The Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition are currently in the Supreme Court due to a lawsuit that the PUP has brought against the Barrow Administration. John Briceno as leader of the PUP, and Julius Espat at the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee are the claimants in this case, and they assert the Prime Minister as the Minister of Finance of spent approximately 1.3 billion dollars in public monies without first seeking parliamentary approval.
They say that this is bad governance, and poor accountability for public spending and they're trying to convince Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin of their position. They are being represented in the claim by the Senior Counsels, Eamon Courtenay and Andrew Marshalleck. And the Government has made an interesting move; they've retained the services of Justin Lockhart Simon, a Queens Counsel from the Caribbean. He had to be called to Bar in Belize in order to represent the Government in this case today.
So, we take you now to the dispute. The public spending that the PUP disputes are hundreds of millions of dollars from the Petrocaribe loans program. You may remember that windfall that the government used to fund many construction projects around the country. Well, the claimant said that the Government did not follow the law and seek prior parliamentary approval. They further assert that going to the house and getting supplementary budget appropriations does not fix this wrong that the Prime Minister committed as the Minister of Finance.
As viewers are aware, the practice of spending public money, and then going to the House of Representatives for approval years after the fact is something that both political parties have done over the years.
But, the PUP's point that seeking to account after the fact is unsafe was brought clearly into focus when Eamon Courtenay was cross-examining the Financial Secretary Joseph Waight. He, the Prime Minister, and the Attorney General are named as defendants, and this afternoon, he was the man in the hot seat. Under Courtenay's cross-examination, Waight revealed that the Government failed to account for almost 100 million dollars in public spending. This money remains unaccounted for since no parliamentary approval has been received years after it has been spent. To use the Fin Sec's words, it "slipped" them.
This evening, when the claimants and their attorneys exited the court, the spoke with the awaiting press about their case, and here's what they had to say:
Hon. John Briceno - Leader of the Opposition/Claimant "I was actually shocked and dismayed to see how the Prime Minister has virtually abused the Constitution, and the laws of this country, when it comes to spending the people's money. It reminds me that coming to 2008, when he was in Opposition, he criticized our government heavily for spending, then coming to get approval in the National Assembly, and now here comes, doing that, and even worst."
"For us, it is very important to set a precedent now, for this government and for future governments to ensure that this does not happen again. We have every confidence that the next government is going to be a government led by the PUP. And we want to make sure that that does not happen in our government."
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for the Claimants "This claim brought by the two leaders has to do with the public's money. It has to do with whether or not a government can take 1.3 billion dollars, spend it on how it wishes, without any accountability to parliament. The Financial Secretary was very clear in his answers. He said that the money that was spent, was spent because there was an urgent and unforeseen need. I brought to his attention that it is hundreds of millions of dollars. He stuck to his line, but I think anybody will know that you cannot spend 1.3 billion dollars as urgent and unforeseen. He accepted that in fact, this was done by special warrants issued by the Prime Minister. He accepted that the Prime Minister was aware when he was issuing those warrants, that the money had not been approved by the National Assembly, and that he advised and informed the Prime Minister that the money was not there, it had not been approved by the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the proceeded. So, they proceeded, knowing full well that they did not have legislative approval, and the Finance and Audit Reform Act sets a limit, which can be exceeded. And he told the court, that they exceeded that limit on a regular basis, and they did so knowingly."
"This case sets the basis for further inquiry, and to find out where all this money went."
Reporter "What do you make of the FIN SEC's revelation that 100 million dollars went - that it slipped them. That was his word, it slipped them."
Hon. Julius Espat - PAC Chairman/Claimant "I don't know how you could use the word, 'slip'. This is a professional that you're dealing with. His testimony said that he is the financial secretary for over 12 years if I'm not mistaken. The Prime Minister is one of the leading attorneys in the country before he became Prime Minister. There is no way that they slipped. When the question was asked of the auditor general's report, 2012/2013, was close to 100 million dollars for that year alone, was there a special warrant issued? No. Did it get approval from the House, No. Did even try retrospectively, after 12 years to seek approval. No. And then, that's only 2012/2013."
Queens Counsel Simon is being assisted in the defense of the government by Crown Counsels in the AG's Ministry. They are Samantha Matute-Tucker, the Assistant Solicitor General, and Crown Counsels Agassi Finnegan and Briana Williams.
The case continues tomorrow morning at 9, and we'll tell you how that goes in tomorrow's newscast.
