Posted: Friday, November 22, 2019. 2:34 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: After submissions in court on Thursday, Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin is to consider the following: whether $1.3 billion spent and approved by supplementary appropriation bills over 10 years is void and unconstitutional, and whether to restrain the current and future Prime Minister, Financial Secretary and Attorney General from embarking on that type of spending.
He is expected to give his decision on January 20, 2020. But already the Government has apparently conceded two of the four major points raised by the Opposition claimants, John Briceño and Julius Espat.
According to Espat, Government Counsel Justin Simon, QC, conceded that the $100 million unbudgeted and unapproved by the National Assembly and flagged in the Auditor General’s Report for 2012-2013 was unconstitutionally spent, and likewise for all the other supplementary allocations listed. However, the Government challenges the constitutionality of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act as to the use of a Contingency Fund for “urgent and unforeseen” spending, as well as the Petrocaribe Loans Act concerning that program.
He said, “What was revealing to me, was that they are not saying that they were right, they have agreed they were wrong, now they are pleading to the court and asking for leniency because we are a little Caribbean nation and that’s how we do things, unlike the first world countries. That was surprising that a defense attorney for the government of Belize would use as a pleading factor with the judge, that’s how I saw it.”
The sole witness appearing for the Government, Financial Secretary Joseph Waight, pleaded a combination of factors. First, he pointed out that the figure “may sound like a lot of money, but it’s about 10% of the overall budget for that year. And in fact, when you look at all the supplementaries they list, still it is within 6, 7 or 8% of the total spending over that period. The average budget is about 900 million a year and this is going back to 2005, or so… it may sound like a big figure, but when you put it in perspective, it is still a single-digit number. And remember, these supplementaries go back beyond the life of the current government. In fact, the current government is doing that they inherited, so to speak. Nevertheless, indeed, the supplementaries have been late, in being put to the House, and in fact, we have conceded that. It was an age-old practice.”
On the 2012-13 figure, he mentioned that a key member of the team reviewing that matter is out sick and this has hampered efforts to address it, not to mention the small size of the Ministry of Finance staff.
But he did concede, “Ideally, you would want to do it in compliance with the regulations, and so, I should also tell you that in fact, while we may be late in submitting. It’s a procedural matter, but there is no mention, and I should stress clearly that there is no mention that there is any misappropriation or impropriety with the use of the money.”
The Opposition does not buy it; leader John Briceño said plainly, “Well, it does not matter where it came from… if it was wrong then, it’s double wrong today.” He added that, “I think it is very important for not only this government but for future governments to ensure that we work within the budget, that we work within the constitution, that we work within the law and that we should always be held accountable for our deeds, for our actions and that if we do not follow the law, that we should be held accountable for it and have to pay whatever the law prescribes.”
Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay, appearing for Briceño and Espat, noted that the Contingency Fund is provided for in the Constitution to address such things as natural disasters (fire, flooding, hurricanes and so on) and that to plead, for instance, that payment of salaries counts as “urgent and unforeseen” circumstances does not rise to that standard.
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