The Government of Belize (GOB) is under scrutiny after it was revealed on Wednesday, January 24th, that the current administration has not complied with the Finance Reform and Audit Act in regards to appropriation bills. This Act stipulates different ways that Central Government can issue supplementary appropriations to itself from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. According to arguments from Senators Valerie Woods and Eamon Courtenay of the People’s United Party (PUP) during the sitting of the Senate, this Reform has been purposely overlooked in relation to additional expenditures for 2016 and 2017, which were used as relief funds after Hurricane Earl. The Senators also believe the GOB contravened the Act by bringing the questionable expenditures for approval well over a year later with no clear accountability and explanation for the delay. These allegations were acknowledged by Financial Secretary, Joseph Waight, who attended the sitting. Furthermore, additional funds were also granted to Belize Infrastructure Limited (BIL) to the tune of almost $19 million dollars for the same period with a proper accounting of these supplementary expenses yet to be provided.
The PUP Senators questioned government officials why late supplementary appropriation bills dating back to 2016 were just being presented before the Senate for approval in 2018. They alleged that GOB under the United Democratic Party (UDP) administration is in breach of the Finance and Audit Reform Act and someone needs to be held liable. Senator Courtenay led the debate at the sitting by citing what he called a number of gross violations to the Act and noted that there was a time limit for supplementary bills to be brought to the National Assembly with a proper accountability. “We do not know the details of any of these expenditures,” said Courtenay. “This Senate should not approve these expenditures, unless and until we have a proper explanation as to how it is that millions upon millions of dollars were apparently spent in 2016 but were not dealt with in the 2017-2018 budget.” He continued highlighting the fact that there were no details as to what the expenditure was or what the money was spent on. “Why is it that we do not have a mid-year report that gives us the full details required by the regulations to ensure transparency and fiscal responsibility?” he questioned.
A day after the bill was debated at the Senate, both Courtenay and Woods held a press conference to update the public on the delicate matter. “We want to give the Belizean people a little more detail of what in fact happened so that they can understand that this is an extremely serious matter in which civil society ought to become very interested and take steps to ensure that what was revealed should be dealt with according to the law,” said Courtenay.
He explained that there has been non-compliance with the Reform and Act, which is a criminal offense. “At this point, anybody can make a complaint to the police for an investigation to be done and for an investigation to be launched for such violations,” Courtenay told the media. He added that in addition to the government’s non-compliance, these additional millions of dollars were being spent annually without adequately accounting for how they were used. “In regards to Hurricane Earl, which occurred on August 4, 2016, you cannot approve a year later $300,000 for cleanup of Belize City, something is wrong,” he said. “If they also say that the expenditure occurred way back in 2016 but we missed it and so we are approving it in 2018, then something is even more wrong.”
Senator Woods told reporters that the explanation provided for the delay at the Senate was simply cited as a slippage. “The Leader of Government Business, Senator Godwin Hulse explained that they were too busy and missed deadlines,” Woods told reporters. “It is important for Belizeans to understand that the very admission is also admitting that they the government had violated the law. It is a matter of providing explanations, they were approved X millions of dollars and they went over by X millions. A report should explain why such a thing happened, but we are not provided with that.”
Regarding BIL, Woods indicated that reports show that they approved $500,000 for the fiscal year 2016-2017. However, they received a supplementary of $5 million. “They went over by $4.5 million,” Woods pointed out. “We still don’t know why and we don’t know what that money was used for.” Furthermore, she stated that BIL received an additional $7 million in the same year, adding up to $12.5 million. “By the time the fiscal year was over, it went further and the final tally was over $19 million,” said Woods. “Ok, we understand you went over, can you tell us why? Can you show us how that money was spent?” Woods mentioned that the Financial Secretary sits on the board of BIL and asserts that there has been no audit report. She also stated that there is no Contractor General to review the contracts for the additional spending. Woods explained that when projects, for unforeseen reasons, exceed the amount initially allotted for in the fiscal budget, provisions are made for additional funding. The Ministers under whose portfolio the projects fall are required by the Finance Act to present warrants for additional spending and to immediately report the need for additional funds to the House of Representatives to seek the necessary approval. Those additional funds should not exceed 10% of the initial budget. In the case of the BIL projects, the Minister should have provided the full amount being sought for approval for those projects before the monies were actually used.
The Senators have briefed their party leader, Honourable John Briceño and while they wait for a detailed report from Financial Secretary Waight, they will be calling the party’s Executive to meet and take a decision on whether they should proceed in taking GOB to court. Both Woods and Courtenay indicated that the bill in question is not a retroactive one and if the government make amendments to the law to make it retroactive, then it will be considered abuse of power. They ended by emphasizing that if no one is held accountable, such violations will just continue. The San Pedro Sun made several attempts to contact Waight, but he was not available for comment.
The 13th Senator representing the Non-Governmental Organizations community, Osmany Salas joined in on the GOB’s condemnation. In a statement released on Monday, January 29th, Salas spoke about the sums of money for the use of the Public Service of Belize in the categories of Capital II Expenditure and Capital III Expenditure. In the Capital Expenditure II an amount of $6.6 million was approved by the Ministry of Finance between May 2016 and August 2017 for the Hurricane Earl relief assistance (Belmopan clean up and general aid), this also included Mother’s Day Appreciation Programme. The Capital Expenditure III was for expenditures approved in eight tranches totaling $7.3 million between December 2016 and March 2017 for BIL projects. Salas highlighted that no details were provided for those BIL projects.
In the case of the funds approved for Hurricane Earl, it came as a form of urgency and therefore the government cannot be at fault for very quickly accessing money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. But according to Salas, referring to Section 5 (3) of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, ‘all authorizations by Special Warrant for accessing monies shall be reported to the House of Representatives at its next meeting where practicable and at the next meeting of the House called for supplementary estimates, the Minister in charge shall ask the House to confirm the appropriation.’
The statement from the 13th Senator indicated that due to the tardiness in the presentation of the expenditure for approval from the Senate, there are a few facts to analyze. “The first tranches for Hurricane relief were approved by the Ministry of Finance in August 2016. As such, a Supplementary Appropriation Act should have been approved by the House by November 2016. Furthermore, approximately $210,000 for Mother’s Day Programme were alleged slipped into the supplementary monies which should have been for hurricane relief.”
In addition, Salas explained in his statement that the Fiscal Transparency and Responsibility Regulations, from 2010 requires the Minister of Finance to present to the National Assembly the Fiscal Outlook and mid-year report on or before November 15 of each fiscal year. It was confirmed by the Financial Secretary (Waight) that the government was very delayed in its presentation of the General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation 2016-2017, clearly not complying with Section 5 of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act. According to Salas’ release, Waight also reported that the government did not prepare the Fiscal Outlook and mid-year report and will instead present an end-of-the-year report in the form of a budget. Waight also admitted that the government has not provided such reports since 2010.
Salas’ statement ends by reiterating that the GOP must not provide the public with information only when requested or forced to do so. It is believed that it should be a matter of public knowledge as it is the people’s money at stake. “As Belize moves further along with the implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, such measures would certainly assure the public that the Senate, in particular, is not just a rubber stamp body, but that it is treated with the respect due in the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly,” the official note ended.
In the meantime, the GOB is expected to deliver an explanation for the discrepancies in the said appropriations bills. There is no clear indication when this will take place, while government Senators continue to believe that there has been a violation of the law and the governmental authorities in the Ministry of Finance should respond to the matter.