Finance Secretary ‘disgusted’ by Region Eight REO’s lax approach to audit office recommendations

Finance Secretary Dr Hector Butts yesterday expressed “disgust” and frustration at the failure by Region Eight Regional Executive Officer (REO) Rafel Downes to act on recommendations made by the Auditor General.

Downes came under fire yesterday after his responses to questions posed by the members of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) proved to be inadequate on every count and the hearing ended prematurely, and on a sour note.

“What I am sitting and listening to is an operation which seems not to have any structure. It seems not to have any commitment towards continuity,” Butts said, before telling Downes that as public officials, their job is to represent the “people’s money” and “public policy.”

“…I’m at a point where I’m disgusted. I have one life to live, I don’t have time to waste,” Butts ended. The Finance Secretary stated that the Ministry of Finance has an open-door policy and related that while the administrators of regions would go in from time to time to seek assistance, Region Eight was not on that list.

PAC Chairman Irfaan Ali urged Downes to pay heed to the Finance Secretary’s words. “When you’re an REO and PS, you can’t bluff your way around. You can’t dart your way around. You have to follow the system, the guidelines, the policies and the procedure,” Ali stated.

“…I don’t think you understand how serious this is. All the commitments you have made to PAC, you have done none and all you are doing is bluffing your way out, ‘I’ll get it done,’ ‘It will be done,’ ‘I will go and get it done now,’ no, no, no, no,” the Chairman vented.

At the continuation of the PAC’s examination of the Auditor General’s 2015 report, matters began going downhill quickly when the REO was asked to provide information pertaining to the recovery of a number of overpayments in excess of $8.7 million, including money owed by contractors who still have works ongoing in the region.

Downes had stated that the contractors were written to but only one responded. He stated further that five of the 11 contractors were still carrying out works in the region, a point that drew intense criticism from committee member Juan Edghill, who questioned how the administration could allow those individuals to sign new contractual agreements but were incapable of acquiring commitments for repayment.

“Mr Chairman, the REO seems to be saying two things. He is saying that he has to get the engineer to go and check these people before you get the response and so on, but five of these people had to visit his office and sit at a desk and put ink on a dotted line for contracts for 2016. And just like how they signed a contract in 2016, he could not have obtained a letter of commitment at minimum for the repayment of these monies before the time of this contract,” Edghill said.

Downes related that he had in fact engaged these contractors, but said he had not received their commitments in writing.

The REO divulged that he had written to the Ministry of Communities seeking advice on how to approach the matter, but it was later understood that this correspondence was only sent in February of this year and pertained quite vaguely to “prior year matters.”

The REO was reminded by the Chairman that he had promised to engage the Ministry at the last forum and he was questioned why he took so long to make the step. He apologised for his “tardiness” and he said he had made “strong efforts to speak with the parties involved.”

Ali enquired specifically about contractor Nigel Forde, who was employed by the region to conduct projects totalling $2,282,000, related to repairs to the Monkey Mountain Primary School Annexe, the Monkey Mountain Primary School and rehabilitation of the Paramakatoi Health Centre and the Paramakatoi Primary School Annexe.

Downes had initially stated that he spoke with Forde last week after being unable to get him for months, but when further questioned, he related that the two had met “briefly” last July, when Forde had signed a new contract with the region.

“…So, this man owe you $2 million, nearly $3 million, you’re trying to get contact with him and you spoke with him briefly. What did you say, Good morning and good day?” a clearly frustrated Ali said.

It was also related that Forde passed the region’s prequalification process, which raised concern from committee members about the procurement process, and the option of contractors being barred from tendering once monies are owed to the administration.

The session eventually came to an end when the REO was questioned on matters relating to the upkeep of logbooks for vehicles in the region, and informed that he has not yet presented the books to the Auditor General.

Ali reminded Downes of a commitment made by him last year to hand all logbooks over to the Auditor General by the year’s end, which the REO proceeded to say he can have done right away.

However, at the peak of frustration at this point, Ali brought the session to a close, with 29 of 36 paragraphs still left to be reviewed, and ordered that Downes complete the recommendations covered up until that point and have that information relayed to the Auditor General before the other matters are dealt with.

As a course of action, Ali recommended that Downes be summoned by the Accountant General and the Finance Secretary.

“The Financial Secretary has said that he’s embarrassed at the responses of the REO and the REO has shown no improvement from the recommendations we made last year. He seems not concerned at all about issues of transparency and accountability and he’s not fazed by his inability to comply with the Auditor General’s recommendations and the PAC’s recommendations,” the Chairman said in a report following the meeting, while noting that the Finance Secretary has the mandate to take action against the REO.

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