The Director of Audit and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have expressed different opinions on whether passport fees charged at the St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) Consulate in New York were in keeping with the law.
“The Consulate Office has for a number of years been collecting fees of US$165 and US$275 for the replacement of passports, instead of the regulated fee of US$150.00. No authority was seen for the collection of these fees,” the Director of Audit said in a report.
The report came after an audit of the consulate for the period August 2011 to August 2013, in the wake of the recall and dismissal in February of SVG’s deputy consular general in New York, Edson Augustus.
The report was first publicised by Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace on March 24, during his weekly radio programme.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves confirmed the existence of the report when asked at a press conference last week, saying, “There is a report which has been sent by the Director of Audit — an internal report — to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“But the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed out to the Director of Audit that the matter, which she raised, that there was an excess, that there was in fact not an excess and he documented why there was not an excess,” said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance and was
acting Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Gonsalves said Consular General Selman Walter, who took, along with Augustus, took up his post in 2011, was asked why the fees appeared to be variations of what existed.
“He said these are the fees which he met there, they had charged all the time. They hadn’t checked the actual regulations, but when they checked the regulations, the Permanent Secretary said that the fees which were charged were in fact correct fees in accordance with what the report was,” Gonsalves said.
“Because, in addition to what fees there are, you had to pay for the form itself,” Gonsalves said, adding that applicants also have to pay FedEx charged if they want to use that courier.
“Some would have involved replacement of a passport, which was damaged, or loss,” he said.
Gonsalves suggested that the inquiry by the Director of Audit regarding the fees were a regular part of government operations.
“You would get letters from the Director of Audit; it is not unusual,” he said, adding that the permanent secretary, who is the accounting officer, would reply.
“I saw the Leader of the Opposition made it an issue…” Gonsalves said.
Eustace had said that he would make further comments on the report after studying it.
“If I see something like this, this is a matter between the Director of Audit and the accounting officer. What are the things which would concern me? That is this out of sync with what the law says? If it is out of sync with what the law says, the accounting officer will have to issue the necessary statement. If there is an excess collection elsewhere, is that excess collection dealt with otherwise than sent to the Treasury?” Gonsalves further said.
“There is no allegation, even where there was talk of an excess charge, where the Permanent Secretary said there was not an excess charge and he outlined what the situation was,” Gonsalves said.
“I chose not to speak about it before because, the truth is, if I speak about everything that people talk about and where they are being resolved in the normal way of government, I wouldn’t do anything else with my time,” he further said, but added that he had the document with him during the debate of the Supplementary Estimates early April in case the opposition has raised it.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Prime Minister has circulated to I-Witness News information extracted from an April 15 memorandum from the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Director of Audit on the matter of collection of passport fees at SVG Consulate in New York.
“The investigations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade, Consumer Affairs and Information Technology (“the Ministry”) suggested that the fees charged for replacement passports are indeed authorised by the existing regulations,” the extract said.
“At this stage of its investigation, the Ministry has been unable to identify specific examples of overcharge of fees for replacement passports. Rather, there appears to be a difference of opinion between the Ministry and the Office of the Director of Audit on the manner in which the existing regulations are applied to specific factual situations,” the document said,” further stated and gave a breakdown of the fees to show how they are in keeping with those collected by the consulate.