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Curtis says she complied with Speaker’s ruling on reports

Published:Tuesday | April 16, 2024 | 12:09 AM
Valrie Curtis.

Former clerk to the Houses of Parliament Valrie Curtis said she had carried out her duties diligently and complied with the ruling of the Speaker in how reports from the Auditor General’s Department (AuGD) should be handled. In a letter dated March...

Former clerk to the Houses of Parliament Valrie Curtis said she had carried out her duties diligently and complied with the ruling of the Speaker in how reports from the Auditor General’s Department (AuGD) should be handled.

In a letter dated March 22 that was dispatched to 62 members of parliament, Speaker of the House of Representatives Juliet Holness accused the former clerk of “gross dereliction of duty” and bringing the Parliament into disrepute.

Speaker Holness indicated that the former clerk to the Houses failed to comply with a ruling that she made on November 7, last year, regarding the tabling of reports from the auditor general.

But Curtis said that she could not bear culpability for not returning the reports to the auditor general in line with the Speaker’s ruling when she was on vacation leave.

Curtis told The Gleaner that her January 9 to February 5 vacation leave was duly signed off by the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

She said that all reports sent to Parliament are dispatched both to the clerk, the Speaker and the president.

The AuGD sent a letter and audit report on the Financial Services Commission to Gordon House on December 28, 2023, but it was apparently recorded as being received on January 2, 2024.

REPORT RETURNED

In keeping with the Speaker’s ruling, the former clerk to the Houses, told The Gleaner that she returned the FSC report to the AuGD on January 8, a day before she proceeded on vacation leave on January 9.

While Curtis was on vacation leave the auditor general returned the special audit report of the FSC to Parliament on January 15, 2024.

The Special Audit Report of Tax Administration Jamaica on leasing arrangements with a cover letter was delivered to Parliament on January 29, 2024. Curtis told The Gleaner that the new clerk to the Houses, who was the acting clerk while she was on leave, received and signed for the auditor general’s report that was delivered on January 29.

Efforts to reach the new clerk to the Houses, Colleen Lowe, for comment were unsuccessful as she was said to be in a meeting.

On her return from vacation on February 5, the former clerk told The Gleaner that she received a “handing over brief” from Lowe, which had a list of items for her attention, but no reference was made to any reports from the AuGD that were still with Parliament.

“The reports did not come while I was there. The Speaker called and asked me after the Opposition leader made his contribution to the Budget Debate on Thursday, March 19, if there were reports at Parliament from the auditor general,” she said.

The former clerk to the Houses told The Gleaner that she informed the Speaker that the FSC report was returned to Parliament while she was on vacation leave and the Tax Administration Jamaica audit also came while she was on leave.

Curtis also revealed that after the former clerk returned the FSC audit report, on January 8, the Speaker reportedly told her that she would write to Cabinet to seek direction on the way forward.

However, the former clerk said she advised the Speaker to write to Leader of Government Business Edmund Bartlett.

The Gleaner saw a letter dated March 6, 2024, from the Speaker to Bartlett in which Holness informed the leader of Government business that she was now seeking an “independent legal advice” on the tabling of reports on public bodies from the auditor general.

After decades of tabling reports from the auditor general “as soon as possible”, former Speaker Marisa Dalrymple Philibert reversed that practice on July 4, 2023, without prior notice to the parliamentary Opposition.

Dalrymple Philibert had said that the longstanding practice was “not in my understanding in keeping with Section 30 of the FAA Act”.

Section 30 of the Financial Administration and Audit (FAA) Act states, “If the appropriate minister fails within two months after receipt of the report to present it to the House of Representatives, the auditor general shall transmit a copy of the report to the Speaker of the House to be presented by him to the House”.

Last year, the Speaker sought advice from Attorney General Dr Derrick McKoy on the tabling of reports from the auditor general, but despite appeals from the parliamentary Opposition and a number of civil society groups, the presiding officer for the Lower House has not released the opinion to the public.

In her letter to Bartlett, the Speaker cited her ruling of November 7, 2023, in which she outlined that “all reports from the Auditor General’s Department, of an audit conducted on a public body, will be tabled in accordance with Section 13A of the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act and or Section 30 of the Financial Administration and Audit Act…”.

In the Speaker’s letter to Bartlett, she also said a letter dated December 20, 2023, was sent to the auditor general informing her of the November 7 ruling, as well as “requesting that the Parliament be provided with documentary evidence of the date of service for such reports to the responsible minister when reports are being submitted for tabling”.

Holness further pointed out in her letter to the House leader that despite the information sent to the auditor general on her ruling, the Parliament continued to receive audit reports on public bodies, for tabling, “in a manner that is inconsistent with the ruling.

“In light of the foregoing and in accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers between the Executive and the Legislature, please be advised that, in addition to the legal advice previously obtained in arriving at the ruling from the Parliament’s legal counsel, we will be seeking independent legal advice on the matter,” the Speaker’s letter to Bartlett concluded.

The letter purportedly bore the signature of the Speaker.

A call was made to the Speaker’s number and a message was delivered for her to contact this reporter. However, up to news time the call was not returned.

And for the first time since the standoff between the Parliament and the Auditor General’s Department over the tabling of “all reports on public bodies”, The Gleaner has seen a copy of a letter from the auditor general to Parliament on the issue.

Responding to a January 8 letter from Parliament which signalled that the FSC audit report would be sent back to the AuGD in accordance with the November 7 ruling of the Speaker, the auditor general made it clear that the FSC audit “was not conducted in accordance with the PBMA Act, but with Section 12(5) of the Financial Services Commission Act (2001) which states that “the auditorgGeneral shall be entitled at all reasonable times to examine the accounts and other records in relation to the business of the commission.

“Accordingly, the report is being resubmitted based on Section 122 of the Constitution and Section 29 of the Financial Administration and Audit Act,” the letter from the auditor general, dated January 15, stated.

Constitutional lawyer Dr Lloyd Barnett told The Gleaner in July last year that government departments and agencies are subject to the accounting role of the auditor general and that reports from her office must be submitted to the Speaker for tabling without the exercise of any discretion.

In his contribution to the Budget Debate on March 19, Opposition Leader Mark Golding charged that there had been manoeuvres to delay the tabling of reports from the auditor general.

On March 21, the two audit reports, the FSC audit that was returned by the auditor general on January 15, and the Tax Administration Jamaica audit that arrived at Gordon House on January 29, were returned to the AuGD by the former clerk to the Houses after the Speaker spoke with her about them.

The following day, a release from general secretary of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Dr Horace Chang sought to “set the record straight” in relation to what he said were “recent concerns and accusations related to the tabling of reports from the Integrity Commission and the auditor general in Parliament”.

According to Chang, “the allegations suggested a deliberate delay by the Speaker of the House in tabling reports from the Integrity Commission and the auditor general”.

However, he said that as at March 22, “there are no outstanding reports from either the Integrity Commission or the auditor general awaiting tabling in Parliament”.

In his press release on March 22, Chang said: “These allegations have been proven to be baseless and misrepresent the procedural integrity of our parliamentary system. It is crucial for the public to understand that these unfounded claims have sought, without merit, to question the impartiality and integrity of our democratic process.”

The two reports were subsequently sent back to Gordon House on March 25 by the auditor general.

Speaker Holness yielded to unrelenting calls from members of civil society and the parliamentary Opposition and tabled the two reports on March 26.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com