Lowenfield denies procurement breaches at Gecom

-despite Auditor General’s findings

Despite findings by the Auditor General to the contrary, Chief Election Officer (CEO) of the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) Keith Lowenfield is maintaining that the entity did not deviate from procurement rules in the acquisition of items ahead of the 2015 general elections.

“We have gone through all the correct procedures in our procurement arrangements, we haven’t deviated,” Lowenfield told Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview.

The finding of the investigations, which pertain to the purchase of radio sets, the acquisition of ink toners and cartridges and the procurement of 2,400 nippers/pliers in 2015, have raised eyebrows and exposed serious breaches of procurement rules. These include apparent contract splitting, the supply of goods before a contract was signed and in one case the appearance of a fake quotation purporting to come from a company interested in supplying radio sets.

According to Lowenfield, there is an established protocol for all agencies that are audited and if there is a deviation from protocol, “I really cannot say as it relates to going into the future exactly what will happen…” He added that he cannot stop the Audit Office from taking whatever action it wants to take.

He contended that from 2014—when he was appointed CEO—to the present, Gecom has been adhering to procurement legislation and the regulations which treat with the procurement of items. “There is no deviation,” he said.

The violations cited by the Auditor General’s report occurred during Lowenfield’s tenure.

Lowenfield told this newspaper that when the Audit Office’s draft report on Gecom’s purchase of 50 radio sets for the 2015 general elections was sent to him, he disagreed with the recommendations it contained. He said that notwithstanding his disagreement on procedural issues, the final report maintained the original recommendations. “Well I have no problem with that at all because I participated in the process as the head of the agency,” he noted.

The audit team also found that Gecom did not utilise public tendering for the purchase of the radio sets as it cited time constraints. Nevertheless, 88% of the sets were not used in either the 2015 general elections or the 2016 local government elections.

According to the report, requests for quotations (RFQ) were sent out by the Administrative Department of Gecom to three suppliers for the supply of 50 HF Barrett radios.  However, the Administrative Department of Gecom recommended the award of the contract to Mobile Authority, which had quotations on April 16, 2015 for two different brands and three types of radios, in contravention of the RFQ. Another bidder, Advance Office Systems Inc had complied fully with the RFQ on April 15, 2015 but was not selected. The special investigation report noted that the Gecom Administrative Manager said that the recommendation was based on the lowest contract price and not the types or brand of radios.

In addition, the audit team determined that Gecom sought approval from the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB) for the use of selective tendering but only after it had sought quotations from the suppliers and even evaluated them. “This is a breach of the procurement process,” the report declared.

Since the contract with Mobile Authority for the supply of radio sets was signed a mere six days before the 2015 general elections, it would have been impractical to use the radios as purchased, the report pointed out. It added that the functions of examining payment vouchers and releasing payments in IFMAS (Integrated Financial Management and Accounting System) was done by the same person. “This is seen as a weak internal control mechanism,” the Auditor General’s report contended.

Based on the findings there were serious procurement breaches among a host of other problems and a recommendation was made for the police to be called in for an in-depth probe and criminal charges if necessary.

The recommendations that were then made by the Office of the Auditor General were: Internal control systems be strengthened particularly as it relates to the examination of payment vouchers and the release of payments in IFMAS; Appropriate disciplinary action be taken against any culpable officer/s for negligence/wrongdoing; and the Guyana Police Force should be called in to do an in-depth probe.

Gecom’s response to these recommendations was that the observation in relation to internal control systems was incorrect but notwithstanding this a complete review of internal control systems had been initiated.

Further, Gecom said that it had been poised to take appropriate disciplinary action against any officer found culpable but could find no aspect in the report where this was warranted.

Gecom said given its assessment and the lack of evidence to take any further internal action, “it would be incomprehensible for us to engage the Guyana Police Force to pursue criminal indictments.”

The Office of the Auditor General, however, maintained its stance in the face of Gecom’s responses and called for the police to undertake an in-depth probe, citing the questionable authenticity of a Massy Technologies quote that was used, the recommendation by Gecom to award the contract to Mobile Authority which the audit office said could be deemed arbitrary and the six apparently inoperable radio sets, valued $11.9 million, which were received and taken into stock.

