Government broke the law, claims PUP

By Marion Ali
Assistant Editor

Wednesday’s Sitting of the Senate departed from standard procedure when People’s United Party (PUP) senators requested the Financial Secretary, Joseph Waight, to attend the Committee Meeting, during which he acknowledged that the government had not complied with the Finance Reform and Audit Act with regard to appropriation bills.

The PUP senators wanted Waight to explain what they have termed as “gross financial irresponsibility” by the government. PUP Senators Eamon Courtenay, S.C., and Valerie Woods told the media on Thursday that fashionably late Supplementary Appropriation Bills (for unforeseen expenses on projects) dating back to 2016 were just being brought before the Senate for approval in 2018.

“What is clear is that there has been non-compliance with the Finance and Audit Reform Act, which is a criminal offence, and certainly at this stage, a complaint can be made to the police for an investigation to be done and for a prosecution to be launched for criminal violation of the Finance and Audit Reform Act,” Courtenay told reporters.

Courtenay explained that in addition to the government’s non-compliance with the terms of the Act and with the regulations made under that Act, these additional millions of dollars were being spent annually, but no adequate accountability has been provided to show how the monies were spent. Courtenay said, for example, there was a bill that was brought forth that sought approval for monies spent on Hurricane Earl, which occurred in August of 2016.

“You cannot have a hurricane on August 4, 2016 and then on August 16, 2017 approve $300,000 for cleanup of Belize City. Something has to be wrong there. Now if you tell me that the expenditure was incurred way back in 2016 but we missed it and so we are approving it now in 2018 then something is even more wrong! Until we receive the supporting documents, we cannot suggest that anyone did anything wrong with the money, but there appears to be smoke,” Courtenay said.
Other bills brought forward also caught the senators’ attention. These were for several millions of dollars spent on a number of projects carried out by the Belize Infrastructure Limited (BIL). Those projects for that year had an excess accumulated total of $19.5 million, the senators said. Waight provided a tally for the amounts, but Courtenay and Woods thought key details were lacking.

The senators said Waight confirmed that there has been non-compliance by government with the Finance and Audit Reform Act, and his explanation for the bills being late was that “there was a slippage, we just got busy and we missed deadlines.”

But the senators and their party believe that what has happened was far worse than “slippage”. They believe that the government has violated its own Finance and Audit Reform Act, which it amended in 2010 to avoid the same things which have now occurred, and for that, they feel someone should be held criminally liable. They referred to Section 5 of the Act which stipulates the conditions under which authorizations are given for additional spending on projects, as well as the fiscal transparency and responsibility regulations that are attached.

“Someone must be made to account. You can’t say that the PUP was doing it; now the UDP is doing it. So it will continue forever? It is because of what they complained about in the last PUP administration that the law was amended in 2010 and the transparency regulation was brought in to ensure that this does not happen again,” Courtenay charged.

Woods meanwhile, suggested that it cannot be interpreted as just a paper report – mia culpa, missing a deadline. When a government senator’s reaction to their questions was basically that we should respect the law but sometimes the law is impractical, Woods took issue with this notion.

“The level of oversight and impunity applied in Belize is grossly out of control and for government senators to treat the law so willy nilly is not just an insult to fellow senators, but a slap in the face of everyday Belizeans who must comply with the law or face the courts,” she said.

When projects, for unforeseen reasons, exceed the amount initially allotted for them in the fiscal budget, provision is made for additional funding in what is called Supplementary Appropriation Bills. The ministers under whose portfolio the projects fall are required by the Finance Act to present warrants for additional spending, and to immediately report the need for additional fund to the House to seek get the necessary approval. Those additional funding should also not exceed 10 percent of the initial budget. In the case of the BIL projects, Woods explained that the minister should have provided the full amount being sought for approval for those projects before the monies were actually used.

The senators bolstered their concerns on the basis that there is no audited report for BIL and that there is no contractor general to review the contracts for the additional spending.
The PUP wants to take the matter even further. They want people to know that while the government might see it as merely missing deadlines, they see it as breaking the law and they want civil society and Belizeans to hold the government responsible.

The senators have briefed their Party Leader, John Briceno and while they await the detailed information from the Financial Secretary, they will call the party’s Executive to meet and take a decision on the matter.

And if the government merely casts off the PUP’s stance as trying to gain political mileage less than two months before municipal elections, Woods pointed to projects recently finished that have not held through. These include the Lake I Boulevard, the now overgrown Marshalleck Stadium and reports of poor plumbing at the newly finished Belize Civic Centre, which has not yet been opened.

Meanwhile, like what it did with the supplementaries for PetroCaribe Fund, the government can go back and make amendments to the law and make it retroactive to cover the relevant supplementary bills, but that would make it an abuse of power, Courtenay said.

“The Bill that was debated in the Senate is not retroactive and it will be, in my opinion, abuse of legislative power if they now go and pass a law making it retroactive. We have highlighted to the Belizean people where we have seen an acceptance by the government senators that there has been a violation of the law,” Courtenay said.

The Reporter newspaper called for clarification, if any, from Waight, on Thursday afternoon but his secretary told us he was not in and would not be in until Monday.

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