Auditor General report: Contention arises over “missing” documents from APNU/AFC forced property acquisition

…PAC resumes sittings under new Chairman

After a hiatus precipitated by efforts to remove his predecessor, sittings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) returned on Monday under new Chairman Jermaine Figueira, who oversaw the continued examination of the 2016 Auditor General report.

PAC Chairman Jermaine Figueira

Figueira, an A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) parliamentarian and longstanding member of this Committee, had on previous occasions deputised for David Patterson prior to his removal as Chairman.
During the first part of Monday’s sitting, the Committee examined the Audit Office findings on the Guyana Defence Force, Legal Affairs Ministry and what was then the Business Ministry, now known as the Tourism, Industry and Commerce Ministry.

PAC member Juan Edghill

On Monday, contention arose during the examination of the Legal Affairs Ministry and its handling of the compulsory acquisition of the Clarissa Riehl property. Under questioning from PAC Member Juan Edghill, Permanent Secretary Joylene Nestor-Burrowes said that there were no documents pertaining to the transaction.
“I’m aware of the matter of the compulsory acquisition. But I’m asking if the revocation was gazette, and if that documentation was made available to the auditors so that this matter could be considered closed. Because you were looking for the acquisition of land, to the tune of $40 million. In the first instance it was not budgeted for. And then you couldn’t go ahead and get the land. So where are we on this matter?” Edghill asked.

Legal Affairs Ministry PS Joylene Nestor-Burrowes

“The matter was closed… because there was never, as far as I know, no documented evidence or no evidence pertaining to that matter in the Ministry… we have never seen it,” Nestor-Burrowes informed an incredulous Edghill.

Former Legal Affairs Ministry PS Melissa Tucker

Nestor-Burrowes’ predecessor as Permanent Secretary, Melissa Tucker, subsequently stepped in to express confidence that the documents were still at the Ministry. According to Tucker, who is now at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, a process was followed that would have resulted in a paper trail.

“There was a process for the compulsory acquisition for the land. Those monies, yes, correctly placed in the 2016 budget. However, the mistake on the accounting officer Nestor, is that she misinterpreted the question posed by the member in respect of being in possession of the documents… the process for revocation of the order would have occurred after I left, but I advised the PS that those documents should be at the Ministry,” Tucker said.
The PAC gave them until next week Monday to submit these documents. Edghill laid down the documents he is expecting, including documents pertaining to the decision to acquire the land, any engagement the Attorney General’s office would have had with Riehl on a fair price for said land, a copy of the order for compulsory acquisition and possibly a copy of the court’s written judgement halting the acquisition of the property.

Riehl, at that time Guyana’s High Commissioner to Canada and People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) stalwart, had fiercely resisted Government’s move to take control of the land in question, which is located at Middle and Carmichael Streets, Georgetown, under the Acquisition of Lands for Public Purposes Act.
The PNCR is the largest partner in the then governing A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) coalition. The then Government had gazetted the Order to compulsorily acquire Riehl’s property on September 22, 2016.
Media reports during that period had indicated that Riehl would be taking the Government to court, but the dust eventually settled on the matter. In 2019, however, Riehl was one the casualties in the APNU/AFC’s decision to fire several diplomats. (G3)