Speaking about the ink toners and cartridges investigation, Lowenfield told this newspaper that the draft report was submitted on August 9 and since it did not contain any recommendations he did not respond. He said that to his dismay in the final report, which was sent to him on September 29, paragraph one stated that no responses were received. “…If there is no recommendations… I don’t have much to respond to except that I have received the draft,” he told this newspaper.

When asked about this subsequently Auditor General Deodat Sharma did not clearly say if there were recommendations contained in that draft report. He said that while he did not want to comment on the reports since they are not yet public, there are recommendations, including disciplinary action as well as police action.

This special investigation found that 11 contracts, worth $101.6 million for ink toners and cartridges, were apparently split by Gecom to avoid Cabinet scrutiny and awarded to the same supplier. It also cited instances where the items appeared not to have been needed and where contracts were signed after the supply of goods, raising further questions about procurement practices at Gecom. The purchases were made in the 2015 and 2016. With regards to the nippers/pliers report, Lowenfield said that he received it in September and he is presently preparing his response, which will be sent to Sharma.

The Audit Office found that the 2,400 nippers/pliers that were procured were delivered on April 23, 2015, five days before the contract was signed. It was concluded that $3 million could have been saved if Klein pliers were bought instead.

Justified

Meanwhile, Sharma has given Lowenfield a one-month deadline to respond to the final reports of the completed special investigations. Lowenfield, however, said he was not sure of the protocols being utilised by the Audit Office.

Speaking to Sunday Stabroek, Sharma said that the final reports were sent to Lowenfield because he is responsible for looking at the findings and taking appropriate action, including calling in the police if it is found to be necessary, as was recommended. He said that while the reports will also go to the commissioner, it is the responsibility of the CEO to act on them as he is the entity’s accounting officer.

Sharma made it clear that the accounting officer is the one responsible for addressing any irregularities, according to his appointment. As a result, he was hopeful that within a month Lowenfield will get back to him to say “whether or not he agrees with the findings.”

Former long-serving Gecom Chairman Dr Steve Surujbally believes that Lowenfield is capable of defending himself against the findings of the Audit Office. “I don’t know that he is greatly bothered …he is innocent of any of the observations … he followed due process…,” he told Sunday Stabroek, while adding that Lowenfield who is a hard worker, is being continuously attacked. Surujbally said that the purchases of the pliers/nipper and batteries were justified.

He recalled that the cheaper version of pliers was bought and they could not cut through seals and wires. “You needed a much stronger sturdier thing,” he said, hence the purchase of the more expensive ones.

With regards to the batteries, he said that Gecom needed something that was efficient and could last. He recalled that while working abroad as an election observer, he saw instances where election officials were operating in darkness.

Surujbally told Sunday Stabroek that the accounting officer is the custodian of Gecom’s finances and assets. He said that if he needed a vehicle or any of the commissioners wanted to use a boat to go to anywhere, the CEO was the person to give the go ahead. The CEO doesn’t work unilaterally but rather through the Ministry of Finance, which has its own procurement subcommittee and this is where the permission to make purchases came,” he said.

Academic purposes?

Commissioner Sase Gunraj recently questioned the rationale for the audit reports being sent to him and fellow commissioners.

He questioned whether it was for academic purposes, given that the commission is without a Chairperson. “I can personally and solely as a commissioner look at these reports. I can ruminate on them but that is the extent of what I can do with them,” he said.

“I can’t offer any further comments in relation to [the reports] because, of course, the commission is not meeting, we have not received any feedback, and we are not getting reports …on the functioning of the [Gecom] Secretariat. We don’t have the benefit of any comments from the Secretariat except those that are contained herein,” he added.

Gunraj also said that the media seems to be getting more information than the commissioners, especially in relation to the termination of the services of the Deputy Chief Election Officer Vishnu Persaud and added that he has read in the media about several other managers whose contracts might have come to an end but “we don’t know what is the status of those. “We don’t know whether those are being reviewed. We don’t know how the commission is being run because, of course, we don’t have any of that information.”

According to Gunraj, who is an attorney, all the budgets and spending have to be cleared by the commission. “We sit and we consider the budget that is prepared and presented to the National Assembly for consideration.

“I believe that it is only fair that when issues arise out of those, that those issues come to us for consideration but it brings [us] back [to] the most important point that I am making: in the absence of a Chairman, all that is happening is that we are sitting there wondering what is going on because we don’t know,” he said.

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