Auditor General (AG), Sonia Webster, has disputed the narrative that the Premier’s Office made attempts to cooperate with her office during the early stages of its COVID-19 stimulus grants last year.
Appearing before the Commission of Inquiry (COI) in a marathon hearing last Friday, Webster supported her position with an email that was sent to her office. This email explicitly denied the Audit Office access to information from the Trade Department, which operates under the Premier’s Office.
The denial of access seen in the email was reportedly made by Permanent Secretary (PS) within the Premier’s Office, Dr Carolyn O’Neal-Morton, who also previously gave evidence before the COI.
“That was an explicit objection, an ongoing explicit objection because that request was made several times. It was made by the staff, and it was made by me,” Webster stated.
Asked by COI attorney, Bilal Rawat whether she felt this was contrary to any suggestion that there was, in fact, an attempt at cooperation, Webster said: “It is contrary, yes, that would be our position.”
She added: “And this required no effort on Dr Morton’s part. It doesn’t require her to put in any kind of resources. It’s simply an instruction, a simple instruction.”
What the Premier’s PS said
Dr O’Neal Morton previously told the COI she initially declined to assist the Audit Office because she felt that efforts were made to audit the government’s COVID-19 stimulus programme too soon.
At the time, she was under the mistaken impression that by law, the Audit Office could only examine programmes after they had been completed.
Dr O’Neal-Morton had also told the Audit Office that some of the information was highly confidential and that a consultative audit by the government’s Internal Audit Department was already being conducted on the programme. However, PS Morton’s latter claim turned out to be false, the COI heard.
The Internal Audit Department has stated that it, too, was unable to conduct any audit on the Premier’s programmes.
Still no information after nearly a year of requests
According to Webster, she sent Dr O’Neal a copy of the Audit Act or the constitution, which gives the Audit Office the right to request information. However, she said the Premier’s Office responded to her email or several follow-ups.
“I think after the third or fourth e-mail – Dr O’Neal would respond: ‘We will send the information we will send the report, we will send, we will send, we will send‘. But we never got anything. We never received anything, any documents, any reports, any copies of the databases that we requested, and not even access that didn’t require Dr O’Neal to do anything,” Webster stated.
“So, I don’t understand when Dr O’Neal is saying that she was, in fact, cooperating because perhaps she can indicate how she cooperated because we didn’t receive anything from the Premier’s Office,” Webster said.
She added: “We made several requests several different times over a long period of time, almost a year, and to date, none of this information we’d requested was actually given.”
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