'The last 10 years have been the most vicious' Auditor General Larry Dennis reflects as he bows out

Retiring Auditor General Larry Dennis reveals his admiration for former Progressive Labour Party leader Freddie Wade and explains why whistleblowers' legislation is needed.

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At last Government and Larry Dennis are agreed about something he needs to retire.

Mr. Dennis, who has been on the receiving end of all sorts of abuse from politicians from the Premier on down is finally calling it a day on Monday.

Asked if he is relieved to be going he breathes a hearty: "Yes! 31 years is a long time, we have accomplished a lot, I am tired, and I need to go."

  • The late PLP leader Frederick Wade.

    The late PLP leader Frederick Wade.

  • <b>Retiring Auditor General Larry Dennis</b>

    Retiring Auditor General Larry Dennis

At last Government and Larry Dennis are agreed about something he needs to retire.

Mr. Dennis, who has been on the receiving end of all sorts of abuse from politicians from the Premier on down is finally calling it a day on Monday.

Asked if he is relieved to be going he breathes a hearty: "Yes! 31 years is a long time, we have accomplished a lot, I am tired, and I need to go."

But he is proud he made the office of Auditor General a flagship of good governance although it has seldom been plain sailing.

In 2007 he was arrested in the Police hunt for their missing Bermuda Housing Corporation files and was turfed out of his office by Government.

What troubled him most about the arrest was not his own comfort, but the fact his constitutional powers had been overridden with little thought about the implications.

"It was very disconcerting and made me re-evaluate what I was doing in Bermuda. But I tried to put myself in their shoes. I could have advised the Governor better on what to do."

When there is a row between the Auditor General and the Police Commissioner the matter should always be hammered out in court, argues Mr. Dennis.

"I was more concerned about the confidentiality of the Auditor General's office. Would people come forward with information in future?"

Going head to head with Bermuda's most powerful politicians can be a stressful job, but Mr. Dennis realises any Auditor General will come under political attack.

"But the last ten years have been more direct and more vicious than the first 20. I think it's the people we are dealing with and the era we are dealing with. You get what you can the 'me' generation.

"The Auditor General is saying there are rules and regulations which tell you how you need to act for the public good. I shouldn't be the only one to tell you, but if it ends up like that I will tell you."

He said the politicians of 30 and 40 years ago were there for the public good. "They really enjoyed what they were doing.

"Now I don't think they are like that at all. Now I don't think they are necessarily there for the public good and that's across the board.

"I have always maintained since day one, if ever I was criticised by the Opposition I would be horrified. Something would be wrong. I would hang my head in shame.

"You are probably doing a fairly good job if you are criticised by the Government.

"The late Freddie Wade used to say the Auditor General is the Opposition's civil servant. I guess in a way it is. He was pleased there was this creature keeping governments on the true and narrow."

And Mr. Dennis said the admiration ran both ways. "Perhaps my favourite politician in steering the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was Mr. Wade. He put in the necessary time; the committee ran very smoothly."

The bi-partisanship of the PAC under Mr. Wade impressed the visiting Auditor General from Alberta, but now that spirit has been lost, said Mr. Dennis. "Now the PAC is very political, which is unfortunate."

The political attacks on Mr. Dennis haven't always been logical.

Mr. Dennis was publicly lambasted by Premier Ewart Brown when Mr. Dennis claimed that Government, which was owed millions by ProActive after the Berkeley debacle, would not go after the bond collateralised by the Bermuda Industrial Union.

But soon after Government opted not to go after the money because it could cripple the union.

"I said in my report there are some organisations in a country which are so important. I knew that instinctively.

"Yet it seems it just dawned on this labour Government a couple months ago that this union is now very important to the Country, therefore we can't move against it."

Mr. Dennis said the whole bond issue had been "a fake arrangement". He added: "The fact Government paid $700,000 for it was an improper disbursement. Government had to have known it could not exercise that bond, it got no benefit."

It has since been claimed the union forked out millions in members' cash to pay subcontractors owed by ProActive. "That cash is gone, no one seems to be that concerned about it.

"Apparently, the members have been told, look at the nice big school you got for your money, so the money hasn't been wasted. It seems as if everybody has bought this."

The bond row was another political saga for Mr. Dennis, who said he was under constant pressure during his time in office.

"It was like chronic pain all the time as opposed to an acute one. I am hoping the new Auditor General will have a honeymoon period and get through a lot of things.

"Personally, although I knew some things needed to be addressed, by the end of my term here I was so jaded I wouldn't even bother to try."

He no longer called for more resources because no one was listening. "At this point I would rather put tables out in the lobby for my staff before I would ask for any more space.

"Fortunately, the new Auditor General doesn't come with that baggage. I think she will apply for more accommodation."

Accommodation has been a sore point. Mr. Dennis has long called for an independent Auditor General's office to prevent situations like the 2006 hasty office move which set his team back weeks in their work.

"I couldn't even appeal on the tenant/landlord legislation, which protects the tenant from improper access by the landlord.

"Government could come in any time they want and ransack my office and take whatever I had. There isn't a landlord that is going to stop them."

