COI publishing stimulus audit report online despite objections
Despite objections from the government, the man leading the ongoing Commission of Inquiry (COI), Sir Gary Hickinbottom has ruled that he will be placing a COVID-19 audit document on the COI’s website, thus making them publicly accessible.
The audit covers the government’s grants to farmers and fisherfolk as well as other government economic stimulus given to local religious institutions, private schools, and daycares.
Several aspects of the audit document have been cited at length during Auditor General Sonia Webster’s testimony before the COI this week.
However, Solicitor General, Jo-Ann Williams-Roberts, who acts on behalf of the Attorney General representing government ministers, said she felt the document needed to be laid in the House of Assembly (HOA) before it was made accessible to the public.
The Solicitor General said she had an opportunity to look at the report and was not moved to concede or consent to it being made public.
Williams-Roberts further said she looked at the procedures and found that they require audit reports to be laid before the House of Assembly. She added that she was particularly uncomfortable with the fact that the document has not been laid as yet. She also expressed discomfort with the level of personal data contained in the document and its appendices.
Sir Gary then said the data will have to be redacted and asked the Solicitor General whether there would still be a problem publicising even with a redaction.
She responded: “I would not be able to say – just sitting here – if just redacting the names alone would allow persons not to know who the references are. I would have to read the entire paragraphs to see if the paragraphs actually make reference to a person [in a way] that others can know who it is even if the name is redacted.”
But Sir Gary said, the audit report “has been referred to and quoted from quite liberally during the hearing”. He, however, noted that the COI has been careful not to refer to the personal information contained in the document.
“If we publish the report, then we’d obviously exclude the personal data — that’s not an issue. The only issue [you then have] is that, although it’s a final report, it hasn’t been laid before the House of Assembly yet,” Sir Gary said.
Williams-Roberts agreed and said: “I am concerned that we may misstep if we do publish the information prior to it being laid on the House of Assembly’s table,” Williams-Roberts said.
HOA just a ‘procedural step’
COI attorney Bilal Rawat, in his response, argued that the process of placing the documents before the HOA was essentially a ‘procedural step’ before making the documents public.
He said the AG’s document was essentially final since it was submitted to the governor. And when it’s in the hands of the governor, no changes are usually done after this point — unless in the form of an addendum.
According to Rawat, the documents were already sent to all interested parties in a COI hearing bundle and should have been obvious that there was an intention to make the documents public via Inquiry proceedings.
With the public having read the transcripts of the hearing, Rawat said they will now be aware of the contents of the document, which goes towards the aim of helping the public to understand the work of the COI.
Rawat said he was not arguing for the COI to publish every document it received. But, altogether, he felt these factors outweighed the arguments by the Solicitor-General.
The Solicitor-General, in response, pointed out the fact that placing the documents before the HOA was not a procedural step but a statutory requirement as per Section 20 of the Audit Act. She argued that the COI would be in breach of the Act if it published the document summarily on its website.
Public interest outweighs procedure
Sir Gary said that before the Solicitor General’s invited objections, no one raised a concern knowing that the entire report could have been read out in hearings.
In his ruling, Sir Gary further said he has to balance the public interest and that of others when considering whether to post the report on the COI’s website. And after considering the arguments, he said he did not agree that there would be a breach of the Act in publishing the audit document at this time.
He said not posting the documents now would leave an incomplete picture in the minds of the public, especially since the report has now been referred to extensively.
He said he will direct that the documents be published on the COI website with the appropriate redactions.
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