Auditor General Sonia Webster appears in the Commission of Inquiry on Friday, where she repeated her claim that the Premier’s Office failed to cooperate with her requests for information on the Covid-19 stimulus grant programme. (Screenshot: COI/YOUTUBE)

Auditor General Sonia Webster and Internal Auditor Dorea Corea fired back against criticism of their reports on Friday, standing by their claims that the Premier’s Office refused to cooperate with their review of the Covid-19 stimulus grants programme.

The auditors’ reports alleged that the programme’s design and execution were flawed and offered poor value for money, and that the Premier’s Office and its permanent secretary, Dr. Carolyn O’Neal-Morton, failed to provide requested information.

Both Mses. Webster and Corea appeared before the Commission of Inquiry in separate hearings on Friday and responded to a list of “potential criticisms” drawn mainly from other COI testimony. A major
potential criticism derived from Dr. O’Neal-Morton’s testimony, according to the commission.

“Dr. O’Neal-Morton doesn’t mince her words,” COI Counsel Bilal Rawat told Ms. Webster.

“She says that your statements [that the Premier’s Office was uncooperative] were untrue.”

When the PS testified in the COI a week earlier, she strongly denied “refusing” to provide the auditor general with the documentation she needed to complete her audit.

The PS maintained instead that she could not furnish the information because it was incomplete at the time it was requested.

“We were still not completed with the information, so we weren’t in a position to provide them,” Dr. O’Neal-Morton told the COI during that hearing.

“So saying we didn’t provide any is totally untrue. And I totally reject that.”

Sticking to the story

On Friday, however, Ms. Webster stood by her report, saying she made multiple requests for cooperation from the PS under the Audit Act and the VI Constitution, which give the auditor the right to request information.

“After a while, I think after the third or fourth email, Dr. O’Neal would respond, ‘We will send the information; we will send the report; we will send, we will send, we will send,’ but we never got anything,” she said.

“We never received anything: any documents, any reports, any copies of the databases that we requested, and not even access that didn’t require Dr. O’Neal to do anything.”

To date, she added, “None of this information we’d requested was actually given.”

She also provided evidence that suggested the PS actively objected to a request for information from the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs.

This evidence arrived via an email Ms. Webster received in December 2020 from an auditor on her team. Mr. Rawat read out the email, which described a telephone call from the PS “objecting to the audit office having access to any information.”

He continued, “Her reasons being (1) the programme is ongoing; (2) some of the information is highly confidential; by law the audit office can only examine the programmes after they are completed; they are already working with Internal Audit, and the audit office will come in after.”

Premier’s criticism

At Friday’s hearing, Ms. Webster also responded to Premier Andrew Fahie’s contention in his testimony last week that her report was “incomplete” without “emails, associated records, and a response from the ministry,” Mr. Rawat read.

She replied that she has “no obligation” to add comments, and that many of the responses she received from the Premier’s Office were as many as 70 pages long and mostly irrelevant to the report.

“In the past, we did [add comments],” she said. “What we’ve been getting back is these long comments that were verbose that are only marginally relevant to the report.”

Overstretched resources

Ms. Corea responded to similar potential criticisms — also based largely on testimony from Dr. O’Neal-Morton — suggesting that she was incorrect in her assessment that the Premier’s Office was uncooperative.

However, Ms. Corea maintained that she too was stymied  by the PS in her attempts to compile a report.

“But when we wait and we don’t get anything, we just send reminders and they would respond and say, ‘I know: I’ll get it for you as soon as I can,’” Ms. Corea said.

No response since August

She added that she hadn’t heard anything from the PS  about her request for information about the stimulus since Aug. 27.

Another potential criticism,  according to the commission, was that Ms. Corea may have failed to recognise that the Premier’s Office was dealing with overstretched resources and  pressure to provide immediate relief with the stimulus programme.

Ms. Corea acknowledged the overstretched resources.

“At the same time, there was never indication that being overstretched [prevented them from] providing the information or that the information was not available to be provided,” she added.

If she had been told that information was unavailable due to strained resources, she explained, she would have noted as much in her report.