Cooperate over Punggol East's accounts: Apex court

CJ Menon tells AHTC and PRPTC to let their accountants work with each other, share data

The Court of Appeal has directed the accountants of two town councils run by rival political parties to work with each other and share documents the other side would need.

"They should communicate directly with one another and afford each other such access as they reasonably will require to safeguard each party's interest," Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said, referring to KPMG, appointed by the Workers' Party-run Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), and Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), appointed by Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) which is under the charge of the People's Action Party (PAP).

Yesterday's hearing came after AHTC declined to give PwC documents it had requested. Instead, it asked the Housing Board - which oversees town councils - to seek clarification from the courts.

CJ Menon said both sides agree that PRPTC has an interest in making sure the accounts of Punggol East single-member constituency are in order. Although KPMG is already looking into the accounts, this should not stop PwC from doing the same, he added.

He also noted that Mr Peter Low, AHTC's lawyer, agreed that Punggol East has an interest in the outcome of the accountants' findings.

"The way forward is really to let the professionals - PwC and KPMG - talk to each other and let them work out their issues," said CJ Menon. Should a specific difficulty arise during the discussions of access, "then the affected party may apply to the court for directions".

KPMG was appointed by AHTC to look into its accounts after a long- drawn saga over its predecessor failing to submit clean and complete accounts since 2011. There were also governance and financial lapses.

The appeals court then ordered the appointment of independent accountants last November to see, among other things, if any past payments made were improper.

Following yesterday's hearing, all parties issued statements.

AHTC said PwC's appointment was "a duplication of the work being done by KPMG", and added that it was "funded by the public purse''.

In response, the HDB said it had suggested last December that both town councils jointly appoint accountants precisely "to avoid duplication of effort, competing access to documents, and incurring unnecessary costs".

But AHTC refused. It also refused to attend meetings the HDB had called to coordinate the work of the two accountants, said the HDB.

In separate Facebook posts, Punggol East MP Charles Chong and PRPTC chairman Zainal Sapari said the appointment of PwC was necessary to ensure the constituency's monies had not been misused.

They also said AHTC had dragged its feet for seven months and given excuses for not giving PwC access to the necessary documents.

Mr Chong added: "My question is, what is it they have been afraid of all this while? Our residents' funds are involved and all we are doing is to make sure that our residents' monies haven't been misused."

The latest disagreement arose after Punggol East single-member constituency changed hands at last year's general election. After the PAP took it back, it came under PRPTC again.

Chief Justice Menon, when giving the court's decision, noted "a lot of heat in the long documents that have been filed", and questioned if it was necessary to come to court over what seems largely an operational issue.

Ms Aurill Kam of the Attorney- General's Chambers, acting for the HDB, said KPMG was willing to share the documents with PwC but could not get AHTC's approval.

When the hearing began, CJ Menon noted the absence of PRPTC's lawyers and expressed surprise as the hearing was about safeguarding the interests of Punggol East.

He said: "I find it a little surprising that their response to this is they don't need to attend, that they don't want to attend, and that really raises the question as to why we are here."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Cooperate over Punggol East's accounts: Apex court'. Print Edition | Subscribe