues.”
Zuniga said this was not the case, and he acted within his powers: “There have been several correspondences between the offices of the Auditor General and the Accountant General. Unfortunately, the Auditor General can only request, examine and report; we don’t have the authority to go and get something ourselves…”
Another major revelation made is the need for a proper reconciliation of what has been dubbed the “suspense account,” which has its genesis in the period before the former People’s United Party implemented the Smart Stream accounting system. Instead of the suspense account being cleared, though, it continued to be used for new transactions and it remains in use under this UDP administration, the PAC meeting revealed.
In his 2008-2009 audit, which PAC reviewed on Wednesday, Zuniga reported $280 million of questionable transactions—which he told us amounts to a quarter of the national budget—in the suspense account, an account which he told us is intended to be a temporary account to document errors or questions that have to be sorted out. Zuniga had explained to us back then that instead of decreasing, the value has actually doubled since 2005, with transactions going back nearly a decade.
In that audit, Zuniga had also noted that “The 2008/2009 ûnancial period was an extremely busy and challenging time for the Ofûce of the Auditor General in Belize; however, the staff rose to the occasion. It was during this period that the Ofûce conducted special audits of the Soybean Project, the Venezuela Fund and of the issuance of land at the Ministry of Natural Resources. The reports on the audit of the Soybean Project and the Venezuela Fund have been tabled in the National Assembly and the report on the Issuance of Land at the Ministry of Natural Resources has been concluded for submission to that body.”
All those audits are scheduled for review by next February. The next PAC meetings are scheduled for October 28 and 30. Meetings are to be held the last Monday and Wednesday of the month – except for December.