Lebanon News

Bifani hits back at Siniora over public accounts

Finance Ministry Director-General Alain Bifani attends a conference in Beirut, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Finance Ministry Director-General Alain Bifani said Wednesday that his team had faced political resistance to audits on public sector accounts as it sought to correctly and transparently finalize spending reports, hitting back at his former boss, Fouad Siniora.

“There is a lot of proof that over the course of 19 years, I ... resisted attempts to stop me from doing my job,” Bifani said.

Bifani’s news conference was held in response to accusations by Siniora, a former prime minister and former finance minister, who had held a news conference Friday to explain the spending of about $11 billion in extrabudgetary funds that had taken place during his tenure as premier, from 2005 and 2009, and had for years raised speculation about his involvement.

While providing his justification, Siniora had said the ministry’s director-general, not him, is the one who should be questioned about spending and financial logs. “What some are saying - that no documents exist for the spending - is a joke that no mind can comprehend,” Siniora said at the time.

Tuesday, Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil announced that the ministry had completed a report on public sector spending from 1993 to 2017, noting “significant gaps” in state finances, which Lebanon’s Court of Audit is set to assess.

The judiciary was provided with files relating to grants, loans and other records “filled with disasters,” the director-general said Wednesday. Some files had been forged, some loans unlawfully paid.

His ministerial team, he boasted, had put an end to the hiding of misused public funds by correcting hundreds of thousands of financial documents relating to “grants [that] were spent without monitoring and officials’ orders [that] were against the law.”

According to the state-run National News Agency, the Court of Audit received the reports Wednesday. The court’s head, Judge Ahmad Hamdan, instructed the employees to start assessing the files as soon as possible, the NNA said.

At his news conference, Bifani hit back at Siniora, pointing out what he saw as irony in being held accountable “by the man who tried to eliminate the role of the director-general” and give the authority to advisers instead.

Before his stint as prime minister, Siniora was finance minister in Rafik Hariri’s governments from 2000 to 2004, and minister of state for finance in Hariri’s first three governments lasting from 1992 to 1998 when Hariri was finance minister himself. Bifani has been director-general of the ministry since 2000.

Bifani pointed out that when one of the advisers at the ministry was discovered to be transferring the money of retired workers to his own account, he had sent all the documents to the judiciary and monitoring bodies for investigation.

He also shared incidents when records were allegedly hidden or destroyed. “The 1996 files were worn, and were placed behind a wall that we had to take down in order to reach them.”

“I ask he who dared to question my professionalism - did you request that I, since you were my direct boss, conduct the calculations or did you order me to stay away from the file?” Bifani asked.

He also called on President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and all officials to let the spending files be discussed with transparency and objectivity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 07, 2019, on page 2.




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