Underperforming REOs to face loss of gratuities – PAC hears

A new policy being implemented by the Local Government Ministry may see Regional Executive Officers (REOs) losing percentages of their gratuity benefits where their performances are not up to scratch.

This disclosure was made yesterday during a sitting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) during which its members heard unending reports of cases were contractors were being paid by the Region One (Barima/ Waini) Administration for works not completed.

According to the Auditor General’s report, the region is guilty of consistently overpaying contractors for insufficiently completed projects, then failing to make serious efforts to recoup overpaid amounts.

Eight persons, including Deputy Local Government Ministry Permanent Secre-tary Abeena Moore and Regional Executive Offi-cer (REO) Nigel Fisher, turned up to answer questions relating to discrepancies cited in the Auditor General’s 2012 Report on the region’s finances. It was Moore, who when asked what actions are being taken to mitigate overpayments, shared that REOs stand to either gain or lose some of their gratuity based on their performances.

Of the six instances of overpayments perpetrated by the region, the most contentious involved an occasion where “Overpay-ments totalling $1.079 million were made to the contractor in respect of the rehabilitation of the Regional Administration Office, Mabaruma.”

This particular discrepancy did not constitute the largest sum overpaid, yet it stood out because of the neglect with which the issue has been treated. According to the 2012 report, in 2011 the region’s engineer signed records indicating that works were done were they were not, thereby prompting eventual payment to the contractor for work which he had not done.

Furthermore, since the region uncovered that the overpayment had been made, very little has been done to recoup the sums. Fisher told members of the PAC that his region tried to track the contractor in question, identified as B Bhoodoo General Construction Services, but found that he no longer operates out of the building where he was known to have operated. As a result, the region has been able to track the contractor, the PAC heard.

Fisher also revealed that the region has checked with the Tender Board to see where, if at all, the contracting firm is currently operating so as to track the firm down and try to set out a repayment plan. This exercise, however, has produced no positive results.

“There seems to be no alacrity to deal with this,” said Peoples Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) Chief Whip and PAC member Gail Teixeira after listening to how little has been done to recoup the overpaid amounts. Teixeira was particularly interested in the officer who verified that work had been completed where it had not been, since this person would have initiated the process which produced the overpayment.

Teixeira’s position found agreement with fellow PPP/C MP and committee member MP Bibi Shadick, who told the committee that defaulting regional officers, and not overpaid contractors, are the ones who should be held culpable in such situations.

Teixeira said that Fisher, as the Region One REO, must take on the responsibility of going after his erring officers, including in this case the engineer who made the mistake, since he (Fisher) is the one who will be required to answer for their mistakes.

“Unless, REO, you are prepared to take responsibility for the engineer (wrongfully) signing off on work you will have to face the music,” she warned Fisher. She also ventured to point out that Region One, like many of its sister regional administrations, has been delinquent in pursuing overpaid contractors to have them repay the extra money they have been paid.

The engineer in question no longer works for the region, although the individual remains in the system.

Meanwhile, the building has been completed using funds from sums allocated in 2013 for projects for that period. Fisher said that the region had managed some savings and decided to use the amounts to complete the work.

Shadick blasted the fact that money from somewhere had to be taken to complete a project that was already provided for in a previous disbursement and questioned the legality of Fisher’s decision to use money from 2013 to complete the 2011 project.

Nevertheless, efforts to recoup the money must continue and the committee advised the region to make checks with the agency with which the contracting firm is likely registered and attempt to solicit an address. Ultimately, it was clear that the committee was unsatisfied with the region’s performance on this matter, and as much was conveyed by PAC chairman Carl Greenidge.

It was Greenidge who decided that the region be given three months to have the matter dealt with to the satisfaction of the PAC. But the scrutiny did not end there.

The 2012 Audit report also noted that “overpayments totalling $4.797 million were made to the contractor in respect of the construction of Students Dormitory at Port Kaitu-ma. In addition, other discrepancies were observed in respect of this contract.”

In its written response to the report, the region said that “the contract (for the project) was terminated and the contractor written to with the view of recovering the overpayment.” The letter, it was explained, was written about a year ago, and there has since been no other attempt to recoup the overpaid amounts.

The regional administration was asked to explain why such overpayments continued to occur, but Shadick noted that “we are getting answers here that are making absolutely no sense.” Seemingly fed up with the inadequate responses being offered by Fisher and company, the committee inquired what measures are being looked at to mitigate overpayments.

Moore responded this time, explaining to the committee that the ministry has started to implement a programme which will see REO’s losing a percentage of their gratuity if their performance is not up to scratch.

Of the eight other issues examined, four concerned sums overpaid to contractors, and regional officials have been unable to recoup these sums as well. Together, these four instances of overpayments totalled $1.307 million.

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