Assistant Auditor General: No fraud in covid19 relief

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Scores of people wait outside the Social Services Centre, San Fernando to receive covid19 relief grants. – File photo

ASSISTANT Auditor General Louis Hernandez said on Wednesday that no fraud was found in the award of public grants during the covid19 pandemic, despite questions arising over record-keeping by public agencies.

He was giving a statement to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament chaired by Oropouche West MP Davendranath Tancoo.

“There was no fraud per se,” Hernandez said. “What you found is some lapses in the internal controls and the maintenance of records, for example where you have certain systems in place for the distribution of hampers and so on. you would have found that there was no accountability as to how they were distributed.

“You had large sums of money spent and you had no record of whether the items reached the persons, those persons who were vulnerable – and that was the objective, to help the needy.

“In many instances we could not verify that objective was satisfied.”

Hernandez said some public bodies did not keep key records of the subventions they handled.

“It may not lead to fraud, but it would have had to do with errors, by not maintaining certain records so that they could reconcile and so on.”

PAC member Trade Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon asked if any recommendations by the Office of Auditor General to public bodies had been ignored.

On covid19 relief, Hernandez replied, “You found in 2020, there were many instances of lack of proper record-keeping.

“In 2021 we found that it was some improvement. Where there were lapses in response to our management letter, we did get some assurances that systems would be put in place to maintain the records.”

He said the Auditor General’s office usually follows up public bodies.

Gopee-Scoon asked about any unresolved matters in 2020 reappearing in 2021.

Hernandez replied that in a few cases, entities had promised to introduce new systems, but no improvements had been seen.

“But it was not a majority.

“One or two, we found they actually implemented a model system. They actually put systems, documentation, in place for controls to ensure that there were no leakages.”

Tancoo commented on Hernandez’s “no fraud” remark to say regarding pandemic relief, the Auditor General Report on TT’s Public Accounts had found “a substantial amount of inconsistencies.”

“With regard to the public assistance grant there were 673,504 instances of incomplete information in critical areas. With regard to the disability assistance grant, there were 1,238,235 instances of blank fields in critical areas.”

Tancoo said similar occurred elsewhere and for “substantial amounts of money,” such as 404 awards of senior citizens’ grants totalling $1 million, made without records of cheque numbers or bank account numbers.

“Clearly there was a substantial amount of misinformation that was provided to the relevant agencies with regard to these particular grants – the public assistance grant, the food support programme, the disability grant and the senior citizens’ pension. Because there was so much missing information, it meant we could not necessarily determine whether fraud did or did not take place.”

He urged the Auditor General’s Office to make recommendations by management letters to public agencies to avoid any repeat of this situation.

“Maybe there should be a need for the relevant ministry to initiate some sort of punitive action so somebody could be held accountable, because a substantial amount of funds have been on these grants, with circumstances that are substantially less than acceptable.”

Auditor General Lorelly Pujadas said the Ministry of Social Development needs better systems of monitoring, verification and reconciliation of its payments, and had agreed to comply.

Acting audit supervisor Neela Sookra recalled routine shortcomings in data entry. She hoped the Ministry of Social Development’s digitisation exercise would now clean up these records. However Tancoo said “something is clearly amiss” if 108 people aged 27-64 got senior citizens’ grants. Pujadas said this could be caused by data input errors and the ministry was investigating. “We would follow up on this matter.”

Pujadas said her office expected a further response from the ministry, and if none is received, it would take further steps.