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ALBERT BRANDFORD: Filibustering pac hearings?

Albert Brandford, [email protected]

ALBERT BRANDFORD: Filibustering pac hearings?

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IT WAS INEVITABLE that in the aftermath of the publication of the Special Audit on Government’s latest low income high rise apartments some controversy and contention would attend any attempt at a formal investigation.

Indeed, even before the ink had dried on the “invitation” or “summons” for three key players to explain their involvement to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), there were already cries of “witchhunt”, questions about its legal standing, and suggestions of defiant non-attendance.

By now, it would be beyond question that members of the Freundel Stuart Cabinet and the attendant public officers in the respective ministries are intimately familiar with the findings of the Special Audit on the Grotto and Valery complexes which was submitted to Parliament on September 15.

The only salient question that arises now is: how will Government respond to the entreaties of the PAC, birthed by Parliament and buttressed by 2003 legislation?

An early indication seems to be emerging of a possible attempt at the equivalent of an extra-parliamentary filibuster to stymie and/or prevent such a legally mandated probe.

It ought to be clear, however, that such an approach could have unintended consequences, particularly as a general election looms on the horizon, leading to the creation of the unfortunate impression that Government has something to hide.

Those who might be supportive of such a manoeuvre would perhaps do well to remember the advice of the late former Minister of Finance Dr Richie Haynes that in politics impressions count for more than facts.

Any enquiry into a Government spending programme must have at its roots the unearthing of the “facts” that informed the decision-making on the rationale for the undertaking of projects and the expenditure of taxpayers’ monies.

In the course of such investigations, there is likely to be some political mileage. But the primary objective will, and has always been, to determine whether such expenditure was prudent, and more particularly, in conformity with the laws.

For those genuinely concerned about the state of governance, it is a source of satisfaction that so far there has been no attempt to deny or otherwise disparage the findings of the Audit Office whose core mission is to “strengthen public accountability by providing fair and independent reports after careful examination of accounting records and use of resources”.

One truly alarming finding, as noted previously, in the Special Audit on the National Housing Corporation high rise apartments at the Grotto and Valery has been that $27.85 million was utilised from the Housing Credit Fund to pay the contractor for the Grotto project.

“However, a legal opinion was issued to the effect that such transfer of funds from this Fund ‘could not be substantiated in law’.”

It is but one example of the kind of charge made by Parliament’s investigating arm that ought to have galvanised a Government into an open and very public response detailing the rationale and information used in determining that action.

Instead, what we have seen and heard so far seems designed to shift the focus from the report and raise issues about the legal standing of the PAC and whether it has the lawful authority to “invite” and/or “summon” Cabinet Ministers.

While there has been no confirmation from Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley, who chairs the Joint Public Accounts Committee, or any communication to the public from Parliament itself, there has been an acknowledgment in the Press from an attorney claiming to be the legal representative of two of the Ministers who have been sent letters.

The media said the PAC chair had apparently written to Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Minister of Housing and Lands Denis Kellman and his predecessor, the current Minister of Transport and Works Michael Lashley, requesting that they appear in person in light of concerns in the Special Audit about spending by the NHC.

According to the online newspaper Barbados Today (18/11/16), Lashley’s terse response was that the media should speak to the person who sent the letter, while Kellman said he did not know why he was being summoned.

“The letter has nothing to do with me, so I’m not even getting involved in that,” Kellman was quoted as saying.

“Pressed on the issue, Kellman suggested that he was the victim of a political ‘witchhunt’.

“It can’t be only the chairman . . . , it would got to be the Committee.

“Any committee that is not legally done, I don’t worry about”.

Perhaps on reflection, Kellman might agree with the stance of Sinckler, who has not commented but may have a better understanding of the parliamentary watchdog’s standing and role.

Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email: [email protected]