Gecom, Audit Office at odds over $500,000 elections advance

-acting CEO says money went missing from safe after fire

The Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) and the Auditor General’s Office are in disagreement over a $500,000 advance which the Audit Office says was taken in 2006, never utilised, and eventually destroyed in a fire in the same year.

Gecom was represented at yesterday’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing by acting Chief Elections Officer Calvin Benn and two other officers to answer this and other discrepancies as the committee went over the Auditor General’s 2011 report on the agency’s finances.

The $500,000 is actually part of a total outstanding amount of $1.020 million. However, the officer to whom $313,495 was advanced has since died, while vouchers to clear advances amounting to $206,978 were submitted.

Three Peoples Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) representatives on the committee, Bibi Shadick, Gail Teixeira, and Manzoor Nadir noted that the current and previous Auditor General reports had stated that the uncleared $500,000 was requested and given out in June of 2006, almost two months before general elections were held. The funds were to be used to offset miscellaneous expenses associated with elections that year. The funds remained unused by September 2006, however, and Teixeira, Nadir and Shadick said they recalled hearing from the Auditor General’s Office that the money, which was being kept in a desk drawer, was burned in the fire which occurred that month.

But Benn, who served as a Deputy Commissioner at that time, says the Auditor General’s report could not be further from the truth. He told the committee that the advance alluded to was not taken in June, but two or three days before the elections were held to help facilitate quick action responses around the country. He said that a separate amount of cash was advanced in June. He also said that the amount alluded to represented monies that were not utilised and therefore returned.

A fire subsequently ravaged Gecom’s offices, and Benn says that they were not granted access to the site until several days after. He said that when they were finally able to peruse the site they discovered that the safe in which the advanced sums were placed had been broken into, and the money gone.

“Please do not try to disrespect this committee by telling us things that are far from truth,” Shadick warned as Benn continued to insist his version of what transpired was correct. She also confessed to being “amazed” that Benn now challenges the Auditor General’s Report on the advance, even though it has been a recurring feature in the report for several years.

Benn, in return, said that he was never availed of an opportunity to respond to or challenge the report until the 2012 report was being prepared. He also argued that the sum which was lost from the safe was $435,000 and not $500,000. He said that he was in possession of the voucher for the remaining $65,000 and attempted to clear it but was told that he could not do so without the entire sum. He said that he was therefore willing to give back the $65,000, but was told that he could not return only part of the outstanding sum.

Committee Chairman Carl Greenidge expressed concerns that Benn’s responses were not in accordance with what has been reflected for years in the Auditor General’s reports, while Teixeira charged him to take better care of the money entrusted to Gecom, particularly since Guyana’s elections are among the most expensive in the world – US$25 per head.

Teixeira, like Greenidge and her other colleagues, lamented the disparities between the story being told by Benn, and what is reflected in the Auditor General’s report, and said that he should do the honourable things and repay the money.

But, Gecom has already decided that the matter will not be pursued any further pursuant to the police’s closure of the investigation into what became of the money.

In its response to the Auditor General, Gecom said that “the commission examined this matter and obtained documentation from the Guyana Police Force which revealed that the police had treated with this matter and declared it closed. In the circumstances the commission at its 378th Statutory Meeting decided that Mr Benn should not be made to repay the sum. A request was subsequently sent to the Finance Secretary to have the amount written off.”

But the Financial Secretary Neermal Rekha said that the matter has not been dealt with properly and told Benn: “I’m very sorry but we will not proceed until this matter is dealt with properly.” Rekha said that the procedures guiding the clearance of an advance were very simple, and added that if a Gecom officer takes an advance it must be cleared in a timely manner despite the order given by the commission.

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