Trinidad: Ministry officials charged for flood grants fraud

A crowd of applicants for flood relief grants at one of the assessment centres in Sangre Grande. Thirteen people including State officials have been charged with fraud relating to programme. FILE PHOTO

(Trinidad Newsday) Thirteen people including officials at the Ministry of Social Development will appear in court tomorrow after they were charged by the Fraud Squad for offences relating to the distribution of grants to flood victims.

The charges include receiving money under false pretences. Fraud Squad officers went to the ministry’s office on Independence Square, Port of Spain, on Thursday and detained four ministry employees. They are alleged to have made out cheques in the names of friends and relatives who were not victims of the flood. Documents were also seized from the ministry and police informed Minister of Social Development Cherrie Ann Crichlow-Cockburn of the action. Police sources said the 13 were not the final tally as other ministry officials were still on their radar.

More than $81 million in flood relief cheques have been distributed to citizens following the October 19 floods which devastated parts of East and Central Trinidad. Officials at the Ministry of Social Development are now investigating how how much of that money went to families in need and how much of it was siphoned. Since the October flooding, more than 6,200 cheques have been printed and distributed. Each household that received cheques was granted either $15,000 or $20,000 depending on whether there were children at the home.

Multiple cheques which were processed by commercial banks were then flagged by the Central Bank as suspected fraudulent. These issues were then raised with ministry officials.

This investigation is one of two stemming from the flooding. The other is being conducted internally at the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (MoHUD) into how a couple was given a house without the necessary clearance. The couple, Atiba and Nitasha Sorzano, along with their two children were discovered to be living in a unit at Alpha Avenue, Greenvale, two weeks ago without authorisation, for over a year.

The duo said they were assisted by a “nice man” in getting their home but their documents were all fraudulent. After the discovery, the family was evicted and an internal investigation began. The Sorzanos spent a week under their home until they moved in with relatives.

Housing ministry officials who did not want to be named, said the “nice man,” who has worked closely with the permanent secretary Simone Thorne-Mora, was hired at the former ministry of community development, culture and gender affairs, during the years 2007-2010, before being transferred to the MoHUD in 2015 and placed in the People’s Issues Resolution Co-ordinating Unit (PIRCU).

The source added the man was removed from his post but remained with the unit while being banned from certain areas.

Insiders said the man was not the only person currently being investigated as Housing Development Corporation (HDC) officials were also being investigated in this and other instances of fraudulent activity. The internal investigation is being overseen by HDC managing director Brent Lyons alongside a team of MoHUD officials.

Sunday Newsday spoke with former housing minister Randall Mitchell who said under his tenure he worked feverishly at stamping out corruption. He added that education programmes were implemented to inform would-be tenants about what to do and the red flags to look out for from those “helpful” employees who guaranteed them houses. He recalled instances of employees squatting in allocated HDC homes that had to be evicted. He said, on one occasion, he set up a sting operation but the HDC employee learnt of the attempt to catch him and changed his plans.

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