165 police vehicles, valued around $5 million, “missing:” Audit

From time to time, we hear citizen complaints that police claim they are unable to go on patrol or respond to a report of a crime because of the lack of police vehicles and fuel. Transportation is vital for the police to effectively do their work—and so the revelation that over 160 police vehicles are deemed “missing” by the latest official audit report, has fueled anger at those entrusted with the care of these national assets.

According to the 2008-2009 Annual Report of the Auditor General, “On comparing the vehicles on the vehicle list from the Vehicle Care Unit with the 212 vehicles on the list prepared by the Police Department audit”, it found that “(171) vehicles were not accounted for on the Police Vehicle List. This, therefore, meant that the Police Department should have had 383 vehicles (i.e. 212 plus 171).

“Of the 171 vehicles mentioned above, the Ministry of Finance confirmed that 18 vehicles were actually issued to other ministries and departments and therefore the department should have had an additional 153 vehicles. In addition to the (153) vehicles unaccounted for... (12) vehicles were on the police list but the police department was unable to provide information on their location. [This makes a total of 165 unaccounted for.]”

Zuniga said that he had written querying about the missing vehicles two years ago but has still not received a response.

“That’s an expensive government asset,” said Zuniga, noting that the average cost is $30,000. (The value of the vehicles could be estimated, then, at roughly $5 million.)

Anybody gives any indication that they will look at it and see where these vehicles may be, we asked.

“No response!” Zuniga replied.

He commented that this represents a “serious lack of accountability.”

A citizen, shocked by the report, suggested that the VIN numbers could be used to track down the vehicles. The Auditor General said that it is a matter for the police.

Zuniga, in his report, highlighted a series of continued challenges faced by his Audit team in doing their work. One of his pet peeves, he said, is the problem with the lack of documentation. “You keep hearing that the records cannot be found,” he declared.

“It’s a last resort where we say we can’t get the records so we have to proceed [with documenting our report],” said Zuniga, noting that they try their best to work with Government personnel in doing the work.

Of note is that while private citizens are sometimes named in reports, the Auditors do not contact private citizens during the course of their work. They rely totally on government records.
According to Zuniga, while private citizens have verbally challenged things published in the reports, nobody has ever presented written documentation in support of those challenges.

When public officers don’t respond to queries, as has been the case with the missing police vehicles, the matter is out of the hands of his Office, said Zuniga.

“It becomes a job for the Public Accounts Committee, which has not been functioning... Our job is to examine and report; the Public Accounts Committee takes it from there. We are always prepared to provide information that is required to the Public Accounts Committee once they call,” he said.

Whereas the Special Lands Audit for 6 months preceding the General Elections of 2008 was highlighted in the House of Representatives and in the media, the same attention has not been given to the 2008-2009 Annual Audit report.

“If the Speaker orders the report to lie on the table, it can’t be discussed,” Zuniga said, noting that in the case of both the annual and special audit, they were BOTH ordered to lie on the table—they were not ordered to Committee.

Zuniga has been the Auditor General since September 2005, employed on successive 3-year contracts. He also previously served as Director of the Governance Unit and Under Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, among other posts in the public service.

Under his tenure at the Office of the Auditor General, they have also completed special audits into the Venezuelan Housing Grant and the Soybean Project.

We asked: What comes out of these reports that you yourself have presided over? Have you seen where any of these recommendations have been taken on board and you’ve seen specific change with regards to any item that you’ve listed?

“No. Nothing. I can’t recall anything,” he responded.

What would you like to see happen, we further queried.

“Sometimes I jokingly say that we are wasting one-point something million dollars if we have an Audit Office and the recommendations aren’t taken on. That money can go into something else, or put us to do law enforcement or whatever else. It would be good to see the Public Accounts Committee do something about the recommendations coming out.”

Is the onus only on the Public Accounts Committee?

“It’s on the public, actually...”

Zuniga said that it’s the business of everybody to pick up the report, call their area representative and say: “Let’s do something about this.”

Senator Godwin Hulse said that it is interesting that the reports are ordered to lie on the table—and not discussed.

“If they wanted to get on top of it, they would have,” commented Hulse. “The reports have been clear for the last 10 years.”

They are not going to publicly chastise themselves; they are not going to sit there and have anybody criticize them, Hulse commented, saying that there was talk about the lands audit because that’s politically hype. “They [the current administration] will say it’s the past government.”

Until there is serious constitutional change and people get tired and can get a real government (not responsible to the Queen, or to themselves, not sovereign and all powerful but answerable by constitution and law to the people) Belize will get nowhere, Senator Hulse said, noting a huge part of the problem is the culture that “the Minister runs things.”

“It leads people to ask the question: Do things change when there is a change in administration? Do we see a shift?” we asked.

“I don’t think much has changed really,” the Auditor General responded. “I don’t think anything is going to change until the Public Accounts Committee can hold somebody or some bodies to task.”

Another major issue that appears in the 2008-2009 audit is the number of questionable transactions on the government’s books—$280 million. “That’s a quarter of our [National] budget,” said Zuniga.

He explains: The suspense account is intended to be a temporary account to hold accounts where errors or questions have to be sorted out. Instead of decreasing, the value has actually doubled since 2005. The transactions go back more than 8 years.

“There are things happening in the accounts that we don’t know,” said Zuniga.

The errors should be adjusted, he added, identifying the ballooning of the suspense account as “a major concern.”

We also asked about cases where fraud and irregularities are alleged against public servants. The Auditor General replied: “We have come across several cases of fraud we have investigated and invariably the recommendations would be to have the matter reported to police, in accordance with our financial regulations,” he said.

However, cases tend to take long before they are concluded, and persons are interdicted and stay on half pay for the duration. Even though they do no work while on interdiction, if vindicated, they get the rest of their pay. Zuniga, therefore, stressed that there is a need for those cases to be expedited.

“How comes it is usually people on the lower rounds of the ladder in the public service who are called out in the Audits; there are no big names or people of high ranks?” we probed.

Zuniga said that during his time, he has not come across any such allegation against a person in high ranks of government.

The Special Lands Audit, which detailed major irregularities in the sale and issuance of public lands in the 6 months before the 2008 General Elections, Zuniga said, was commissioned by the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Beverly Castillo.

The office is currently undertaking two “Value For Money” audits: one on the Government’s textbook program (to see whether it is working and how it can be improved, if possible) and the other on Golden Haven Rest Home in Hattieville, which falls under the Ministry of Human Development, to look at its operations, management and funding, to see if they can be improved. The office should be able to conclude and present a report in December, the Auditor General informed.

Additionally, Zuniga plans to sit with colleagues on Friday to examine recommendations for the change in Audit laws.

The Audit reports can be downloaded from the Audit office’s website: http://www.audit.gov.bz/

(Story based on the Tuesday, August 17, 2010, edition of The Adele Ramos Show.)

Source: Amandala Online

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