Gleaner Editorial | Shame at the Public Accounts Committee-May 21, 2021

This timely editorial came after a week when the integrity of the Auditor General was called into question by Parliamentarians, some of whom don’t appear to know Jamaica’s Constitution and the independence it gives to the Auditor General, for obvious good reasons.

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There is comfort in the fact that criminal libel is no longer an offence, that a sitting auditor general cannot be removed on a whim, and that Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) members who have been attempting to turn Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into a Star Chamber against Pamela Monroe Ellis are likely to be on frolics of their own, rather than being under central direction.

With respect to the latter point, we hold that conclusion on the presumption that Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his key advisers would not encourage, or be knowing or willing parties to, any effort to undermine the auditor general on spurious grounds. For while that may appear good for short-term politics, it is antithetical to the good governance to which the prime minister has declared himself committed.

The auditor general is the Government’s chief auditor – a post established by the Constitution. Her job is to ensure that the financial accounts of government ministries, departments and agencies are properly kept and taxpayers’ resources are accounted for. From time to time, the auditor general conducts special or performance audits of entities and projects, which sometimes unearth inefficiencies and probable corruption, which may not only result in criminal charges, but prove embarrassing to governments.

In recent times, the Mrs Monroe Ellis’ probes of the Petrojam oil refinery and the education ministry are cases in point. They discovered nepotism, cronyism and other apparent acts of corruption. They led to the resignation of one minister and fraud charges being brought against another. Other public officials are also before the courts. Boards of institutions were forced to resign en masse

NOT THE ONLY ONES

But this administration, and the party from which it is formed, are not the only ones to have been discomfited or embarrassed by the work of Jamaica’s auditors general, including Mrs Monroe Ellis, who has been in the job since 2008. For instance, an audit by Mrs Monroe Ellis of the Factories Corporation of Jamaica (FCJ), covering the tenuring of the former People’s National Party (PNP) administration, disclosed a range of problematic issues, the Cabinet’s approval of the sale of more than 11 and a half acres of land, valued at J$164 million, ostensibly to a community trust for J$10,000. 

Up to the time of the release of that report, shortly after the PNP left office in 2016, the trust was not registered, and its directors were three private individuals. “…We noted that the title did not include a restrictive caveat to prevent the unauthorised disposal of the property in whole or in part,” the auditor general said. “Consequently, we were unable to determine the terms and conditions governing the transfer.” 

Only months after that report came the auditor general’s revelations of a fat gratuity/golden handshake payout to a former boss of the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), who was already entitled to three hefty pensions. Other managers were also awarded pensions outside the scope established by the finance ministry and without the ministry’s permission.

Apparently failing to appreciate the potential of their behaviour to weaken accountability, the JLP members of PAC seem to believe that they can best protect their party by undermining public confidence in Mrs Monroe Ellis, which, ultimately, is an attack on the office of the auditor general. In so doing, they scraped for purchase via an audit of her office, conducted, as is required by law, by the finance ministry’s internal auditor. 

In the normal scheme of things, the matters flagged by the finance ministry’s audit – some of which have been walked back – would be considered minor and noted for action. But they have become causes célèbres for the likes of first-time MPs Dwight Sibblies and Robert Miller, and second-termer Heroy Clarke, who has recently found a voice.

At a PAC hearing 10 days ago, they spent much of the time haranguing and niggling Mrs Monroe Ellis with the question of why she (with an office of a senior director, two deputy auditors general and two heads of sections of similar rank) was not at an exit interview more than a year ago with the finance ministry’s auditors. It turned out that she was scheduled for a meeting of the PAC (which was postponed at the last minute), so had delegated the task.

NIGGLING RESUMED

On Tuesday, the largely uninformed niggling resumed in seeming search for a “gotcha”. 

Mr Sibblies wanted to know why the auditor general’s whereabouts at the time of the meeting more than a year ago had made it into this newspaper before the information had made it to the committee. She could not answer, except to say that she had been asked by a reporter to confirm the date of the exit meeting. 

The Gleaner knew because having confirmed the date of the meeting, it checked with Parliament and the minutes of committee meetings on the day. Mr Sibblies made heavy weather of the matter.

Mr Miller insisted that Mrs Monroe Ellis name the journalist who contacted her. She declined. Mr Clarke harrumphed about Parliament being “the final” that “supersedes all courts”, so when MPs bring someone who is “employed to Parliament” for questioning “we expect to get the answer”. Others joined the charade. There was a question about the respective qualifications of the auditor general and the finance ministry’s internal auditor. She is a Fellow Member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. He has a first degree in management.

Mr Clarke persistently questioned whether the auditor general had line responsibility to the Cabinet or to Parliament, and remained seemingly suspended between dissatisfaction and incomprehension when it was explained that the auditor general did not fall under a ministry, and has its own budget head. Nothing changed when Section 122 (3) of the Constitution was read to illustrate the basis of her independence. The section explains that in exercise of her functions the auditor general “shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority”. It was a depressing episode. But it underlined the foresight of the framers of Section 122 (3) and the security of tenure the Constitution provides to auditors general. They retire at 60, which gives Mrs Monroe Ellis 15 more years in the post, unless she resigns or does something that warrants impeachment. 

Further, in another time The Gleaner might have been hauled before the Parliament to answer to Mr Sibblies et al.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)