In accordance with the basic laws of the land, the management of state finances or public finances, come directly under the authority of the Parliament and its coordinator the Auditor General. However it appears to be doubtful whether this close alliance was guaranteed in the recent Central Bank Bond Issue. When queried, the Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe opined as follows.
Q As envisaged in the 100 day programme, the implementation of the Audit Act and the commission still remains ineffective. The civil society and the professionals too are exerting pressure, but what is delaying these matters?
This is our problem as well. There is a new culture that is emerging, those who will face this new culture remain the people who were under the former regime. This is an issue. For example in the case of taking action against certain ministry secretaries whom we identify as chief accountants, we faced problems. Though they come under the Auditor General, there were weak areas whenever action was instituted against them. Under the new act that power would be vested with the Auditor General.
It means that in the event of a loss, the Auditor General will have the power to issue orders for its recovery. The biggest hurdle is here. At present the category of officers who are identified as chief accountants are very powerful. Not all but some of them are opposing as they are not in agreement with the delegation of power. This is the reason for the delay.
Q In the implementation of action against corruption, state officers are being taken to task while the politicians escape. Even in the parliamentary sub committees, politicians are not bound to respond. Don’t you think that this situation should change?
No. Why should it change? The responsibility begins from the chief accountant’s level. The ministry secretary or the one who is below him should know how to maintain his own self respect. Whatever said and done the officer who is straightforward would never stoop to low levels. The politicos would then refrain from doing wrong. To say that they cannot work is a scam. If it is so they can ask for a transfer to some other place. Without doing the needful there is no point in arguing.What is actually happening here is, that a handful of officers had fallen to the level of misleading politicos to obtain perks and privileges. They are the people who mislead the country and encouraged politicos to do wrong.
Q Are you implying that politicos are clean?
No, absolutely not. What I say is that a politico cannot commit fraud alone. They essentially need the help of the bureaucracy. This is the culture that has been created.
"A group in the COPE attempted to point a finger at me and were accusing me.
An Auditor General cannot be accused and if that happened everything would have ended there. They began questioning me. This is the first time in history such an occurrence was reported. "
Q With replacements not being implemented and allocation of inadequate funds, the audit department was at one time faced with issues. Is it better now and have the required facilities been provided?
Honestly I have not faced such issues. I discuss with the Ministry of Finance and obtain my necessities. There are some obstacles, no doubt. The new act had been brought about to maintain independence. This commission had earlier become a white elephant. We took over a three storied building and recruited about twenty personnel. They have been idling for the past eleven months, without any specific work. Monthly expenditures amounting to Rs. 2 million were recorded. This is because the Audit act has not been passed yet. When the commission is established it has to implement the audit act which is yet to be passed. In a haste they established the commission expecting the act to be implemented. Now it has been almost two years.
Q In other words maintaining such a commission is a waste of public money.
That is what I am stressing. There are five members employed by the commission. They are paid Rs 75,000 each and provided with vehicles. I have a secretary, additional secretary and an office staff. They cannot be sent back.
Q Several professionals had pointed out that it is more practical to have a system where allocations for the Auditor General’s activities be authorised by Parliament rather than by the Treasury. A scheme of that nature is prevalent in England and clearly emphasizes independence.
That is absolutely correct and it is found in the Audit act as well. Accordingly the annual allocations for the Auditor General is prepared by the Audit services commission. It is directly submitted to the Speaker of Parliament and is referred to the preparation of the budget, following his approval. With this act now in the hands of time everything has come to a standstill.
"Under the new act that power would be vested with the Auditor General. It means that in the event of a loss, the Auditor General will have the power to issue orders for its recovery. The biggest hurdle is here. "
Q What is the nature of the relationship between the Auditor General and the COPE?
If there is no Auditor General there will be no COPE. The COPE is dependent on the report of the Auditor General. In the absence of an audit report the COPE has no matters to be discussed. I direct about 1500 reports to the Parliament. Out of these only a selected few are taken up by the COPE. We are ready to work abreast with the COPE.
Q -Former COPE chairman D. E. W. Gunasekera once remarked that the COPE report is based on the Auditor General’s report, but in the bond incident several argued about the necessity of the audit report. What is the basis for this argument?
If we argue over this point, we may also question: what is the necessity in having, supreme courts and appeal courts? We could manage with only the lower courts. This system is in place to safeguard the rights of the people. The COPE is vested with powers to act in accordance with the audit report as financial control has to be held by it. COPE issues its reports based on the Auditor General’s findings. That is tabled in Parliament, and they decide whether to go forward or not. Thereafter the matter is referred to courts. This is the democratic process. There was a time earlier when Auditor General’s reports were thrown into the dustbin. But that is parliamentary procedure.
