Despite his office’s enshrinement in three legal documents – including the Cayman Islands Constitution Order – Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick said last week that he does not believe his office is “sufficiently protected” against some in powerful positions who might wish to silence it, or reduce its effectiveness.
The auditor general’s office essentially serves to double-check government finances on an annual basis, auditing financial statements in the annual reports of more than 40 government entities. It also performs public interest audits that are reported separately to the Legislative Assembly and the assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.
“It is my opinion that the independence of the [auditor general] is not sufficiently protected by these instruments and that action is required to prevent the erosion [of] the current [reporting] practice,” Mr. Swarbrick said in a recently released position paper. “Comments have been made … over the last four and a half years since I have been auditor general that, if supported, would erode my ability to report to the Legislative Assembly and the people of the Cayman Islands with the independence I need to effectively carry out my duties.
“I believe these comments clearly show the fragility of the governance framework in place to protect my independence and the lengths that some individuals might consider in the future to erode democracy in the Cayman Islands for their own personal interests.”
The subject of when and how reports of the auditor general’s office, particularly public interest audits, should be released to the media and the general public has been controversial since government changed the process in 2006.
It was raised most recently last week, when Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush pointed out what he said were mistakes in the 2014 travel and hospitality expenditures audit that was released by the auditor general’s office several months before it went to the legislative committee. Officials at the auditor’s office have denied what Mr. Bush said were errors and also denied that their intention was to “smear” civil servants or the government, as Mr. Bush claimed.
“What is obvious … is that the full and complete picture is not being given to the public,” Mr. Bush said of the 2014 audit. “It causes reputations of civil servants and public officials to become tarnished because of the way it was done.”
Previously, auditors’ reports had to be reviewed by the Public Accounts Committee prior to their release, a step that sometimes took years. The Cayman Compass reported on one such case in 2007, when an audit dated 1999 was released eight years after it was completed.
Now, auditors reports are released shortly after being presented to the Speaker of the House. The accounts committee typically reviews them some months afterward. However, the current process is set out only in Legislative Assembly Standing Orders, which can be altered or suspended by a majority vote of lawmakers at any time, for almost any reason.
Public Accounts Committee Chairman Roy McTaggart said recently that Cayman will not revert to the previous way of releasing auditors reports, at least not on his watch.
“If they have to go to the Public Accounts Committee first, there’s a six- to eight-month delay and [the report’s] relevance and value decreases,” Mr. McTaggart said last week when asked about the issue.
However, that assurance from Mr. McTaggart can be only temporary, since any legislator’s appointment to the accounts committee is political and therefore transitory.
Mr. Swarbrick said, “Since becoming auditor general, I have issued several reports discussing the inappropriate role of politicians in the day to day administration of government. These findings demonstrate a lack of good governance, but more importantly, demonstrate a clear disregard for the principles enshrined in the constitution and laws of the Cayman Islands. Therefore, it is critical that my reporting timelines to the Legislative Assembly be free of possible influence by those same individuals who may have themselves transgressed good governance practices.”
Mr. Swarbrick said the process governing the release of his office’s reports could be placed into local law, either in the Public Management and Finance Law or in a separate bill, such as an Auditor General’s Act.
That separate legislation was on the Progressives-led government’s agenda for the 2014/15 budget year.
Planned legislation documents in the budget indicate government’s intention to pass a separate law for the auditor general “to align with the constitution and ensure the independence of the office of the auditor general.”
A bill on the matter has yet to be brought before the Legislative Assembly.