— Kato School Feeding Programme short-changed by $34.2M; fraud suspect still not charged
–Region Eight had ‘breaches of all the regulations’ in 2016, PAC hears
DOZENS of financial discrepancies, including criminal matters of fraud, were detected in Region Eight (Potaro-Siparuni) throughout the year 2016, and even though a special audit and police investigation were done, the perpetrator is yet to be hauled before the courts.
As the 22nd Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting convened on Monday, it was tasked with scrutinising several pages of irregularities in that region, including multiple instances of millions of dollars’ worth of supplies being purchased without the requisite approvals.
In relation of the purchase of office and field supplies, 60 payments totalling $33.663 million were made out to the same supplier whose prices for each item were notably higher than that of his competitors. Moreover, out of the 60 payments, only 10 payment vouchers were submitted for audit.
Opposition member of the PAC, Ganesh Mahipaul, was quick to seek clarity on how the illegalities were allowed to occur in the first place, and what measures are now in place to prevent any reoccurrence.
“At the level of the region, this voucher would have had to pass through a number of hands,” Mahipaul posited.
In response, Peter Ramoutar, the Regional Executive Officer (REO) said that it was likely that the answers to Mahipaul’s questions would be contained in a special audit done by the Audit Office for the period January 2016 to July 2017.
Ramoutar, who was only appointed after the 2020 change of government, proceeded to share the report of the special audit with the committee. Because the PAC was now seeing the report for the first time, Ramoutar was further pressed for an answer on how the unlawful procedures took place, based on his knowledge of the report.
“Well, it happened because procedures were not followed and things were done in a very unprofessional manner… the checks and balances were all thrown through the window,” Ramoutar noted.
Asked whether his comments were reflected in the special audit report, the REO continued, “Mr. Chairman, the special audit report was very clear and very precise and detailed, and it did highlight the shortcomings in every transaction, which were breaches of all the regulations.”
The PAC, led by the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC), which was in government between 2015-2021, saw Chairman, Jermaine Figueira, going further to solicit the input of the Accountant General, Jennifer Chapman, who confirmed that the purchases were “a total breach” of regulations and that there was “collusion”.
She noted that the Guyana Police Force (GPF) was called in to investigate the irregularities but no one was charged.
A component of the special audit also indicated some damning findings relating to Kato Breakfast School Feeding Programme.
STEALING FOOD FROM CHILDREN?
As the report was circulated in the Parliament Chambers, government member of the PAC, Sanjeev Datadin pointed to the fact that the report, dated August 2019, found that during the period under review, the RDC made 18 payments to one supplier totalling $68.853 million for ration for the Kato school feeding programme.
However, the records showed that only $16.281 million worth of dietary supplies were delivered to the school, leaving an outstanding balance of $52.572. “[Were] we not feeding the children?” Datadin queried.
He added: “How would this not have been addressed? How would this not have been known… how is this able to be perpetuated repeatedly? This is a programme that feeds children.”
Datadin’s line of questioning was shot down by the Opposition’s Juretha Fernandes, who asked that the PAC members be given adequate time to peruse the 12-page report. Her colleague, Chairman Figueira agreed and questions on the special audit were deferred.
Nonetheless, as concerns relating to even more irregularities were being raised, the PAC called on the former Permanent Secretary of the then Ministry of Communities, Emil McGarrell, who joined virtually, explaining that the region’s accounts department was grossly understaffed at the time.
“You had one officer at the level of an assistant accountant, carrying out the duties of the accountant and chief accountant; that created the conditions that led to that situation,” McGarrell surmised.
Also joining the meeting virtually, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, Gail Teixeira sought clarity on whether the assistant accountant was sent on leave during the investigations.
McGarrell responded in the negative, saying that this was due to the shortage of persons to fill the key accounting positions within the regional administration.
“We were not finding staff for the accounts department of Region Eight, and you could not have left the department without an officer to carry out the duties,” McGarrell noted.
This did not bode well with Minister Teixeira, who insisted, “I don’t buy the argument.” The government Chief Whip also questioned whether the REO at the time faced any sanctions for the irregularities, given that the “buck stopped at him”.
The PAC was then informed that the REO at the time was replaced and that efforts were made to recruit retired accountants to fill the vacant positions within the region’s accounts department.