"The new act had been brought about to maintain independence. This commission had earlier become a white elephant. We took over a three storied building and recruited about twenty personnel. The personnel have been idling for the past eleven months, without any specific work. Monthly expenditures amounting to Rs. 2 million were recorded."
Q Diverting from the earlier procedure, there was a split of opinions in tabling of the COPE report. What was the reason behind this controversy?
There were no questions surfacing on my findings. If our main aim is good governance a difference of opinion cannot exist. But what happened here was something that went beyond. A group in the COPE attempted to point a finger at me and were accusing me.
An Auditor General cannot be accused and if that happened everything would have ended there. They began questioning me. This is the first time in history such an occurrence was reported. The Auditor General goes to the COPE to assist it. They take my report and question the accused. This time around, they questioned me on my report. Without proceeding ahead with the Auditor General they contemplated on an offensive mission, and the controversy arose due to it.
Q Did you agree to alter some of your findings as stated in the COPE report.
No.No. Nothing of that sort. Certain footnotes made by some had stated that the Auditor General had agreed on some issues. It is a canard. There was no reason to change my opinion, as the Auditor General has only one opinion and not 26 opinions. If that happens there is no validity in the Auditor General’s report. I have never backtracked on any opinion expressed by me and never altered my opinions either. There were no amendments. Those who disagree have the right to put some icing on it. In simpler words it is like allowing a student sitting for the grade 5 scholarship examination to examine my report and the student will also pick the findings I have noted. There is clear evidence of fraud and it is not necessary to go into hair splitting arguments.
"There was no reason to change my opinion, as the Auditor General has only one opinion and not 26 opinions. If that happens there is no validity in the Auditor General’s report. I have never backtracked on any opinion expressed by me and never altered my opinions either. "
Q Earlier there was little support from the state institutions for the audit procedures, has this changed the position.
Now there is much change. It all depends on the chief accountant. If he begins to realize that the Auditor General is there to assist him and make good governance more effective within institutions, there would be no more issues. But some others are scared of him and regard him as a fault finder. In the bond incident the Central Bank continued to be evasive and tried to hide facts. They attempted to avoid providing information by saying things like very sensitive matters etc. COPE did not allow it and therefore we were able to uncover every detail.
Q There was opposition from the Cabinet of the former regime to a group identified as white collar criminals. Aren’t there any loop holes for those who are masters of this game to escape through the audit net.
I am not convinced that this is not true. Let me go back to the audit commission and the act as the country has advanced rapidly and the economy is globalised. All sectors have become resurgent,but the necessary infrastructure had not been provided over the past period for the Auditor General’s Department to come to that position. There are 1500 staff members in my department. Out of them not even 100 have gone abroad on scholarships. With the greatest difficulty, funds were obtained, and now we are in the process of sending a small group to Malaysia for a two week training. The Auditor General’s department has not achieved the universal knowledge of audit and its activities.
For example cyber crimes and money laundering, are crimes very difficult to be subject to audit. There is a dearth of officers who are competent for this kind of work. Therefore we lack the potential to attack the white collar criminals you mentioned. There are many obstacles to come up to that standard. Until we reach that position we have to accept your criticisms. Under the 19th amendment about 200 companies which are semi government institutions had been included in the audit list. Sri Lankan Airlines is also among them. No point in entrusting this workload without providing the necessary input.
Q In spite of the COPE committee taking centre stage for some, the issue was the mass media. With the audit act, people would gain access to obtain knowledge on misuse of public funds. Will this be a step forward in establishing financial discipline.
After the implementation of the act, the Auditor General gets the opportunity of going before the media and provide reports and the public would be able to obtain information. This is the reason why the act is being shelved. However with the implementation of the RTI bill, no sooner my reports are presented to the Parliament, the reports would be uploaded to the Auditor General’s Department Website and the public could debate them. This would go a long way in the fulfillment of the good governance concept.
Q Despite the fact that the Auditor General is independent, the President and Prime Minister having their so-called powers, are they not in a position to interfere in issues. Say for example on a matter of national security, the President, as the Minister-in-Charge of Defence, doesn’t he have the opportunity of interfering.
No. The Auditor General’s Department is not under any minister. It is independent. Only thing is, the issues connected with the political culture. When you are straightforward so many issues come up. How many issues have I had to face in the recent past? As long as the political culture is active this situation would continue and that is why we are asking the immediate implementation of the act and the activation of the commission.
Some see us as an obstacle. Public money should be spent for the development of the people and should not be wasted. People have to fight to safeguard their rights. I have proved that matters relating to one’s conscience and peoples aspirations have not been proved in the face of law.
These may change before the law in the face of hair splitting arguments.