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We need ‘wise and fearless’ commissioners

David Saul, the former Premier, has called for the appointment of “brave, wise and fearless” commissioners to investigate the handling of public funds during the former Progressive Labour Party administration.

Dr Saul yesterday praised Michael Dunkley for opting to call a Commission of Inquiry into how taxpayers' cash was managed between the years 2009 to 2012.

But he said the Premier would need to make “some very wise choices” for the four-person board to ensure a robust, rigorous inquiry into the recent findings by Auditor-General Heather Jacobs Matthews of repeated breaches of official financial rules by civil servants.

“I truly welcome the Premier's decision to set up a Commission of Inquiry, as it is overdue,” he told The Royal Gazette. “The Auditor's report has cemented the rumours that have been circulating around the community for some years now.

“The commission will allow the truth to come out and lead to Bermudians having greater faith in their future.”

Dr Saul, who was a senior civil servant for ten years, including financial secretary for five years, said the findings of the Auditor-General were a damning indictment on those who spent public funds without following due process.

He said those responsible ought to be “named and shamed” and should face repercussions.

“Concern about incompetence in the Civil Service and worries about corruption in government have led to a moral problem in the community,” claimed Dr Saul. “The level of confidence has recently improved considerably and the fact that a commission will be appointed will be greeted with a sigh of relief by everyone on the Island.

“The Premier is to be congratulated on taking this bold step. So much will depend on the composition of the commission. I hope the Premier makes some very wise choices. They will have to be brave, wise and fearless.

“I shall pray that the members carry out their mandate with skill and are not overwhelmed by the complexities of the task before them — Bermuda's future reputation will depend on their findings and recommendations.”

The former United Bermuda Party leader said past commissions, such as the Pitt Commission into the 1977 riots, did “much to guide the community as a whole, leading to decades of progress”.

He added: “It is my hope that the outcome of this latest commission will lead to an even better future for our island home.”

Mrs Matthews's recent report revealed multiple breaches of financial instructions, involving millions of dollars of taxpayers' cash. Examples included contracts not being put out to tender, spending without Cabinet approval and duplicate payments.

Dr Saul said as a former civil servant he was “intimately familiar” with financial instructions, which under the law and Constitution “hold sway on how and why the civil servants are legally responsible for any spending, and for that matter, for any overspending of government monies”.

He said: “The Cabinet per se has no authority to spend any money that is not approved by Parliament — by passage of the Budget. No individual Cabinet Minister can spend monies without the full agreement of his or her head of department.

“Parliament passes an annual Budget: thereafter, a professional civil service has the job of keeping the books, making certain that the country and individual departments of government stick to that Budget.

“In my five years as the Minister of Finance, no paper went to Cabinet involving the spending of funds without an explicit paragraph stating clearly ‘that the Minister of Finance has read the paper and approves of the spending of these monies'.”

In the wake of the Auditor's report, Cabinet Secretary Derrick Binns issued a statement insisting that decision-making lay in the hands of ministers.

However, Dr Saul said no Cabinet minister had the power to sign any cheque or authorise the payment of funds as only the department head, usually the permanent secretary, could approve spending.

He added: “What is more important, only the Ministry of Works, through its head of department, can approve the spending of funds for any capital works, regardless of which ministry is carrying out the capital works.

“In short, no individual minister has any power to ‘take charge' of any individual capital works project, nor can any minister authorise the spending of monies, capital or operating. No minister can become his or her own ‘head of department'.”

The Ministry of Finance has refused to divulge what action has been taken against those responsible for breaching financial instructions. Mrs Matthew has said the government remains reluctant to penalise senior civil servants.

Dr David Saul. (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published December 24, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated January 07, 2016 at 8:43 am)

We need ‘wise and fearless’ commissioners

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