He said in the UK the National Audit Office was set up as an independent body funded by Government.

Despite all the anger directed at him, Mr. Dennis points out that the Auditor General has little actual power other than the powers of persuasion.

"Once they lose that they don't have any power at all."

He said Bermuda needs a whistleblowers' legislation, an idea he said had strong support in both the legal and accounting fraternities.

"If Government doesn't put through whistleblower legislation they will be sorry. You have to protect the people.

"They are not coming forward maliciously, they are coming in tears. They have sat for nights trying to figure out the ethics.

"When they finally come forward they are risking their livelihoods, coming with terrible anguish. We need to protect these people."

He said whistleblowers' protection could ultimately save Government's skin by pointing out costly frauds before they got out of hand.

Of course, not all the callers at Mr. Dennis' office in Victoria Hall have cast iron proof of wrong-doing.

But he hasn't minded fielding visits from concerned citizens who boast they have evidence of scandal with 'everything in black and white', only to produce some hand-written notes they've scribbled themselves.

"I have to keep myself available, there's not a lot of time wasted. I try to keep an open mind, keep other things in the 'data bank' in case other supporting information comes through."

Last year Mr. Dennis voiced frustration that Government had not tightened up loopholes that allowed Ministry of Finance official Harrison Isaac to swindle almost $2 million from Government before being arrested in 2004. But he said there were still blind spots.

"The measures are nowhere near complete, there are a lot of resources being put in there but we still have major problems with bank reconciliations."

But he said greater separation of responsibilities had been instigated making it more difficult for fraudsters in the government system to cover their tracks.

Asked for one key thing he would love to change in government he said a streamlined, user friendly accounting system was necessary in government to let people concentrate on their jobs with the figures being produced without effort.

"You can't have someone who is trained in tourism spending three days out of five controlling accounts because information doesn't flow."

One of the problems was unrealistic demands on people not qualified or experienced in their areas, said Mr. Dennis.

"We expect too much from clerical people who have not been instructed properly, who are expected to make fairly complex decisions.

"And we need to look at people who are in charge and if they are in the right place. Sometimes we have lawyers doing accounting jobs and accountants sitting in a legal advisory position."

Recently, PLP MP Terry Lister, in what was basically his resignation speech from Cabinet, complained about how public debt was spiralling out of control, up from $175 million in 2004-5 to $680 million this year.

Mr. Dennis said he had no concern in his official capacity, but he added: "I am glad some of the politicians are waking up to that because anyone can see that the liability of the Government has increased tremendously in the last few years."

He said the public seemed unconcerned with the Bermuda economy proving resilient.

"Bermuda has always been spoiled. I can remember talking to a former Premier and Finance Minister many years ago, noting the spending and the lack of control. The Premier said 'if it's as bad as you say how come everything is going so well?'

"That's what is happening now, the pie is so large that you can take as large a piece as you want and it won't bother anybody. But there will come a day when all this comes home to roost."

So politicians routinely postponed tough decisions to saddle future colleagues down the road with the problems, he said.

But Mr. Dennis is determined to pass on his own baton in a much more orderly fashion and he said was very pleased about the Governor's choice of successor as he believes the transition to Heather Jacobs Matthews will be almost imperceptible.

She has already begun work and has gone to some important meetings to give her an early heads-up.

"I think she will be excellent. She is starting off with a lot more experience than I had. I had been away for ten years and started at a relatively young age.

"She has extensive service throughout the Civil Service. She knows the other side of issues which will help her."

Mr. Dennis, who has often been the target of race baiting, says Ms Jacobs Matthews' ethnicity could take the sting out of that issue as she rides in on a wave of goodwill.

"With her being black the issue of race can't come into the equation, when she brings up a problem it will have to be looked at on its merits."

Despite the stress over the last three decades Mr. Dennis reckons he only had five or ten sleepless nights. "I am fairly good at compartmentalising my life."

He said he only realised how much when Police raided his home. They asked in vain to be led to his office, and then the library. He had neither. "They said 'give us your computer'. I said 'I don't keep a computer at home'. They were shocked. That's how I keep my blood pressure down, I don't take work home."

And Mr. Dennis is glad his career took the path it did. "I am not one who particularly likes auditing but auditing in the public sector has been totally fulfilling."

Public accounting might seem like one of the most thankless and least glamorous of professions but even auditors have their rock 'n' roll moments.

Mr. Dennis recalls walking with Ms Jacobs Matthews through the town after his retirement and her appointment had been announced.

"The outpouring of goodwill to her and to me was awesome, unbelievable.

"It showed me what the office of Auditor General has become over 31 years, people from all walks of life, all colours, were congratulating her, and me for what I have done in the past.It was a wonderful experience. We should have kept on circling the city."

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Published Aug 27, 2009 at 12:01 am (Updated Feb 10, 2011 at 10:25 am)

'The last 10 years have been the most vicious' Auditor General Larry Dennis reflects as he bows out

Retiring Auditor General Larry Dennis reveals his admiration for former Progressive Labour Party leader Freddie Wade and explains why whistleblowers' legislation is needed.

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