By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
FORMER Deputy Prime Minister Frank Watson says the House of Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee should not be hamstrung in its investigations.
Leader of the Official Opposition, Philip Davis, who heads the PAC, recently tabled an interim report that said the committee has been stalled in its mandate to serve as a check on the executive. He blamed the Minnis administration’s interpretation of former House Speaker Dr Kendal Major’s 2015 ruling which said the body could investigate and review matters pertaining only to audited accounts tabled in the House of Assembly, not public accounts generally.
House Speaker Halson Moultrie has not ruled on the matter, but he told The Tribune last week that the ruling “seems odd” and may be unconstitutional, though he stressed this is only his preliminary view and he is still consulting his peers around the Commonwealth.
Mr Watson said limiting the PAC’s work to audited matters “doesn’t make any sense.”
“The audit committee of the House has certain built-in authority to examine the accounts of the government. They can’t be hamstrung to do that, that’s just my view. The reports out of the PAC don’t necessarily have to come from the auditor general. The PAC could decide what things they want to investigate. In fact, they’re not interested in stuff that comes from the auditor general because you have a report already. The work is done for them in that case,” he said.
Disagreement about the powers of the PAC has been a persistent controversy in the post-independence era of the Bahamas Parliament. Both major political parties have occasionally flipped on the issue depending on whether they are in power or in opposition.
In 1974, Norman Solomon, then leader of the opposition and PAC chairman, complained about difficulties encountered during investigations.
“The problem was that we just got no cooperation from any department of government that we wanted to talk to, not even from the auditor general. We just couldn’t go in there with a baseball and hit the people over the head. If the system has to work properly there has to be that cooperation in making information available. If there isn’t you can’t take it by force,” he said.
When the Pindling administration insisted the PAC could only investigate audited accounts––the position of the current administration––the FNM complained throughout 1990.
“Only men who want to dip their hands in our cookie jar of taxes will be reluctant and unwilling to provide open access to the books of accounts to the people of the Bahamas,” former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, then PAC chairman, said at the time. “If you are operating an honest and decent government, operating in accordance to the laws of The Bahamas, standard accounting principles, you would have no difficulty if the shareholders representative had a look at the books. But, if you have done something wrong, then you would…cover up, hide and frustrate and deem it necessary to lie.”
That year, Mr Ingraham argued the administration frustrated the PAC only when it realised members wanted to investigate why $636,000 was sent to Crooked Island during a bye-election.
In 1997, it was the PLP that complained about being stalled. Led by former Prime Minister Perry Christie, then PAC chairman, the party wanted to learn why the government incurred a $100.3 million deficit in the first 11 months of that fiscal year. However, Elliot Lockhart, MP for Exuma, said the deficit was outside the scope of the committee because it was not contained in an auditor’s report.
In 2004, Immigration and Financial Services Minister Brent Symonette, then the PAC chairman, took a dim view of the body having power to only review audited accounts. “I have written to the speaker asking for his ruling on whether or not the opinion of Elliot Lockhart is binding on the Public Accounts Committee,” he said. “If that is correct it is a waste of time and I might as well give up and go home.”