ICO cover letter
Taxpayers’ cash poured into failed Sandys 360
Taxpayers’ money was poured into the failed Sandys 360 sports centre even after its management stopped payment of social insurance contributions and land tax, The Royal Gazette can reveal.
Gitanjali Gutierrez, the information commissioner, scrutinised documents that showed cash owed by the centre in a review of the Ministry of Finance’s refusal to release the records under the public access to information law.
Ms Gutierrez said in a decision due to be made public today: “Weighty public interest considerations in this case favour disclosure of the social insurance contribution and land tax amounts owed.”
She ordered the finance ministry to release the records by February 7.
Ms Gutierrez said: “Public accountability concerning public spending and decision-making is a primary purpose set out in section 2 of the Pati Act.
“The information commissioner agrees with the position that in light of the substantial amount of public funding involved, disclosure would increase the accountability of the ministry.
“It would show that public funding was still being given to Sandys 360 when the Government was aware that the company and the Sandys 360 board of trustees were in arrears for social insurance contributions and land tax payments.”
Ms Gutierrez said: “Disclosure of the actual amounts will allow the public to make informed assessments of the spending decisions made with public funds.”
At least $5.3 million of public money was given to Sandys 360 between 2007 and 2013.
That included a duplicate payment of $807,000 made “in error” which was never paid back to the Government.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were also donated by the corporate sector and the public.
The sports centre closed at the end of 2013 after it ran out of money.
The Royal Gazette submitted a Pati request to the Ministry of Finance in February 2016 that asked for a list of Sandys 360’s debts to the Government, including a total figure and details of any attempts to recover the money.
The ministry confirmed it was still owed the $807,000 and revealed that Sandys 360 was “in debt to Government for payroll taxes, land tax and social insurance contributions”.
But it refused to release the amounts owed and insisted the information was exempt under Pati.
A review of the decision by Anthony Manders, the financial secretary, agreed.
He wrote: “It has been a longstanding policy of the ministry to not publicly disclose amounts owed to Government by entities.”
Ms Gutierrez ruled that the Government could withhold information on payroll tax arrears because of a secrecy provision in the Taxes Management Act 1976.
But the information commissioner said there was no reason to withhold the records on land tax and social insurance contributions.
Ms Gutierrez wrote: “The ministry suggests that information that has been previously held secret as a matter of government custom, rather than as a legislative requirement, should remain secret even after the enactment of the Pati Act.
“The information commissioner cannot accept this claim.
“As part of the good governance reforms in the public service to promote transparency and improve accountability, information previously protected as a matter of policy or practice within government is precisely the type of information to which the Pati Act now provides the public access, unless it properly falls within a listed exemption.”
The information commissioner said that “contrary to the assertion of a longstanding confidentiality policy concerning social insurance contributions”, the Government had encouraged people to check if their employers were up to date on payments with the Department of Social Insurance.
She pointed out that the public had asked for the aggregate amount of these individual figures for Sandys 360.
Ms Gutierrez highlighted a claim by the finance ministry that it held no records on its attempts to recover the funds owed and revealed that she had reviewed relevant documents, which had been withheld from The Royal Gazette.
She quashed the ministry’s decision in relation to its attempts to recover the money owed and ordered it to issue a “new, accurate and complete” response to that part of the Pati request, also by February 7.
A government spokeswoman said last night that it had seen Ms Gutierrez’s decision and would “take the appropriate actions as required by the Pati Act”.
• To view the information commissioner’s cover letter, decision notice and order, click on the PDF links under “Related Media”