Compiled by FRANK SENGE KOLMA
The National this week takes a look at the Public Accounts Committee report into the Office of the Public Curator. This important office is a trustee which holds the estates and assets of deceased people or those judged to be medically unfit to handle the affairs of their estate. In the course of the inquiry the PAC has made findings against individuals and companies. These individuals and companies will be asked by The National to come forward and make any comments they wish to make about the PAC report. Past and present Public Curators and staff members are invited to comment on the report also.
THE Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee has described the office of the Public Curator as a “national disgrace”.
The committee arrived at this conclusion following a long running inquiry in the operations of the Public Curator assisted in part by the Auditor-General.
Its report to Parliament, tabled in 2006, is an indictment on this very important but little known office which is responsible for the administration and finalisation of the assets of, inter alia, deceased estates and estates of persons under disability.
It said: “Criminal dealings, fraud, forgery, incompetence and non-accountability have resulted in gross mismanagement of a huge number of estates which may result in a significant liability to the State for those failures.”
The Public Curator holds all such estates and assets in trust.
The PAC found that some 19,600 estates remained unresolved – some for more than 15 years.
It discovered that 680 properties continue to remain under trust – many for years with no resolution of estates.
It further established that over 700 properties have been mishandled or cannot be found or accounted for.
Presenting its report to Parliament, the PAC, recommended that an inquiry be instituted into the Office of the Public Curator and the Attorney-General’s Department to establish the magnitude of the rot and to set aside to meet liabilities that might result from the failures of the Public Curator to perform its roles and responsibilities.
Said the PAC: “The history of the Office of the Public Curator over the last decade, shows a disregard of the requirements of law by managers and staff of the office, a failure to carry out statutory duties, a clear failure to understand or implement the basic duties of a trustee, instances of theft and fraud by staff and third parties and an almost total failure of the office to keep, submit or understand accounts and financial reports.”
The Office of the Auditor-General had come to a similar conclusion in 1999 when it reported that the Public Curator’s financial statements were suspect and could not be taken seriously.
To be fair, the committee has put part of the blame for the failure of the Office of the Public Curator upon successive governments which have failed to adequately fund and resource the office.
The litany of errors, omissions, flagrant flouting of laws and downright fraud is indeed a national disgrace.
Among others, the PAC found:
* The failure of the Office of the Public Curator to attend to its duties and properly and lawfully service Estates may have exposed the State to significant liability;
* That monies allocated to the Office of the Public Curator by Government have been misused and misapplied by the Public Curator and the Office of the Attorney-General;
* Estate monies, properties and assets have been misused and misapplied by the Public Curator and the Office of the Attorney-General;
* The Public Curator has failed to lawfully retain agents and consultants to the detriment of estates and the liability of the State;
* The Public Curator and the secretary for the Department of Justice and the Attorney-General have failed to lawfully appoint agents, consultants or contractors, paid those contractors, consultants or agents unlawfully, failed to supervise or control those contractors and wrongfully applied trust monies to pay contractors or agents;
* Trust monies are mixed between various accounts with no hope of reconciling what money is owed to which estate. The ability to trace trust monies and assets is a basic duty of any trustee. It has not been met by the Public Curator;
* The Public Curator, the Attorney-General and the secretary for Justice have failed to take action to recover property, money and assets unlawfully detained or withheld by consultants, contractors or agents to the Public Curator; and
* Estates have been overpaid or are owed large amounts of untraceable money. The State may well be liable for these failures.
In addition, the PAC has reported that the Public Curator has made unauthorised investments of estate monies and has failed to pay money back to estate accounts or to maintain such records as would enable that money to be paid to identified estates.
The Public Curator has even unlawfully applied estate monies to its own operational and administrative costs against the law.
The Public Curator, the Attorney-General and the secretary for the Department of Justice have failed to take recovery action on behalf of estates against agents, contractors, consultants and other entities to recover money that was wrongly paid.
Public curators past and present have failed to take any or any adequate care to identify, secure, preserve or realise monies, bank accounts, shares, property and real estate assets of estates.
All the foregoing indicate that public curators have, in various ways, breached the terms of the Public Curator Act and Regulations, Insolvency Act, and the Health Act.
Further, they have failed to comply with the terms of the Public Finances (Management) Act and the Financial Instructions.
The Public Curator has failed to give service to any acceptable level to beneficiaries and estates for many years and responds only to threats or court action.
The committee has recommended to the Government to establish a method whereby aggrieved persons can have their entitlements quickly assessed and paid.
It recommended, back in 2006, that the Government must, as a matter of urgency, establish an inquiry to investigate and conclude on the likely extent of State liability arising from failures of the Office of the Public Curator.
This, the Government has failed to carry out.