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Tabling of $1m report in doubt

Michael Dunkley refused to say yesterday whether the $1 million Commission of Inquiry report he ordered would be tabled in Parliament for MPs to debate.

The Premier's spokeswoman sidestepped a question on the issue, telling The Royal Gazette: “The report is available online. So it is accessible to members.”

Asked to confirm whether that response meant the 178-page document would not appear on the order paper of the House of Assembly, she replied “No” but did not elaborate further.

She later added: “[Mr] Dunkley has advised that his response to the media queries is what stands at this stage, and has declined any further comment regarding the Commission of Inquiry, except to note that the CoI report is available online for review. And as the Premier has noted, Government is presently reviewing the recommendations and committed to implementing positive changes following a consultation process.”

Earlier, Mr Dunkley responded to questions from this newspaper about how he planned to hold high-earning civil servants accountable for failing to follow financial rules, as outlined in the Commission's report, and why he told ZBM news that those officials should “not be singled out” after a front-page story in this newspaper.

Mr Dunkley said yesterday: “It would be wrong for The Royal Gazette to continue to single out members of the Civil Service. The Civil Service works to deliver the policy and operational objectives of Ministers.”

His public backing of senior civil servants, some of whose actions contributed to the overspend of $72 million of public money during the Progressive Labour Party's tenure as the Government, was characterised by a former Cabinet minister as a ploy to win votes.

Renee Webb, who served as a PLP minister between 1998 and 2004, said: “It's a PR exercise.

“It's not how to get the Civil Service to be more efficient.

“If you are going to spend a million dollars of the public purse investigating something, people should be held accountable as a consequence.”

Ms Webb, who came in for what she said was unjustified criticism while tourism minister for the way a hotel contract on a publicly owned property [Coco Reef] was tendered, added: “Michael Dunkley rocked the boat by releasing the report, but then he backtracked because he's facing an election.

“You are talking about almost 5,000 voters [in the Civil Service]. Upsetting the civil servants, which are the largest voting bloc as far as workers are concerned, is the last thing he wants to do. Timing is everything. He is more concerned about winning the election at this time.

“You have got to tread on eggshells. What Michael Dunkley is saying is that no matter what has been done wrong, single out the Minister, but don't single out the Civil Service.”

Kevin Comeau, a lawyer who called for a Commission of Inquiry in March 2012 when he was living in Bermuda, argued that career civil servants were put in an impossible position by ministers and should not be “scapegoated”.

He said: “In a perfect world, they would have done the honourable thing: refused to co-operate with their Minister and reported the [allegedly] corrupt acts to either the Auditor-General or the police.

“But keep in mind that whistleblower legislation was only enacted in the summer of 2011, after most of the [alleged] corruption had already taken place. These civil servants, some of whom had spent their entire career honourably working for the Government, had to make a choice: report the violations by their bosses and lose their jobs, or keep quiet and thereby stay employed.”

He said the fate of those civil servants who “passively turned a blind eye” and failed to report breaches of financial instructions “should be to simply suffer the public embarrassment of being named in the CoI report, which in a small community like Bermuda is no small punishment”.

Backbench PLP MPs during the period in question should be the real target of taxpayers' ire, he argued, as they “cowardly said nothing” yet could have used their parliamentary privilege to flag up any wrongdoing.

Bermuda Public Services Union said in a statement on Wednesday that the commission's report, and the Auditor-General's earlier report on the same time period, focused on only a few capital projects.

“The majority of capital projects and Government's current account expenditure are being managed competently and effectively by civil servants, including the four senior civil servants that were highlighted and disparaged in The Royal Gazette,” it said.

The Commission of Inquiry identified seven Bermuda Government business dealings between 2009 and 2012 where there was evidence of “possible criminal activity”, though it did not link the “possible criminal activity” to any civil servants, other than One Bermuda Alliance Senator Vic Ball, who has left the Civil Service.

The commissioners called for an “urgent review [of] personnel and processes in the Civil Service” and recommended “a frank, independent assessment of whether all current leaders of the Civil Service have appropriate skills sets, perspective and motivation to effect needed change. If not, ascertain whether this can be improved with training.”

They stopped short of recommending disciplinary action for civil servants named in the report, but said civil servants should in future be disciplined or sanctioned “on a timely basis” for failing their regulatory responsibility.

Two of the four still-serving civil servants criticised in the report — Derrick Binns and Cherie Whitter — have been promoted to the highest possible roles in the Civil Service since their actions were highlighted by the Auditor-General in the 2015 report which prompted the Premier to order the Commission.

Dr Binns is now Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, earning $204,775 a year.

Ms Whitter, on an annual salary of $187,606, is Deputy Head of the Civil Service and in charge of Public Service Reform, including increasing accountability and implementing training to ensure official Financial Instructions are followed.

She was criticised by the Commission of Inquiry for “appearing to provide no oversight” to the accounting officer responsible for a multimillion-dollar Department of Tourism contract being awarded to American company GlobalHue in 2009 without going out to tender.

The commissioners said Ms Whitter, who served as tourism's permanent secretary while Ewart Brown was premier and tourism minister, “failed to notify the Accountant-General of this breach of Financial Instructions”.

In 2009, the Public Accounts Committee, under the chairmanship of Bob Richards, released a report that found Ms Whitter “fully responsible” for failing to follow the Government's financial rules in relation to GlobalHue.

Ms Whitter told the PAC and the Auditor that she had not received any pressure from anyone with respect to the decisions taken within the ministry regarding contracts.

Last year, she told the Commission of Inquiry: “The minister [Dr Brown] and Cabinet made the decision to contract with GlobalHue in 2009.”

Mr Dunkley told this newspaper: “[The] PSR initiative falls under myself, so in that regard DHCS Whitter takes direction from me and then reports back to me. I have full confidence in Ms Whitter and look forward to continued work on this project and other government initiatives with her.”

He later added: “As it relates specifically to [Ms] Whitter, we have worked together for a number of years and I have confidence in her performance, based on the work that we have done together.”

He said he “would not be drawn” on the PAC's conclusions under Mr Richards, who is now Deputy Premier and finance minister.

The Premier said all public servants, of whom there were 4,613 as of January 31, had annual performance appraisals and oversight of them resided with the Public Service Commission.

The PLP has criticised Mr Dunkley for not providing the House with a copy of the commission's report, claiming it was disrespectful.

UPDATE: this story has been amended to make clear that Renee Webb was not the tourism minister until after Coco Reef was put out to tender by the late David Allen

Michael Dunkley, the Premier

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Published March 24, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated March 24, 2017 at 5:31 pm)

Tabling of $1m report in doubt

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