$50m in fraud in Ministry of Social Development

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

This photo shows the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services’s new cheques with updated security features aimed at stopping or reducing incidences of fraud. PHOTO COURTESY MINISTRY OF SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT –

About $50 million in public grant funding was lost to fraud in fiscal 2021-2022, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) learnt Wednesday at a hearing chaired by Oropouche West MP Davendranath Tancoo.

Replying to a question sent in by a member of the public as read out by Tancoo, Ministry of Social Development and Family Services (MSDFS) permanent secretary Jacqueline Johnson gave the estimate of loss as “about $50 million.”

She said, “I’m not certain of that figure, chairman, because we do not have any system of finding an accurate figure.

“We might be in a position to determine that when our investigation unit has done a more comprehensive review of the system.”

Tancoo said $50 million was a substantial sum and asked by when would investigations allow losses to be known exactly.

He urged, “We’d want to target the elimination of that sort of activity because it deprives those most in need.”

Johnson replied, “That is a priority for us, given the volume of records that have to be considered.”

She referred the PAC to Rhonda Francis, head, Investigation and Compliance Unit. Tancoo allowed her to submit the information in writing at a future date.

Tancoo asked about the auditor general’s report noting 108 cases where a senior citizens grant was given to recipients age 27-64, (when the qualifying age was 65.)

“How could a 24 year-old or a 25 year-old end up benefiting?” he asked the MSDFS staff.

Johnson replied that at first the ministry had suspected fraud but later found it to be due to data input errors.

Francis said, “We investigated 61 instances thus far. We’ve found 49 instances on input error. For example, if a person was born in 1939, there was an input error of 1993.

“We still have the others that are under investigation at present.”

Tancoo asked how many of the 108 had been illegitimately receiving funds.

Francis replied,”We have not found any illegitimately receiving. We have been able to clearly identify that 49 were input errors and we are still investigating the others.”

Tancoo said, “So that means you still have some 50-odd persons to investigate.”

Johnson said eight employees were under suspension (with pay) for suspected fraud, of whom one was has been dismissed, with several fraudulent claimants being reported to the police.

Tancoo asked at what level had these employees been employed, only to be told the issue straddled many levels of staffing.

Johnson admitted to challenges in cleaning up the ministry’s records and in digitising such data.

She said many client documents must be filed at the ministry, with a wide raft of benefits on offer, adding to the complexity of changing over a paper-based system of records to a digital format.

“There’s a lot of challenges in the data cleansing process. It’s over 200,000 files.

“It’s a pretty broad clean-up and digitisation system.”