Governor John Rankin defended recently released audit reports on public contracts awarded to EZ Shipping Limited and Claude Skelton-Cline at a press conference on Friday following criticism from House of Assembly members.(Photo: ALVA SOLOMON)

Following recent criticism from the House of Assembly, Governor John Rankin and Auditor General Sonia Webster defended two reports by Ms. Webster’s office that suggest egregious wastage of taxpayer money.

Last Friday, Mr. Rankin said at a press conference that the reports — one probing contracts with EZ Shipping Limited for the provision of radar barges during the pandemic and another examining Claude Skelton-Cline’s recent consultancy contracts — “showed failure in good governance and proper use of public funds.”

As recommended by Ms. Webster, Mr. Rankin said he has since asked police and the director of public prosecutions to assess whether any offences were committed. He also forwarded the reports to the attorney general to assess whether the government should pursue recovery of funds, he added.

“The most important point is that lessons are learned from these reports, that we implement their recommendations and put the checks and systems in place to ensure that any mistakes, missteps or wrongdoing that has occurred is not repeated,” Mr. Rankin said.

He added that implementing such recommendations following last year’s Commission of Inquiry report will help ensure “that public funds are properly used for the benefit of the people of the territory, and not misused.”

Scathing reports

Both reports are scathing. The EZ Shipping probe found that the government paid $2.04 million to the company to rent barges for five months of border security services in 2020 and 2021 — including $738,000 for about two months when the barges were no longer in use.

Ms. Webster also found that then-Premier Andrew Fahie engaged the barges without approval from the governor, the Cabinet or the National Security Council, and that the deal was extended twice with no written request for continuation or report on effectiveness. The barges, the report added, did not appear to be effective.

In the Skelton-Cline probe, the auditor general found that the consultant received $365,650 over the course of 2.5 years after being hired by Mr. Fahie’s government shortly after the 2019 general election. However, he made scant progress, and the investigation suggested that “the primary purpose of this consultancy was not to add value to the government but rather provide employment for the consultant,” the report states.

Lawmakers’ response

After the reports were tabled on Feb. 21 in the HOA, a few lawmakers appeared to agree with some of the findings. Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, for instance, said he regretted his support of Mr. SkeltonCline’s contracts at a time when he was serving as a minister under Mr. Fahie. “I’m here to say to you that I believe my support for these contracts was a mistake,” he said. “And I believe the former premier made a mistake in engaging Claude Skelton-Cline with these contracts.” However, other lawmakers criticised the same report, and they later ramped up such criticisms when debating the EZ Shipping report on Feb. 21 and last Thursday.

The day the documents were tabled, Dr. Wheatley said he believed the EZ Shipping report is “incomplete” and shows “bias towards the police.” “EZ Shipping was the most economical of the proposals,” Dr. Wheatley said. “I don’t think the audit does a good job of putting in context how much it costs to hire vessels like these.”

He also noted that the auditor general didn’t interview him, members of the NSC, or Clyde Chalwell of EZ Shipping. Last Thursday, government backbencher Carvin Malone aired similar concerns. “Is there a commitment in the auditor’s work to hear both sides of the story?” he asked. “There are some vivid conclusions made in the audit report, and they give specific reference to whose side of the story is being told.”

Government backbencher Vincent Wheatley said the Chalwell family operates a “legacy business” and argued that audits should “lead to the development of our systems, not the destruction of our people.”

Standing firm

Last Friday, however, Ms. Webster issued a statement defending the EZ Shipping probe and addressing what she termed “the misinformation regarding the audit process that has been recently circulating in the public.” Despite the criticisms, she said she is satisfied that the investigation was “thorough, and the conclusions drawn are sound.”

Ms. Webster explained that the EZ Shipping audit was carried out in accordance with international standards by “gathering documentary evidence of the events and transactions occurring in this scheme across the ministries and departments associated with this project.” In addition, she said interviews were carried out with the heads of the Customs and Immigration departments and former Police Commissioner Michael Matthews.

“Interviews were also performed with senior staff who were assigned to work with the platforms,” she said. “Where the mentioned individuals could not be interviewed in person, they provided information via questionnaire.” Ms. Webster added that her office followed up with these individuals to ensure clarity and to give them an opportunity to provide additional information.

After this process, she said the audit report was prepared in “draft” form and sent on Nov. 15 to the Customs and Immigration heads, among others, for their review prior to the report’s finalisation. “Neither refuted the dates stated in the audit findings on the platforms’ usage,” she wrote.

‘Illicit implications?’

During the investigation, she added, it became clear that there “might be illicit implications” arising from certain transactions that were reviewed.

“Our policy in such cases is to progress the matter to the stage where it can be sent to other agencies for further investigation, as pursuing potential criminality with entities outside of the public service is not within our remit,” she wrote. “Notwithstanding, the preponderance of the evidence regarding the use of the barges was such that it would be negligent of me not to bring this to the attention of the public, which is ultimately footing the bill for this expenditure.”

Leak inquiry

At the Friday press conference, Mr. Rankin also addressed the leak of another audit report, which probed assistance grants. In response, he said, he has ordered the Cabinet secretary to carry out a “leak inquiry.”

Though he noted that “all audits received” should be published, he said due process should first be followed. “

As such, I await the tabling of the audit in the House of Assembly, at which point the report will be public with names of individual recipients redacted as appropriate,” Mr. Rankin said, adding, “I will comment further on this audit once it is properly made public.”