Thu | Jun 20, 2024

Finally; Holness releases AG’s opinion

Tabled response show House Speaker strayed from guidance in a few instances

Published:Wednesday | April 24, 2024 | 12:14 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter
Newly appointed Clerk to the Houses of Parliament Colleen Lowe in conversation with Speaker of the House Juliet Holness at Gordon House on Tuesday.
Newly appointed Clerk to the Houses of Parliament Colleen Lowe in conversation with Speaker of the House Juliet Holness at Gordon House on Tuesday.

HOUSE SPEAKER Juliet Holness on Tuesday bowed to public pressure after months of intense debate and released the opinion of the Auditor General’s Chambers, allowing the documents to be tabled in the House of Representatives.

Holness did not act according to the legal opinion solicited from the Attorney General’s Chambers on how reports from the Integrity Commission and Auditor General’s Department to Parliament are to be treated in three instances, the now-tabled documents have revealed.

Despite the tabling, she asserted that the tabling of the opinion “does not in any way” set precedent for the tabling of legal advice given to the Speaker in the future, but said her duty is to ensure clarity and full understanding by the Jamaican people in public affairs.

“Regardless of my ruling and the differing legal perspectives provided, all reports of the auditor general have been tabled, and I will continue to table reports according to the previously established practice for the time being,” said Holness on Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, and in the interest of good governance, I urge this House to act quickly to review the relevant legislation to remove any ambiguity or gaps in the process,” she added, bringing an end to the months-long withholding of the document.

Former House Speaker Marisa Dalrymple Philibert sought the legal opinion from the AG’s Chambers on July 4, asking how the Houses of Parliament should treat reports submitted to it by the Integrity Commission under section 36 of the Integrity Commission Act.

Dalrymple Philibert asked the AG’s Chambers to advise whether the current practice of the Parliament breached section 36 of the act and standing order 73D.

At the time of the request, reports sent to both Houses of Parliament from the Integrity Commission under section 36 of the act were tabled and circulated to all parliamentarians. This also allowed media and public access.

Solicitor General Marlene Aldred responded in a July 10 letter concluding that the practice did not breach the act and standing order.

NO SEQUENCE OF EVENTS IN ACT

Aldred noted that there was nothing in section 36 of the act or Standing Order 73D(e) that gives a sequence of events for when reports should be tabled, circulated and submitted to the Integrity Committee Oversight Committee.

She said the language used in section 36 which speaks to the report either being tabled or submitted does not include words to preclude tabling and circulating the report prior to submitting it to the Integrity Commission Oversight Committee.

A week after her initial request Dalrymple Philibert wrote a second letter dated July 11 to the AG’s Chambers asking whether the law requires that reports under sections 36(2) and 36(3) of the act be first tabled and circulated then submitted to the Integrity Commission Oversight Committee.

Attorney General Derrick McKoy responded indicating that it was his intent for Dalrymple Philibert to read his opinion in conjunction with the previous one sent by Aldred.

He restated the conclusion made by Aldred and indicated further that the House is expected to follow its usual procedures and subject to legislation and standing orders, the House has overarching control over those procedures.

He said under the act and standing orders, a report may be tabled before or after sending it to the oversight committee.

McKoy said under section 36, reports must be submitted to the oversight committee and under section 54(4) reports shall be tabled, but the order of tabling is not prescribed.

“How Parliament receives and tables reports and whether the oversight committee considers reports before or after tabling in the House are not regulated by the act of the standing orders. These are in the power of Parliament to determine by its existing procedures. The Speaker may table the reports before or after submitting them to the oversight committee,” said McKoy.

But Dalrymple Philibert resigned two months later – without disclosing the opinion publicly – in the face of eight criminal charges for making a false statement in her statutory declarations after omitting a Mercedes-Benz motor vehicle from her filings between 2015 and 2021. The controversial use of a 20 per cent duty concession to acquire it was also in contention.

Holness, who assumed the role late September, wrote to the AG’s Chambers requesting the same information Dalrymple Philibert had previously asked for.

This included how reports from the auditor general in relation to public bodies were to be treated.

AT THE AG’S DISCRETION

In a letter dated November 6, the solicitor general informed the new Speaker of the previous conclusions and that the auditor general had the discretion to submit reports under either section 29 or 30 of the Financial Administration and Audit Act.

Aldred said if the auditor general acts under section 29, she is allowed to submit annual and special reports.

She said under this section once the Speaker receives the report, it is to be tabled as soon as possible.

However, she said if the auditor general acts under section 30, she can submit reports on the examination and audit of accounts audited by a public body if she acts in her discretion or if she act pursuant to the resolution by the House.

Aldred said if the auditor general acts under section 30 of the act, the report must be sent to the appropriate minister.

Aldred said if the minister fails to present the House within two months after receiving it from the auditor general, she must send a copy to the Speaker of the House and the Speaker must present the report to the House.

Holness subsequently ruled that reports by the auditor general on public bodies had to wait for two months before being tabled to allow relevant ministers time to comment on them, in accordance with the Financial Administration and Audit Act and the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act.

Similarly, at that time, Holness announced that she would end the practice of tabling all Integrity Commission reports upon submission.

She implemented a new rule, which mandates that special and annual reports of the commission will go to its oversight committee for deliberations first and then tabled later on with the committee’s own report.

Investigation reports from the IC would be tabled “as soon as possible” and then sent to the IC Oversight Committee.

kimone.francis@gleanerjm.com