The recent Commission of Inquiry reported finding evidence that the Premier’s Office under former Premier Andrew Fahie may have obstructed government auditors investigating Covid-19 assistance programmes.
A new law is designed to discourage such behaviour.
An amendment to the Audit Act 2003 — which was passed by the House of Assembly in July and took effect when it received Governor John Rankin’s assent on Aug. 10 — makes obstructing the auditor general a criminal offence punishable by fines up to $5,000.
The measure was recommended by the COI, and the National Unity Government’s reform framework set a deadline for the HOA to carry it out by July 31.
In keeping with another COI recommendation, the NUG has also amended the Service Commission Regulations to create other new penalties for public officers who don’t cooperate with auditors, according to Government Information Services.
“Failure by a public officer to cooperate with the Office of the Auditor General or Internal Audit Department will be considered an act of gross misconduct that carries a stiff penalty,” GIS stated in a press release.
The penalty for first-time misconduct can include up to 30 days’ suspension and demotion, and further misconduct will be grounds for dismissal, according to GIS.
The related COI recommendation also applies to employees of statutory boards, government stated.
“All statutory boards were given instructions by the acting governor to amend their governing documents to ensure that this recommendation is addressed and are well under way with making the necessary amendments,” the press release stated.
Deputy Governor David Archer Jr. said both amendments illustrate the government’s commitment to a more accountable public service.
“As we move swiftly to exact the strategy outlined in the Framework for Implementation [of reforms agreed in June by the VI and United Kingdom governments], each step brings us closer to greater accountability in the public service that the public deserve,” Mr. Archer said. “I am confident that these amendments carry significant weight and will allow an enhanced audit process for everyone as good governance continues to be a critical part of the public service transformation plan.”
In July 2021, Internal Auditor Dorea Corea told the COI about her investigation into four parts of the $62.9 million Covid-19 stimulus programme that Mr. Fahie unveiled in May 2020.
Ms. Corea strongly criticised the programme, stating that some residents had made multiple applications and received funds from different prongs of the programme, apparently taking advantage of the lack of checks and balances within ministries.
She also complained that the Premier’s Office did not cooperate with her efforts to provide monthly reports about the programmes as directed by Cabinet.
“Despite requests to the financial secretary and the permanent secretary in the Premier’s Office, her department received little or no information in relation to these programmes from the relevant arms of government,” the COI report notes.
The COI also found that Premier’s Office Permanent Secretary Dr. Carolyn O’Neal Morton “appears to have adopted the approach that she would control the IAD director’s access to information.”
Citing such behaviour, the COI reported “clear evidence of serious obstruction of the IAD director in the performance of her statutory duties.”
Obstructing the department’s work is a crime, the report adds.
Accordingly, Sir Gary recommended considering a criminal investigation.
In keeping with that recommendation, Governor John Rankin announced on May 12 that he had instructed the police commissioner to carry out a criminal investigation into allegations that the Premier’s Office obstructed Ms. Corea’s probe.
Staff including Dr. O’Neal-Morton were sent on leave while investigations were taking place, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” said at the time.