Last night, we brought you coverage of the lawsuit that Leader of the opposition, John Briceno and Julius Espat, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, brought against Prime Minister Dean Barrow, and his administration.
They say that Prime Minister Barrow, acting as the Minister of Finance, has engaged in the unlawful spending of 1.3 billion dollars in public funds. As we told you, they claim he failed to get prior parliamentary approval for the spending of all that money, and that he tried to legitimize those expenditures by going to parliament and passing supplementary appropriations to cover the amounts that were spent years prior to that.
That old practice of spending money and then accounting for it years after the fact, is as we told you, a common practice that administrations of both political parties have made routine. These claimants assert that this a bad practice that needs to stop, but they also have a big issue with the way the Prime Minister got access to those 1.3 billion dollars.
Part of the PUP's complaint against the PM is that he got access to those monies from the Consolidated Revenue Fund through what is known in the Finance Ministry as special warrants. According to the rules, these special warrants is that they are designed to be executed when the country is facing an emergency, such as a natural disaster. The attorneys say that the Belize Constitution contemplates these types of emergencies as expenses which are, quote, "urgent and unforeseen". End quote.
The PUP's case against the PM is that he abused the special warrants by declaring the public spending of those 1.3 billion dollars as "urgent and unforeseen". They also say that "urgent and unforeseen" in the constitution has a specific meaning, which the Prime Minister used loosely.
So, for the majority of today's hearing, the attorneys for both sides got a chance to make submissions an attempt to convince the Chief Justice of their position.
Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck argued the case of the claimants, and he went the evidence to try and convince the Chief Justice of their perspective.
When the case concluded this evening, we got a reaction from the claimants:
Hon. Julius Espat - PAC Chairman/Claimant "I am glad that I was part of this. From what I understood, we had 4 claims and 2 of them, they attorney conceded, meaning the important one was in the auditor general's report 2012-13 report where she stated that money was spent without parliament's approval, they conceded, so they said that was unconstitutional, it was not the judge saying that, it was the defence attorney saying that, they agreed that it was unconstitutional. The second one was all the supplementary allocations that was listed, which is close to 1.3 billion dollars, they conceded that was also unconstitutional. The two other topics that were discussed were the unconstitutionality of the finance and audit act reform, when it pertains to using a contingency fund instead of the consolidated fund, that had arguments back and forth - I don't see how they can win, but judgement is reserved for that and the other one is if it constitutional what they did with the amendment to the Petrocaribe Act, that one had debates back and forth and I still cannot see how the judge will go against that one but we can definitely say, that two of four they have conceded already on the unconstitutionality. What was revealing to me, was that they are not saying that they were right, they have agreed they were wrong, now they are pleading to the court and asking for leniency because we are a little Caribbean nation and that's how we do things, unlike the first world countries. That was surprising that a defence attorney for the government of Belize would use as a pleading factor with the judge, that's how I saw it."
Hon. John Briceno - Leader of the Opposition/Claimant "Some people may be asking, why are you doing this, do you want to tie your hand, as many people believe we will form the next government. I think it is very important for not only this government but for future governments to ensure that we work within the budget, that we work within the constitution, that we work within the law and that we should always be held accountable for our deeds, for our actions and that if we do not follow the law, that we should be held accountable for it and have to pay whatever the law prescribes."
Reporter "Sir, there is a strong suggestion, at least from the FIN SEC, that some of the supplementary appropriations they had to work on were inherited from the previous PUP administration. What is your comment on that?"
Hon. John Briceno "Well, it does not where it came from, if it was wrong then, it is double wrong. As I mentioned yesterday, the Prime Minister, when this happened under our government, was critical, very vocal about it. And he made a commitment that it would not happen under his government. Fast-forward to today, now we have 1.3 billion dollars that were spent under his watch that did not follow the process, and did not get the parliamentary approval - or the House approval - at the right time. They spent the money, and then they came and told us, well, this is what we have done with your money, if it was wrong then, it's double wrong today."
