Successive Auditor General reports have raised serious questions about the way in which public funds are being accounted for by the Tobago House of Assembly.
It is a tail of failure by the THA to provide the Auditor General with the appropriate documents, missing vouchers, poor accounting and a general lax approach to accounting and spending of public funds.
A 2016 report of the Auditor General which looked at the 2015 financial year, revealed that vouchers totalling almost $500 million dollars were not produced by the THA for examination .
The 2015 report has a section titled “Individual Areas of Concern”, which highlights “Documents Not Produced”.
In item 15 relating to the THA it stated: “Vouchers to support two transfers totalling $396,900,677 and Schedules of Accounts recording another two transfers totalling $101,307,055.73 to the Tobago House of Assembly were not produced for audit scrutiny”.
It must be noted that 2015 was a general election year and was also the lead up to the THA election that was held in January 2016.
The 2016 Auditor General report also highlighted discrepancies in expenditure. It noted that the Transfers to Statutory Boards and Similar Bodies in Tobago totalled $2,134,973,173.00, but the corresponding figure reflected on the Abstract of payments and the Vote Books (an accounts book which is used to record and monitor expenditure in the public sector) amounted to $1,970,371,243.53, a difference of $164,601,929.47.
Moreover in 2013, the Auditor General also discovered conflicting accounts under the control of the THA.
It stated: “According to the Statement of Expenditure, the Tobago House of Assembly is shown as having exceeded the approved estimates by $23,729,410.00”.
The THA’s Total Expenditure of $2,583,492,509.48 as shown in the Appropriation Account differed from the figure of $2,559,763,100, according to the Vote Book and Notification of Expenditure.
This overspending was done even after the THA was already allocated $2.337 billion in original estimates for the year and an additional $223 million in supplementary transfers. In 2013 the THA was the only entity in the central government that overspent after receiving estimates.
Where did the money go?
The notes in the Auditor General Reports for T&T has highlighted that on multiple occasions the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) has not been transparent, accountable nor compliant when it comes to public finances over the past ten years.
In the reports there are instances of overspending, documents not being produced, irreconcilable accounts, contracts disappearing, and in one instance, the THA was even in contravention of its financial rules.
In 2017, an issue that arose with the unemployment relief programme fund, where the report noted that there was a difference of $703,693.27 between the cash balance recorded in the Cash Book and the reconciled cash balance shown in the Bank Reconciliation Statement as at 30th September 2017.
But this was not the first time problems with the unemployment relief fund have arisen. A year before, in 2016, under the unemployment programme, contracts were not produced to support payments to service providers for transport ($605,649.80) and for special projects ($1,460,583.25).
The report also indicted: “A permanent public officer employed with the Division of Infrastructure and Public Utilities supplied transport services to the Division in contravention of Regulation 16(1) of the Central Tenders Board Regulations and the Civil Service Regulations 137(1).”
Furthermore, the 2016 report indicated that bank reconciliation under the unemployment relief fund were not prepared on a regular and timely basis. It also noted that the “List of Unpaid Cheques” was incomplete in that some cheques were omitted.
Additionally, the report noted that the Cash Book figure differed from the corresponding figure in the Bank Reconciliation Statement by $92,617.51.
In 2014, after the THA spent approximately $19 million on its unemployment programme, it also breached financial codes and spend another $49 million on the said programme. The report indicated: “Further expenditure on the Unemployment Relief Programme amounting to $49,416,337.00 were funded by releases from the Contingencies Account of the Tobago House of Assembly.”
According to the Auditor General’s report, the spending contravenes the THA Financial Rule No. 34 which stipulates that “moneys shall not be withdrawn from the Contingencies Account other than for the purposes of meeting urgent or unforeseen expenditure.”
In 2011, the financial statements pertaining to the fund were also not presented.
The 2011 Auditor General report revealed that statements reconciling the cash balance according to the records of the THA’s Division of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, with the balance certified by the bank, were not produced for audit.
The report also indicated that the auditor general, on several of the records examined, did not see the evidence of internal audit checks at the THA.
According to the accounting records in the 2011 report, one of the activities under the unemployment programme, “the manufacture of furniture for sale” lacked structure and transparency. The report also noted that upon examination there was no standardized pricing structure for furniture sold at the workshop, no record of the items made and no evidence to indicate that the customer received the item.
The report added: “Further, it was not determined whether receipts were issued for deposits made on items ordered.”
Additionally, in the previous year 2010, the notes to the Auditor General’s report indicated a discrepancy in the financial statements of the money disbursed for unemployment relief .
The report stated: “A Statement reflecting expenditure of $16,958,952.36 was received from the Tobago House of Assembly in respect of the $17,000,000 disbursed by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance. An examination of the Financial Statement revealed that vouchers totalling $3,808,377.22 were not produced for audit.”
The Business Guardian emailed both Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis and Secretary of Finance and the Economy Joel Jack for comment on the recent SBG article entitled “A Waste of Taxpayers’ Money”.
The Business Guardian also asked the secretaries: “How do you respond to the allegations of Tobago’s poor judgment in spending in the years 2015 and 2016?” and “Do you believe that the allegations concerning Tobago needing stricter oversight, accountability and transparency to be of merit?”
Up until press time, neither Dennis nor Jack responded.