Auditor General Sonia Webster has issued a damning audit report which outlined a plethora of infractions committed by the governing Andrew Fahie administration. It also details several areas where there had been outright attempts to block the audit exercise itself.
The audit report, which was brought to the public through the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Monday, was conducted to assess the government’s stimulus programme for farmers and fisherfolk. The programme launched last year as part of the government’s response to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
The Auditor General (AG) told the COI that even as she made efforts to conduct the audit, she encountered deliberate attempts at blocking her from accessing government files needed to carry out her duties.
Webster said that despite repeatedly sending requests to the Premier’s Office via email and telephone, her office was unable to obtain the relevant files and information about the COVID-19 stimulus grants.
She said her office was denied access to databases, documents, reports, and other information relevant to policy development and implementation programmes.
The refusal was reportedly in direct contravention of the BVI’s constitution and Audit Act — both of which provides for the Auditor General’s Office to have access to government documents and records. Under those laws, no public officer expending public funds has the authority to deny information requested for audit purposes.
Webster told the COI her office initially received no response from the Premier’s Office. And subsequent to that, they were told that information could not be sent because an internal audit team was reportedly performing a similar exercise.
She then reportedly told the Premier’s Office that her office was willing to share access to the databases that were not in use by the internal audit team. However, this proposal, too, was rebuffed.
“I believe there was a deliberate attempt to prevent this [Auditor General’s] office from getting the information in order to complete this exercise,” Webster said.
Webster further disclosed that another aspect of the COVID audit was the Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) COVID grants that was issued to local companies.
Premier’s Office orders for AG to be blocked
“We were granted access to that database and then told that the ministry — the Premier’s Office — had instructed that that access be removed,” Webster said.
“So, from where we sit, there was a deliberate effort to prevent the office from getting, having access to the information.”
“I often have to say to individuals that we are not asking for your personal information, this is government spending, public spending. You do not have a right to withhold information where it respects government processes and government activities,” she added.
Absence of transparency
The AG labelled the behaviour emanating from the Premier’s Office as an absence of transparency because of the many attempts at obfuscation.
“Our job is actually to look at those documents that is our job,” Webster said. “Our job is accountability and transparency and reporting when there is no accountability or transparency. And in this case, there was absolutely the absence of transparency coming out of that ministry.”
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