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Power Limits! Transport Min. sets spending-limit condition on CEO; rules say minister out of line

The Minister of Youths, Sports and Transport, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, has written to demand that his Chief Executive Officer (CEO) notify him of “any transaction” that is more than $5,000, but rules governing the use of public expenditures say those powers rest with the CEOs.

According to senior public officers, the Constitution and various rules of the public service sets the responsibility for managing the ministry’s funds in the hands of the chief executive officers. One long-standing and senior public officer underscored that the specific functions are delineated in the “The Control of Public Expenditure Handbook” (“the handbook”). The handbook sets out the responsibilities of accounting officers—that is, CEOs.

More precisely, the handbook states: “[the Accounting Officer’s] most obvious duty is to ensure that the public funds entrusted to his care are properly safeguarded. … It is equally part of the duty of the Accounting Officer to ensure that the funds entrusted to him are applied only to the purposes intended by the Legislature.”

The handbook adds, “[The Accounting Officer] is answerable to the Public Accounts Committee for …all the expenditure out of the votes for which he is responsible.”

The handbook, however, does not only outline the function of the accounting officers, but it also sets the limits between the ministers’ roles and that of the civil servants.

The handbook adds: “The role of the Ministers in the control of public expenditure is primarily concerned with the embodiment of policy at draft Estimates stage when Ministers are endeavoring to secure the maximum funds for the subjects within their portfolios… Once these priorities are translated by the Legislature into the Approved Estimates, the role of the Ministers is to achieve implementation through the executive departments and offices within their portfolios. The detailed day-to-day authorization of expenditure provided for by the Legislature is, however, the responsibility of civil servants, that is, the Accounting Officers appointed to control the various votes as listed in the approved Estimates.”

Fundamentally, the parameters spelt out by various rules sets a chasm between the ministerial and civil servants roles, with the former being largely limited to the policy level, for which the minister remains answerable before the Legislature.

The Condition Set

Notwithstanding those rules—which The Reporter is reliably informed by the aforementioned senior public officer and Public Service Union (PSU) are still in force and parts of which still inform the text for all CEOs’ letters of appointment—the Minister of Youths, Sports, and Transport, Rodwell Ferguson wrote to his CEO, Marconi Leal Junior instructing that “With immediate effect, any transaction above five thousand dollars ($5,000) must come to my attention before any purchase order/payment is made, for my scrutiny."

While it is not entirely clear what motivated the letter, public allegations were made on Wave Televion’s Thursday morning’s “Fus Ting Da Mawnin” talk show, against which the minister has threatened to take legal action.

During the live show, a caller, speaking about the context of Ferguson’s letter, made several allegations about questionable spending. These allegations were then republished differently by The Guardian’s newspaper and “Hot Off the Press,” a type of media blog on Facebook.

Ferguson was quick to take to his Facebook page to deny the allegations. He said, "I will maintain my integrity. It is estimated that Government loses an estimated 100 million dollars each year because of misappropriation of funds in one way or the other. I am not alluding that any ‘hanky-panky’ is going on."

Ferguson’s Justification

In reference to his letter to CEO Leal, Ferguson responded by saying, "While you will say that the CEOs are the accounting officers, I beg the question who do they account to? I went to the House and voted for a budget to pass. It appears that my job as Minister is done once passed. If there are any irregularities, the press will first come after me as the minister, and if I cannot give a response, then they will say that I am irresponsible."

However, as stated earlier in the handbook and other public service rules, the accounting officers are, inter alia, accountable to the Public Accounts Committee (now renamed the Joint-Public Accounts Committee).

Threat to Sue

Following Ferguson's social media response, his ministry wrote a press statement.

The ministry addressed the allegation, stating, "The Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Transport has been made aware of a post on a Facebook page operated by Hot Off The Press, and also commentary on Wave Radio’s morning show, in which a minister of government is accused of blatant corruption, i.e. attempting to use public monies to install 25 A/C units at a hotel allegedly owned by the said minister, who was unnamed in the post."

The ministry denies the claims, clarifying that ten air conditioning units were purchased by the Ministry of Transport to be placed at the ministry’s offices in the south. All A/C units have been installed.

The ministry says it will pursue legal action against Wave Radio and “Hot Off the Press” for "the clear slander of a government minister, and by extension, the entire Government of Belize, without any basis in fact."

The video of "Fus Ting Da Mawnin" where the comments were made, has since been deleted from WAVE Radio and WAVE TV’s Facebook page.

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