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Auditor general: Accountability lacking in Marshalls government operations

MAJURO — The word “accountability” does not appear to be in the vocabulary of many government workers in the Marshall Islands — and nothing is being done about it. This is the conclusion of Marshall Islands Auditor General Junior Patrick in his latest report to the Marshall Islands Nitijela (parliament).

The latest series of audits produced by Auditor General Junior Patrick is a 597-page report documenting ongoing violations of law that do not get fixed despite auditor recommendations year after year.

Few criminal charges are filed in court for procurement and other financial accountability violations. Fewer yet are “administrative penalties” that the Public Service Commission and individual ministries and agencies could enforce against improper financial activity by their employees.

Patrick, in his report to Nitijela, raised concern about “a lack of administrative sanctions or disciplinary action for government employees and other employees at the governmental bodies when they deviate from or violate established government regulations and policies.”

Auditors make recommendations for improvements year after year, and year after year government ministries and agencies ignore those recommendations, continuing to violate the law, he said.

The Marshall Islands auditor general’s latest report to Nitijela (parliament, pictured) says government workers who violate financial rules and regulations are not being held to account for their actions. Photo by Hilary HosiaThe Marshall Islands auditor general’s latest report to Nitijela (parliament, pictured) says government workers who violate financial rules and regulations are not being held to account for their actions. Photo by Hilary Hosia

A case study of this is offered by the Marshall Islands Embassy in Japan, reported in the Auditor General’s latest report. “We found that the Embassy did not comply with many requirements of the approved Imprest Fund Procedures and Guidelines, many of which were raised in our previous review,” Patrick told Minister of Foreign Affairs John Silk in the introduction to the Japan Embassy audit. Of 27 important Imprest Fund requirements reviewed by the audit, the Japan Embassy violated 16 of these in FY2013 and FY2014, and violated 14 during FY2015. Patrick made the point: Violations of Imprest Fund requirements “creates greater risk of abuse and misuse of government funds.”

But the Marshall Islands Embassy in Japan is just one in a crowd of government offices that violate accountability rules with regularity. Government purchases show the most violations. Majuro and Kwajalein local governments — which operate on annual budgets in the millions of dollars — haven’t produced an audit for years, which in government is the definition of “not accountable.” Others stand out for innovation: Several years ago, the Aur Atoll local government obtained a grant for a seawall on Aur, then someone used the money to build it in Majuro; the Wotje Atoll local government received funding from Japan to build a community center, then the council voted to buy a boat, so they purchased a boat without approval of the donor.

Virtually without exception, every government office agrees with the auditor’s recommendations. “Yes, we will fix the problem,” say government officials in response to auditor findings. But most don’t do what they say, said Patrick.

“Despite management’s agreement to the audit recommendations and assurance to act on the corrective actions, we continue to find that many recommendations are not implemented,” Patrick said. “Sometimes management’s response identifies the officials that are responsible to implement the corrective action plans. However, when the responsible officials are not doing what they are expected to do, they are not being held to account for their action and non-action.”

The breach of ethical conduct principles “we report in our investigations are not being pursued administratively to hold workers to account for their lack of action,” Patrick said. “We believe that when appropriate administrative sanctions are applied, it will improve overall compliance with approved ethical guideline principles imposed on every public official and (all) government employees and will increase people’s confidence in the regulatory system,” he said.