The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the parliamentary mechanism to scrutinise the Auditor General’s Report, to ensure Government is accountable, and that any weakness in Government’s accountability framework is remedied. The PAC’s responsibility includes holding public officers – including ministers – accountable for the people’s money. In Guyana, the PAC is made up of Members of Parliament from both the Government and Opposition sides of the House, with the Government side having a majority of members, but the Chair of the PAC is from the Opposition. Between 1964 and 2015, no Minister sat on the PAC, the reason being that Ministers cannot scrutinise themselves. In 2015, APNU+AFC changed the rules, allowing Ministers to be members of the PAC. In the last Parliament, Dr Irfaan Ali was the Chair of the PAC. In the new Parliament, David Patterson is the Chair of the PAC.
Mr. Patterson has a dubious record as a Minister, having been a Minister in a Ministry that the Auditor General has consistently cited for breaching the laws of Guyana when it comes to transparency and accountability. His Ministry’s commitment to financial integrity has been questioned in every Auditor General’s Report, but there are also many transactions of a personal nature that raise serious integrity issues.
Most recently, records have come to the general public’s attention that the Demerara Harbour Bridge Authority, and the Asphalt Plant which is operated by the Bridge Authority, spent more than $500,000 in procuring birthday gifts in the form of jewellery for Patterson. To be fair, the record shows that these expenditures were made for that purpose. Patterson has not denied or affirmed that those expenses are real, but has strongly denied he received those gifts. And there is the now famous case of a Chinese company depositing $US9K in Patterson’s personal account.
Other staff members also have bought expensive jewellery for themselves using finances from the Authority.
The Demerara Harbour Bridge fell under the Ministry of Public Infrastructure during the period 2015 to 2020, when David Patterson was Minister of Public Infrastructure. Regardless of whether such jewellery ever ended up with Patterson or not, he was the responsible Minister. How could such slackness and recklessness be allowed for five years? The record shows the purchase of expensive jewellery was not a one-time thing. The Manager of the Bridge Authority benefited from the gift of an expensive bracelet, and so did other members of the Authority, and there are records of at least two purchases of expensive jewellery as birthday gifts for Minister Patterson.
As Chairman of the PAC, Patterson now must sit in judgment of such egregious flouting of the financial and procurement laws of Guyana. The Auditor General has done his job and pointed out these violations; the PAC must now hold officers accountable. Clearly, Patterson is now the head judge. How will he handle this egregious flouting of the laws, when he was responsible for the Demerara Harbour Bridge? Is he willing to throw the managers of that Authority under the bus? Will he try to shield them? Will he excuse himself from the deliberations?
Over the years, there have been other blatant violations by the Ministry of Public Infrastructure under Patterson’s tenure. There is the shameful management of the Cheddi Jagan International Airport modernisation and expansion project. The project, which was initially conceived and implemented under the PPP Government, was amended after 2015. The final cost of US$150M was never changed, but the project itself was downsized. For example, instead of eight air-bridges, there were only two. Later two more were added, but those were procured outside of the US$150M project. Instead of new departure and arrival buildings, we today have rehabilitated buildings. The sewer system was never expanded. No provision was made for any accommodation of Port Health, or for parking spaces.
The new Minister, Bishop Juan Edghill, has negotiated with the Chinese contractor for some upgrades, at the expense of the Chinese company, to the tune of US$9M. But the damage was done. What happened to the money saved by downgrading the project? We know things like TVs and toilet bowls etc. were procured at exorbitant costs. Whether anyone personally benefited from the project is left to be seen. But the whole project leaves a stench that suffocates the citizens of this country. The new PAC now inherits the responsibility to scrutinise this project. Can the new PAC do so satisfactorily with David Patterson as its head?
There is not space in this column for us to itemise the dozens of projects in the last five years that fell under David Patterson’s Ministry that now are in the Auditor General’s room of corruption poster child. This is the Ministry that at one time had the responsibility for the infamous Durban Park project, which cost more than $1.6B and, to this day, almost half of that amount cannot be accounted for. The Auditor General has remarked previously of difficulties getting documents for various projects, including the CJIA and the Durban Park projects for a thorough review. Now Paterson, as Chair of the PAC, must lead the oversight of blatant violations of the financial and procurement and accountability laws. Can he do so without fear or favour?
It is an untenable position to be in. David Patterson should do the right thing and resign.