Region Eight accused of colluding with contractors in overpayments

The Region Eight administration was yesterday accused by members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of colluding with contractors in order to misappropriate funds under the guise of overpayments.

The 2015 report by the Auditor General (AG) documents that the region was yet to recover $12.781 million in overpayments made on contracts between 2011 and 2013.

An update from the ministry stated that overpayments for two contracts for the rehabilitation of the Mahdia Bridge and the construction of the Campbell Town Nursery School, valued $139,000 and $242,000, respectively, were cleared by the AG’s office.

Acting Regional Executive Officer (REO) Gavin Gounga told the PAC that the reason for the overpayments, which were to the tune of $12 million, was owing to inconsistencies in the bill of quantities as they were not properly prepared.

Asked by Minister Valarie Patterson how much has been recovered, he said they have so far gotten two contractors to begin repayment, with one repaying $100,000 as recently as yesterday morning.

He further stated that letters had been sent out to the contractors and written replies were received giving their commitment to repay the monies by the end of the year.

The contractors were given as Curtis Garraway, of 111 Miles, Mahdia, who paid the sum yesterday; Salim Yusuf of 273 Block X Cornelia Ida, West Coast Demerara, who had paid previously; Nigel Forde, of Bartica, Troy Dainty, of 111 Miles Mahdia; and R Wilson of Railway Line, Kitty.

Gounga related that Dainty was the only contractor no longer benefiting from work in the region.

The letters were sent by the former accounting officer, but follow-ups were reportedly sent earlier this month by Gounga, who assumed the responsibility of REO on May 22.

PAC Chairman Irfaan Ali asked the AG to take a note of the names so see whether any payments in the system to those contractors could be stopped, and expressing the view that “outside the box” measures might need to be taken as he suspects that some of the contractors are protected at the level of the region.

Gounga, who formerly served in the capacity of Deputy, replaced REO Raphael Downes after Downes was sent on leave in May, pending the determination of charges against him. A statement from the Ministry of Communities had said that his appointment was being revoked based on “grave charges” levelled against him for “breaching internal controls and using his authority to misappropriate the region’s resources.”

When Gounga was asked to read aloud the alleged responses from the contractors, it raised more questions.

“Stop right there. Read the third letter. And somebody should be locked up after this,” Ali stated strongly after Gounga had begun relaying the contents of the letters, which were all dated May 2, and all began in the same way.

“What do you notice there? What do you notice there? Don’t you see a collusion?” Ali put to the REO.

Gounga responded in the affirmative.

PAC member Jermaine Figueira, following Ali’s statement, noted that all the elements together seemed to suggest that the region was conspiring with its contractors.

“If you are to assess the information being provided by the accounting officer, one, with respect to the time these correspondence were received by the RDC, the all of a sudden $100,000 payment the day before the region is being placed before the PAC and then the reoccurrence of the same wording on a letter dated 2nd of May…the RDC seems to be in collusion with some of the contractors. And it behooves me to believe that representatives of the State is in essence trying to rob the State. And it’s very evident, it’s clear for all to see,” Figueira stated.

The member then questioned what relationship the bill of quantities had to the overpayments as was earlier stated by Gounga.

An officer on the panel had given an example of instances where the measured works did not correlate with what was outlined in the contractual arrangement, but Ali pointed out that this had nothing to do with the bill of quantities.

“For example, if we are constructing a building with approximately 25 square yards to the roof, the bill of quantity would read instead of 25 square yards, it would read 150 square yards. So when you actually go and do your actual measurement, you would discover that it is far less than what was being paid for and that’s how the region was paying in the past,” the Region Eight representative had stated.

“…Y’all pay people for works that were not done. We had a long list from the Auditor General in his earlier report which claimed that walls were supposed to be sealed and just the blocks were put up, we had windows not in, we had electrical works not in, we’re not talking anything about bill of quantities, we’re talking about payment for works that were not done. We had short measures and so on in terms of the width and the length of the buildings and the bridges and all of these things,” Minister Volda Lawrence said in response.

The REO and his team had been sent out earlier in the session to brief themselves after Gounga admitted that he had not read the AG’s 2015 report.

Asked by Ali his thoughts on what had transpired, the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Communities said that he believed the REO was ill prepared and should perhaps be given more time. It was on this note that the Chairman asked that the region provide detailed responses to each paragraph in the AG’s report and present it to the committee within a week’s time.

There are 22 paragraphs remaining for examination.

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