Why are there no answers from the government regarding the probe into financial irregularities at NCN? It’s the same response every time the issue is raised with the President: he tosses the question aside, more or less refusing to acknowledge the blurred lines between state business and personal dealings that tainted the state-owned communications network some two years ago.
Not only has the scandal exposed an official reluctance to prosecute the National Communications Network (NCN) hierarchy – who are known to have close ties with the government – but it erupted during a period of increased interest in the management of the network following opposition budget cuts. And this lack of attention to accountability at the national network, places the government in a difficult bargaining position when it seeks to negotiate the restoration of NCN’s budget.
The reason the media has consistently pressed the President on the issue is because the accountability chain descends from him. In his capacity as Minister of Information, he has a responsibility to inform, to explain and to take action in this matter. But to date, no information on this probe has been released by the government, no one has explained the foot-dragging in the case, and no real action has been taken against the persons at the centre of the probe.
“I wasn’t prepared for that question at this point in time but I’ll probably look into it and see if I can give you an answer after…,” the President said in March this year, while responding to a question on the matter from Stabroek News at a news conference at the Office of the President.
Of course, the President has been “distracted by other matters” as he has indicated, meaning that the NCN matter was not likely to get much of his attention. He had even said as much—that it was not a priority.
For those working to promote greater public and private sector transparency and accountability, this NCN scandal is emblematic of the breakdown of effective accountability that weakens our democracy and our society. To the public, the evidence unearthed in this case was sufficient to warrant a wider probe to determine the extent of such occurrences, and should have provided the foundation for a police investigation.
Despite a promise that the findings of the report by the NCN Board would be made public knowledge at an appropriate time, the government has allowed the last two years to go by and nothing. In keeping with its posture in this matter, the failure to release the report should come as no surprise. However, a leaked report pointed to some ‘creative accounting’ and book-keeping within the state network.
It was in June, 2012, when the NCN Board launched an investigation into the financial irregularities at NCN and in the immediate period that followed Chief Executive Officer Mohammed ‘Fuzzy’ Sattaur resigned, while Programme Manager Martin Goolsarran was later sent on administrative leave. What triggered the probe was a $3.9 million cheque made payable to Goolsarran by telecoms company GT&T as an incentive for the production team that worked during the company’s jingle and song competition, held between September, 2011 and February, 2012.
The Board discovered that Goolsarran, in the presence of Sattaur, had requested that the finance manager prepare an invoice to be dated January, 2012, to cover production costs for the GT&T Jingle and Song competition for the period November 2011 to January 2012. The amount of the invoice was for $3.6 million but the employee refused to prepare the invoice “as no Job Order was given to her for these activities.” The employee told the investigators that Sattaur and Goolsarran made “a few requests” to her to prepare the invoice.
And there is more. Goolsarran admitted that he received on two occasions, amounts totalling $3,930,000 in December 2011 from GT&T for production services which he deposited in his personal bank account and claimed that the $3,930,000 was paid to HJTV on two occasions for their services. Among other things, the report said that a number of functions of other staff/departments were usurped by Sattaur and Goolsarran.
This information is damning and it exposes the unprofessional conduct of both Sattaur and Goolsarran during the period under investigation. Clearly, there was a deficit of administrative integrity at the network, and in the absence of a wider probe there is no way of knowing the extent of this.
Although Goolsarran was sent on leave without pay, Sattaur was allowed to tender his resignation and walk away with his benefits. To date, neither has been called on to account and or give statements to the police regarding their involvement in the transactions.
What’s more, this NCN scandal points to the presence of a protected class in our society that is increasingly seduced by material gains that are felt to be justly appropriate for the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed. It’s not wrong, by their standards, just entitlements or rather ‘rewards’ for services rendered.
AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan and others point to what they see as a delaying strategy to get the issue dropped and for people to forget that officials at the state network were caught behaving unethically while conducting public business. For them, it’s a cover-up from the highest level, evident from the posture of the President and his unwillingness to answer questions on the matter for almost two years.
At times it has seemed like the administration was seeking to dump the issue rather than deal with it, and dealing with it means releasing the necessary information. If the government is interested in strengthening citizen-government engagement, the public would have had access to the NCN report from the Board a long time now. It is in our interest to know whether the accounting practices at the state-run media are acceptable for a public-funded network.
In the end, what this matter comes down to is political leadership and a willingness to do what’s right rather than settling for secrecy and providing cover to public officials who use public offices for private gains.
Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/iseales