Auditor General Heather Jacobs Matthews <em>*File photo</em>
Auditor General Heather Jacobs Matthews *File photo
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WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11: There is still too little accountability for the use of public funds, Bermuda’s Auditor General intimated this week.

Heather Jacobs Matthews welcomes good governance legislation and moves to protect whistleblowers but says progress to date has been too slow. 

She says Civil Servants have to draw a line in the sand and refuse to break the rules.

Ms Jacobs Matthews — a veteran of public service with 30 years’ experience — said Civil Servants should resist any pressure from senior officials or politicians to break the Civil Service code or financial instructions.

Concerns

The comments come in the wake of her eye-opening reports criticizing Government’s management of public finances. She says people routinely contact her to highlight concerns — some walk into her offices, others even call at night or weekends.

In an interview with the Bermuda Sun, Ms Jacobs Matthews said: “If you [as a Civil Servant] are disadvantaged for doing the right thing, so be it. People have to do the right thing.

“I would not do something intentionally wrong — I may not make a good decision, but I work to do what I believe is the right thing to do.

“It boils down to ethics and doing the right things for the right reasons. I would encourage people to do that, whether inside the Civil Service or outside, but in the Civil Service people really have to stand their ground and hopefully, with the new whistleblower provisions and if they’re used the way they’re supposed to be, people will come forward without the fear that might normally generate.”

Ms Jacobs Matthews said her office on Hamilton’s Reid Street already drew significant numbers of “walk-ins” — that is, islanders who want to express concern over aspects of Government.

She added: “People want information or to tell us about things we should possibly be looking at. I also spend a lot of time talking to people on the phone, even at night and weekends, who don’t necessarily want to come into the office.

“That takes up time, but it’s worth it to be able to listen to these people. They often have concerns that you can take to the next level. That’s just part of our role.”

Ms Jacobs Matthews said: “The good governance legislation was a good start — I think my biggest concern would be that when things are done against the rules or the financial instructions, no one is held accountable.

“I can’t explain it – I have worked under both Governments and people were concerned about accountability. That’s the way I was trained and I’m still like that.

“I had less concern that the management of Government funds was not going well earlier in my career.”

Ms Jacobs Matthews welcomed good governance legislation being introduced by Premier and Finance Minister Paula Cox.

But she said: “I’m not seeing the changes as quickly as I believe they should change and accountability is key to that process. If people aren’t held accountable for going against financial instructions, what do you have?

“No one will take financial instructions seriously. Then you basically have a systemic problem at all levels of the Civil Service.

“I can only hope that things will change and people will do the right things for the right reasons. At the end of the day, it’s about how a Government should be run and I don’t care what Government it is.”

She acknowledged that her work was seen as controversial — but insisted that she had to “call it as I see it.”

Ms Jacobs Matthews added that her 2010 press release on financial accounts had pulled no punches.

Safeguards

She said: “I made some very strong comments and I did say we were in for a very rough ride and I repeated that in 2011. In my opinion, things haven’t improved since then.”

She said: “I have to be concerned when work takes us into areas where people will be looking at what we’re doing and if that work impacts on people financially, people will react in different ways.

“I have to be mindful of safeguarding my office, my staff and my records. It’s just different times.”

Ms Jacobs Matthews, who has just had her staffing increased from 25 to 30, although funds will have to come out of her existing budget, said that there were a pile of outstanding reports, including special reports, as well as the 47 Government Ministry and Department audits which fall due every April 1.

The workload is indicated by the fact that the Bermuda Sun requested an interview several weeks ago, but Ms Jacobs Matthews was only able to find a space in her diary this week.

Ms Jacobs Matthews said her office had worked to clear a total of 170 outstanding reports since she took over – and added that there were a number of special reports in the pipeline, including ones into the controversial Heritage Wharf at Dockyard, which came in millions of dollars over-budget.

The Coco Reef Resort in Paget, where concern was expressed over the way in which lease extensions were granted by Government, has also come under the Auditor General’s scrutiny.

But she added: “Financial statement audits take precedence over special reports. Special reports don’t have as high a priority as I would like them to have, but once we get to the maximum of 30 staff, we will be able to address special reports on a timely basis.

“Our biggest audit is the Consolidated Fund — the accounts of the Government of Bermuda — which includes the accounts of all Government departments and Ministries. That’s where all Government’s revenues go and where expenditures come from.”