In June last year, Auditor General Sonia Webster issued a damning audit report which outlined a plethora of infractions committed by the then Andrew Fahie-led administration. She detailed several areas where there had been outright attempts to block the audit exercise itself.
According to the COI report issued by Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom, those obstructions to the Auditor General is not presently a criminal offence.
But he recommended that consideration be given to amending the Audit Act to make failing to cooperate with the Auditor General, without a legitimate excuse, a criminal offence.
At the very least, a failure by a public officer or any employee of a statutory board to cooperate with auditors without reasonable excuse should be treated as gross misconduct, Sir Gary said.
“Furthermore, in my view, given the ease with which the Premier’s Office defeated the Auditor General’s attempt to audit the COVID-19 Assistance programmes, the sanctions for a failure to cooperate with an Auditor General’s investigation and audit require strengthening.
The report offered two specific recommendations related to this particular issue.
First, Sir Gary said: “I recommend that the appropriate BVI authorities consider whether a criminal investigation should be held into the conduct of the Premier’s Office in obstructing the Director of the Internal Audit Department in respect of her audit of the COVID-19 Assistance Programmes.”
Secondly, Sir Gary stated, “I recommend that consideration should be given by the Governor as to whether an investigation, to be conducted by an independent person or persons, should be held into the conduct of the Premier’s Office in obstructing the Auditor General in respect of her audit of the COVID-19 Assistance Programmes.”
During the COI hearings, AG Webster said even as she made efforts to conduct the audit, she encountered deliberate attempts at blocking her from accessing government files needed to carry out her duties.
Webster said that despite repeated requests to the Premier’s Office via email and telephone, her office was unable to obtain the relevant files and information about the COVID-19 stimulus grants.
She further stated that her office was denied access to databases, documents, reports, and other information relevant to policy development and implementation programmes.
Meanwhile, Permanent Secretary (PS) within the Premier’s Office, Dr Carolyn O’Neal-Morton revealed during the COI that the AG was stymied from auditing the government’s COVID assistance grants because the PS did not feel it was the AG’s turn.
Stressing that she only needed more time to comply with the Auditor General‘s request, Dr O’Neal Morton said she never intended to dishonour the AG’s Office.
At the time, the PS also denied any attempts to wilfully obstruct the operations of the Auditor General‘s Office, as was indicated in some reports.