Auditor General still awaiting response from Chief Election Officer on special probe findings

Months after the final reports of the completed special investigations were handed over to Gecom’s Chief Election Officer (CEO) Keith Lowenfield no response has yet been received, Auditor General Deodat Sharma said on Wednesday.

Sharma subsequently expressed hope that the recent appointment of a new Chairman and a replacement commissioner would propel the delivery of responses from Lowenfield.

The findings 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 prior to the 2015 general and regional elections, 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. Contacted on Wednesday for an update, Sharma told Stabroek News that he had previously sent the final reports to the members of the committee but some have since claimed that they did not receive them. At the time coalition representatives, the now deceased Sandra Jones, Vincent Alexander and Charles Corbin and People’s Progressive Party/C (PPP/C) representatives Robeson Benn, Bibi Shadick and Sase Gunraj were the appointed commissioners. Working People’s Alliance member Desmond Trotman has replaced Jones.

Sharma said that at the moment his focus is on ensuring that the new chairman Justice Winston Patterson gets a copy of the reports as well as Trotman. He said that he has asked his staff to make the copies and he expected that Patterson would have had them by Friday the latest.

In October, Sharma had given Lowenfield a one-month deadline to respond to the final reports, noting that the final reports were sent to the CEO 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 had said that while the reports would also go to the commissioner, it is the responsibility of the CEO to act on them as he is the entity’s accounting officer. At the time there was no commissioner.

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

Lowenfield in a subsequent interview with Stabroek News had however said he was not sure of the protocols being utilised by the Audit Office.

The special investigation by the Office of the Auditor General of Gecom’s purchase of 50 radio sets for the 2015 general elections had revealed 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.

To make matters worse, the $99.5m sets were taken possession of just days before the May 11th 2015 general elections and up to September 14 last year, 88% of the sets were yet to be used. The administrative procedures employed by Gecom for the purchase of the sets appeared to favour Mobile Authority though another interested supplier had the most responsive bid.

Though it had proceeded to procure the 50 radio sets from Mobile Authority, Gecom then entered another arrangement with the United Nations Development Programme for the supply of 12 satellite phones on the grounds that “security reasons” prevented the use of the 50 radio sets on elections day. This special investigation had its genesis in August 2016, when the audit office’s team noticed discrepancies as it related to the purchase of High Frequency (HF) radios. The matter was drawn to the attention of Sharma who instructed that a special investigation be done covering the period January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2015.

Despite the findings by the Auditor General, Lowenfield had maintained that the entity did not deviate from procurement rules in the acquisition of items.

“We have gone through all the correct procedures in our procurement arrangements, we haven’t deviated,” Lowenfield had told this newspaper during an interview in mid-October. 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 had contended that from 2014—when he was appointed CEO—Gecom has been adhering to procurement legislation and the regulations which treat with the procurement of items. “There is no deviation,” he had maintained.

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

The members of the Gecom Commission will meet again on Tuesday but it is unclear whether the findings of the special investigations will be discussed.

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