Auditor General, Sonia Webster, has refuted charges that she was unnecessarily excessive with the language used in her audit reports of the government’s COVID-19 stimulus grants last year.
Webster suggested in her audit report of the farmers and fisherfolk relief programme that monies were essentially claimed under false pretence. For example, the audit found that some fisherfolk recipients received money even though they didn’t have finishing boats.
But Sir Geoffrey Cox, who represents government ministers on behalf of the Attorney General, rubbished this idea.
“The language that has been used in this report is excessive and goes beyond the facts that existed before the Auditor General,” Sir Geoffrey told the Auditor General during a recent Commission of Inquiry (COI) hearing.
“As I’m trying to say, Madam Auditor General, I don’t want you to think for a moment that I disagree with much of what you’ve said about the availability of material. The point that I’m seeking to make is that your language when you carried out checks on the farmers [and fisherfolk but] … your reason to the Commissioner was that you couldn’t find the [fishing] boats. Well, all I’m asking is, why not simply contact those crew members to ascertain what the facts were?” Sir Geoffrey asked Webster.
Auditor General should have done due diligence
He suggested that her office should have explored the claims in a more detailed fashion before making an “allegation that clearly implies — potentially, at least — fraudulent conduct”.
“Before an auditor makes the suggestion … a check should be made to ensure that suggestion is safe. Of course, an auditor might well point out the anomalies.”
He also claimed that the Premier’s Office checked on the said anomalies to verify that the claims farmers and fishers made to get stimulus was indeed real.
However, the Auditor General stood by her findings.
“It’s basically your word against the records that we have checked and verified that these people do not own boats. “It’s your words against the records that are contained in Agriculture Department,” Webster said in response to Sir Geoffrey’s claim.
“We sent to the Premier’s Office a draft report that they had for almost a month. They had the opportunity to come back to us and say, ‘hey, this is not the case’. They did not do that. So they cannot at this stage come to us and say, ‘well, you know, this is wrong’. They had an opportunity for a month to come back to us,” she added.
Webster called the attorney’s suggestions and line of questioning ‘reckless’ and said there was no evidence anywhere to support his claims.
But Sir Geoffrey said the reality is that an exercise had been done, and some persons, according to the Premier’s Office, confirmed they have other vessels laid up for various reasons.
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