So since the PUP's case is that the PM misused the special warrants to spend the money, we asked one of their attorneys to explain why this contingency fund issue is so important to the governance of the country for "urgent and unforeseen" expenses. Here's how he described it:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for the Claimants "The whole provision in the constitution is for an appropriation bill, which would be the approval of the amount estimated for revenue and expenditure every year. The constitution goes on to provide that you should create a contingency fund which is like if you're doing any project, you always billing a 5 or 10 percent contingency for any cost overrun. In the case of the constitution, what it is says that if it is urgent and unforeseen expenditure that is required, so it is something that you have a hurricane, you have a massive fire, you have a flood or anything like that could not have been predicted but you have to deal with it. The amount given to a particular ministry, let's say roads are damaged, the budget for roads will be x million but because of this particular natural disaster, you need to spend more. You got to the contingency fund, which parliament has already approved as part of the budget. You use it, you come back to parliament and report that you have spent money out of that contingency fund that had already been approved; we now need money to replenish the fund. That is the language of the constitution and the reason for that, is that parliament wants to approve the budget and a limited amount for any contingency that is urgent or unforeseen and when you use it, you bring it back to parliament to report, then you get it replenished. The point of the matter is, which the leader and deputy leader have tried to establish in this case, is that for too long, the government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars without accountability and secondly, contrary to section 117 of the constitution, it is remarkable in my view, that my learned friend council for government come to court and concede an unconstitutional act on behalf of the government and yet ask the Chief Justice to show the leniency. When you contravene the highest law of the land, there are consequences for it and you cannot in my respectful view, ask the court to say, we broke the constitution but just give me a little pat on the wrist."
"Year after year, from 2004 to present, everywhere there are urgent and unforeseen expenditure in every ministry. You have to ask yourself, whether or not that is true and I think you know what the obvious answer is but he has to say that because that is the only way he can try to legitimise what the prime minister did. You cannot issue a special warrant unless something is urgent and unforeseen. Huge amounts, hundreds of millions were paid on salaries, that is not urgent and unforeseen."
Fin Sec On the Big Oops
As we told you last night, the biggest reveal of this case so far is that the Barrow Administration has failed to get any parliamentary approval, prior or after the fact, to account for close to 100 million dollars in public funds. That money has been spent, but no appropriation bills have been passed to account to parliament for it, as is required by the law.
The Financial Secretary made that admission in court yesterday when he was being cross-examined by Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay. This is a significant failure that legitimizes the PUP's case that going to parliament for supplementary appropriation bills, long after public monies have been spent, is a very bad idea.
We challenged the Financial Secretary on it today, and here's how that conversation went:
Joseph Waight - Financial Secretary "This is the audit report for the financial year 2012/2013. Indeed - and I used the word slippage - we have not put the supplementary request to the House. To put things in perspective that supplementary 100 million may sound like a lot of money, but it's about 10% of the overall budget for that year. And in fact, when you look at all the supplementaries they list; still it is within 6, 7 or 8% of the total spending over that period. The average budget is about 900 million a year, and this is going back to 2005, or so."
Reporter "Isn't that trivialising it though, by reducing it to simply 10%?"
Joseph Waight "No, I mean I'm saying, look, it may sound like a big figure, but when you put it in perspective, it is still a single-digit number. And remember, these supplementaries go back beyond the life of the current government. In fact, the current government is doing that they inherited, so to speak. But nevertheless, indeed, the supplementaries have been late, in being put to the house, and in fact, we have conceded that. It was an age-old practice. If you want to fix it - in fact, if you look, you can that the frequency of the supplementaries are coming faster, indeed a little late. But I remember as a young man, many years ago, we did 10 years' worth of supplementary at one time."
Reporter "Sir, but, a hundred million dollars not being covered by a supplementary seems like a dangerous thing. Accounting after the fact, it seems like something you would not want to practice. What would have happened had there not been any oversight to catch these 100 million dollars?"
Joseph Waight "The thing - remember, a lot of it is divided into 3 areas. There is the recurrent, capital 2, capital 3. I really need to delve down to find out where these numbers came from. The problem is that once it drew our attention, we tried to get it corrected, but a key member of my staff got sick. Once we caught up that in fact, that year had not been addressed, we put a team together, but the head of that team got sick. He's been out for some time. We're trying to do it without him, and we will finish it by the end of the year. But remember, the Ministry of Finance is one of the smallest ministries in Government, numbers-wise, with a staff, and we have some big responsibilities. I am not saying this as an excuse, but it is just the reality of the situation."
Reporter "What is your personal opinion of this continued practice?"
Joseph Waight "Ideally, you would want to do it in compliance with the regulations, and so, I should also tell you that in fact, while we may be late in submitting. It's a procedural matter, but there is no mention, and I should stress clearly that there is no mention that there is any misappropriation or impropriety with the use of the money."
The Chief Justice has reserved judgment in this case for January 21st of next year.