UDP Spending: Panades Shop or Split Decision
The PUP is claiming victory tonight after the Chief Justice handed down a long anticipated decision today. CJ Kenneth Benjamin ruled that the Prime Minister, as Minister of Finance and the Financial Secretary violated the constitution when they spent public funds without first getting parliamentary approval.
The judgement found that this happened with the famous 100 million dollar OOPS between 2012 and 2013 which never went to parliament, and another 1.3 billion dollars in Petrocaribe funds, which was taken to Parliament after it was disbursed.
But, while he established that the public funds were disbursed without parliamentary approval, the CJ did not stop it immediately. He gave government 6 months to amend the constitution to retroactively approve the 1.5 billion dollars in unauthorized spending.
The action was brought by PUP Leader John Briceno and Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee Julius Espat and today outside the courtroom their attorney Eamon Courtney said government was running the consolidated revenue fund like a panades shop:
SC Eamon Courtney - Attorney for Briceno/Espat
To put it in plain man's language the Chief Justice - and these are my words - found that the Prime Minister has been operating the government like a panades shop, and the result of his judgement today is to tell him in no uncertain terms that he must comply with the constitution, comply with the Finance And Audit Reform Act and go to parliament and get approval, giving full disclosure as to how he intends to spend the people's money and that he should stop behaving unconstitutionally."
John Briceno- Leader of the Opposition
"Well, certainly, first of all, I think that we are very happy with the judgement and I think it is time that the Prime Minister understands that the people's money is not his money and that he needs to be able, as the Minister of Finance, to give account to every cent of the Belizean tax payer that he spends. But what next? Well I am going to be meeting with my parliamentarians and we are going to discuss in more detail the judgement and then wait and see what it is that the Prime Minister is going to do. I would not be surprised if the six months would be up and then the Prime Minister does not make an attempt to amend the constitution. So, we will wait, we will see but we are going to keep the Prime Minister's feet to the fire."
"If he is to amend the constitution, will he not invariably need your support?"
"Absolutely. But that is why I am saying I need to sit down with our parliamentarians to discuss but just as important, we have to see what the amendment is going to be before we can say yes."
"Where now does this square with the penalties on the finance and audit reform act."
SC Eamon Courtney
"Let's deal with Mr. John Saldivar first and then we will see who is next. Batter up." [all laughs].
And while the PUP gets ready for the next UDP personality at the plate, Financial Secretary Joseph Waight is switching sports analogies: he's calling it split decision. He told us today that public spending with retroactive approval is a long established practice of government spending which, he concedes, will now have to stop:
Joseph Waight- Financial Secretary
"The Chief Justice decided that certain elements he granted the claim particularly the first one, which was that the supplementaries were null and void but then on the other hand, he gave the Government time to fix it in the other parts of the claim. What we need to do is go back and, first of all, get the written judgement, to better understand it and see what the implications are. For the Government, I would say it is a partial, the claimants got part of what they wanted but not everything. We got some of what we were defending but we need to put it together and see what the implications are and how do we move on from here."
"Now, the other side said that in fact it has proven that it is established that the Government spent without parliamentary approval at one point for $3 billion dollars."
"Well, we certainly conceded in testimony that certainly one year- 2012 to 2013. The Judge sees it that way, we respect his judgement but he is giving us time to fix it. That is my understanding."
"We know that there is a long established system of spending with these warrants and you have been in the Ministry of Finance long enough to know that it is a long established practice and it is a part of how the Government runs."
"We will comply with it and we will do what we can."
"The criticism is that you all were running the Government's finances like one would a panades shop. Your response?"
"I purchase panades, we don't make panades in the Ministry of Finance. And look, at no time has there been any suggestion or hint of misappropriation or misuse of the money, you know. It is just how the money was authorized."
"Under your watch, the government misplaced or misspent or made no accounting for $100 million. What is your response to that?"
"We didn't go to parliament yet for the $100 million but it is not misplaced, it is not misspent. When we go to parliament in a few weeks' time we will detail it exactly. It was not misappropriated. It didn't go to parliament before. So, yes and that is against the Finance and Audit Act, we admitted that and we will correct it. But it is not misused or it is not in any way, you can't say that it was misappropriated or abused, no."
"Are you concerned about any penalties under Finance and Audit Reform Act?"
Government has not indicated if it will seek to amend the constitution or if it plans to appeal the decision.
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