Three Cabinet ministers who refused to appear before Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) last month to be quizzed about the operations of the state-run National Housing Corporation (NHC) broke no rules or laws.
In fact, Queen’s Counsel Hal Gollop insists that the summons sent to his clients – Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Minister of Housing and Lands Denis Kellman and his predecessor Michael Lashley, who is now Minister of Transport – is illegal.
He has therefore advised his clients not to show up when the PAC convenes to hear their matter next week.
Gollop, who is representing the ministers in the matter, along with attorneys Michael Yearwood and Neil Marshall, said the PAC had acted beyond its legal powers in issuing the summons.
“The action of the PAC of summoning our clients was procedurally flawed and our clients should not be party to any act of illegality,” he said in a statement issued to Barbados TODAY this afternoon.
However, he stressed that his clients “stand ready to comply with any lawful request from any of the committees of Parliament, including the Public Accounts Committee”.
Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley, who serves as PAC chairman, had written to Sinckler, Kellman and Lashley, requesting that they appear in person before the parliamentary committee, in light of concerns raised by Auditor-General Leigh Trotman about spending by the NHC.
In his report, Trotman raised red flags about the employment of more staff than approved by the NHC; the auditing of accounts and the laying of those accounts before Parliament; and the awarding of contracts for the Exmouth, Coverley, Grotto, Bushy Park and Country Park Towers housing projects.
Stressing that his clients were not trying to frustrate the work of the PAC or contravene any law, the veteran attorney-at-law explained that after the three were summoned, their legal team wrote to Mottley, indicating that the ministers intended to claim the same protection and privileges accorded witnesses in the High Court.
“In this regard, counsel claimed on behalf of their clients the right to be represented and advised by counsel to ensure they were accorded full capacity to inquire into such factors as the lawfulness of the summons and the jurisdiction of the chairman to execute service of such a summons upon them in the first place,” Gollop said.
“In short, counsel inquired on behalf of their clients upon what authority the chairman was purporting to act in the matter.”
Mottley was also asked to provide a copy of the procedural rules that apply to the conduct of PAC meetings; a copy of the referral from Parliament which authorized the PAC to conduct the inquiry; and a copy of the report with the appropriate comments which the PAC thought should be drawn to their attention.
However, Gollop said no reply was forthcoming, adding that, on that basis, the legal team then directed its request for the two latter documents from the Clerk of Parliament.
They subsequently received documents from the Clerk to the PAC, Richard Byer, and were advised that the Committee has three legal functions: an examination function where it does not need the approval of Parliament to proceed; a referral function, where the authority of Parliament is needed to inquire into any question connected with the public accounts; and a supervisory function relative to the affairs of the Auditor General department.
Gollop said when Byer clarified that the committee was exercising its examination function “and not its inquiring function . . . where a referral from Parliament would be needed . . . that Counsel advised its clients not to attend the hearing”.
“The fact that they had played no part in the compilation of the report, we did not see how it became necessary for them to take part in any examination of it,” the Queen’s Counsel argued.
Making a distinction between an examination and an inquiry, Gollop said the former was merely an inspection while the latter was an official investigation.
“It was our view, therefore, that the summons to our clients by its very nature was illegal, since it was purporting to use the stated jurisdiction of examining to effectively hold an inquiry. . . . Our advice to our clients was therefore grounded on this principle of law.”