The police have been given the task of investigating a major fraud in the school feeding
programme within Region Eight.
An estimated $40M is involved and the problem seems to be within that Potaro-Siparuni region, Auditor General, Deodat Sharma disclosed yesterday.
The official was speaking to reporters shortly after presenting the Report of the Auditor General on the country’s spending, last year.
During the ceremony at the Parliament Buildings, the official confirmed reports that spending in Region Eight was highly questionable with regards to the school feeding programme.
For example, it was reported that a senior female official of the region used her office to swing a deal to purchase items from a Parika business place with which she had close associations.
It was reported, also, that the prices paid for items associated with the school feeding programme were way above market prices.
Earlier this year, Regional Executive Officer, Rafel Downes, lost his job after he was unable to answer Parliamentarians of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) who raised questions about the spending in the region, for the year 2015.
Yesterday, the Auditor General said that the $40M related to 2016 spending in the region. It did not even touch on what happened this year as state auditors would have been concentrating on 2016 documents.
According to Sharma, while the Audit Office is carrying out its mandate to ensure that the spending of ministries, regions and entities are true, it is the Finance Secretary who has been duty bound to discipline them.
In the case of Downes, his appointment was revoked after confidence was lost in his performance.
Sharma explained that while some regions are paying for the school feeding programme from their budget, in other cases, it is the Ministry of Education that is picking up the tabs.
However, for now, the problem appeared to be with the rogue region—Region Eight- a mining area that is vast.
The national school feeding programme was officially re-started by the Bharrat Jagdeo administration in 2010.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were being plugged into the programme which targeted all the Regions with locally-produced biscuits and juices. Regions Seven, Eight and Nine were treated separately.
Last year, $1.3B was allocated. A further $1.9B was set aside this year for the national programme.
However, despite the good intentions, the programme appeared to have been abused by the coordinators.
There were also questions about whether the correct procurement procedures were followed in awarding the contracts.
In some cases, millions of dollars were being paid to the boyfriend of a senior official after he moved there to take up a contract.
Monies reportedly set aside for feeding students of the new Kato Secondary School, in the tens of millions of dollars, were diverted and used up in other areas, it was explained.
In recent times, the Auditor General has been pointing more and more to widespread breaches in accounting and procurement breaches which could not easily be explained.
Downes was reportedly sent packing after a number of worrying things were found under his watch.
His evasiveness in answering questions after he appeared earlier this year before the Public Accounts Committee, a Parliamentary oversight committee that examines spending of tax dollars, angered the members.
Several of the issues surrounded the overpayment of salaries and deductions. There was also overpayment to several contractors.
The Auditor General was ordered by the PAC earlier this year to launch a special audit and investigation into Region Eight.
When asked why five of the defaulting contractors who owed the Region millions of dollars were once again awarded contracts in 2016, the former REO could not answer.
A Region Eight official, Daniel Fraser, had accused Downes of hijacking the procurement system in the Region. This year, almost $1.6B was budgeted for the region.
The administration has vowed a zero tolerance stance against non-performance and corruption against public servants.
Under the school feeding programme, administrators were supposed to procure the services of persons and farmers within the Region. It was the preference that local dishes were to be distributed to the students.
The programme is viewed as a key one for the Coalition Government.
In fact, in June, it was announced that a more sustainable school feeding programme was being pursued.
Development partner agency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), has engaged Government officials with the ultimate goal of finding solutions, including using fresh products.
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