Unanswered questions trigger audit office probe of Region 10 accounts

-works officer faces call for sacking

The Audit Office will investigate discrepancies flagged in Region 10’s accounts, including overpayments to contractors that have led to a call for the sacking of the region’s Senior Superintendent of Works Patrice Johnson.

PPP/C MP Odinga Lumumba made the call as the Public Accounts Commit-tee (PAC) met for the second time in two weeks to iron out issues relating to the Auditor General’s 2011 report on Region 10’s financial records.

It is unusual for the PAC to consider the same agency in two consecutive sittings, but after three hours of deliberation the previous Monday yielded no progress, APNU MP and PAC Chairman Carl Greenidge suggested that the regional officials return better prepared to face the committee.

Senior Superintendent of Works Patrice Johnson (left) and Region Ten Regional Executive Officer (REO) Yolanda Hilliman
Senior Superintendent of Works Patrice Johnson (left) and Region Ten Regional Executive Officer (REO) Yolanda Hilliman

However, by the end of Monday’s meeting, the committee found that the regional officers were still finding difficulties addressing the questions being put to them, although some clarification was given. “While the region has come back with assurances, it is clear that many questions remain,” Greenidge said.” He added that in some instances, the region had compounded the concerns and confusion birthed during last week’s PAC meeting.

As a result, the Auditor General’s Office has been asked to carry out an investigation into several of the discrepancies cited in its 2011 report. The Auditor General’s Office, upon completion of this investigation, is expected to say what went wrong and how overpayments were made in those instances.

The Auditor General’s Office is also expected to provide recommendations as to how the persistent problems can be addressed, and what measures can and should be taken against officers who fail to dispatch their responsibilities. The report, according to Auditor General Deodat Sharma, should be out early in October.

Johnson, accompanied by Region 10’s Executive Officer Yolanda Hilliman, and several other regional officials, on Monday returned before the committee to answer additional questions and provide clarification on some of the issues raised last week. Although some issues were cleared up, Greenidge admitted that there were questions that still remained unanswered.

On one matter, the region successfully explained the particulars behind money which was prepared for a contractor but later refunded to the Consolidated Fund. Other matters arose, however, and the region’s inability to provide clarity on the matters resulted in them being sent away to get themselves in order, yet again.
With the parliamentary recess now underway, it is unclear when the region will return before the PAC.

Lumumba, who was absent from last week’s meeting, said that the discrepancies flagged by the Auditor General were serious and added that since Johnson was responsible for the problems, he should be dealt with.

Attempting to follow through on his own recommendation, Lumumba inquired of Hilliman if she was in receipt of enough information on Johnson to justify dismissing him. This development is especially important since though there have been talks and passing remarks by committee members about the need for such actions, this is the first time in many months that members have been so aggressive in calling for the action.

Hilliman made several attempts to respond in the negative but Lumumba, convinced that the dismissal was warranted, put the question several times to Hilliman before she finally said that an investigation would need to be carried out before she orders a dismissal.

Lumumba, who is usually not very vocal at PAC meetings, then asked if Hilliman had requisite information on Johnson to facilitate an investigation into his activities. Hilliman responded in the affirmative. It was not stated, however, when this investigation would be carried out, or what specific aspects of Johnson’s work will be examined in the region’s investigation of him.

The Auditor General’s report revealed that Johnson had signed off on projects that were either not properly done, or incomplete, resulting in overpayments amounting to almost $3 million.

Johnson, who was a Superintendent of Works at the time the projects were carried out, said that though he was one of the signatories to the order approving payment, he was not involved in the physical verification of the projects. He explained that prior to 2012, despite being superintendent, his responsibilities were of an administrative nature, while Carlyle October, the then Senior Superintendent of Works, took care of the physical verification of the projects. Whatever was handed to him by his superior, Johnson said, he considered to be valid, and therefore gave his signature.

APNU MP Jaipaul Sharma scolded Johnson, arguing that he should never have assigned his signature to any of the documents since he was not involved in the physical verification process.

It was also found that after his promotion, and after Hilliman said steps had been taken to curb the problem, Johnson had assigned his signature to documents which authorised the payment of $6.7 million a contractor for an incomplete project. Ultimately, only about half the amount was paid to the contractor as the remaining sum was held back and refunded to the Consolidated Fund.

This action was taken, Hilliman said, after it was found that the contractor had abandoned the project. Despite the fact that the funds were withheld, PPP/C MP Manzoor Nadir said that the payment should not have been authorised in the first place since a physical verification would have revealed that the project was abandoned.

Nadir also pointed out that there seemed to be some amount of irregularity concerning how a particular contract awarded by the region in 2010 was tendered. Since Johnson, in his administrative capacity at the time, would have been partially responsible for this activity, he was yet again labeled as lax.

According to the details of the contracts, it appeared as though the contract was awarded before the budget debates were concluded in 2010. Committee members argued that since the works carried out by the region were classified as capital projects, the contract should not have been awarded before the budget was passed.

Hilliman, however, argued that no such thing was done. She said that by the time the contract was awarded, the budget was passed and the money for the projects was rel
eased. Furthermore, she said that in order for the contracts to be tendered, the Local Government Ministry would have had to be made aware, as was done.

Ultimately, questions still loomed concerning the tendering of the contracts and Nadir, noting the amount of discrepancies Johnson has been involved in, said, “This particular officer cannot escape our sanction at this time.”

As a result, the regional representatives have been sent back, once again, to better prepare so that when they appear before the PAC again, they are better geared to satisfy the committee’s questions and concerns.

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