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What to make of food program report

Continuing his narrative of corrupt and fraudulent activities under the Minnis administration, Prime Minister Philip Davis on Monday tabled in the House of Assembly the report completed by ATI Company Limited into the National Food Distribution Task Force.

The report includes, verbatim, statements made by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) back in January, a month after the auditor was engaged.

The food program was a key initiative of the former government which fed thousands of vulnerable Bahamians during the COVID-19 pandemic using multiple NGOs already in operation.

Speaking in Parliament, in March, Davis used the program as an example of how he claimed former politicians sought to bilk the Bahamian people of public funds.

He said, “… It is becoming increasingly clear that some in the previous administration viewed governance as an extractive industry. They used public office to enrich themselves, their families, and their friends … they wanted theirs and they wanted it now.”

Davis said, “The political leadership directly contributed to this by taking steps to ensure that normal safeguards were not applied.”

He then advised that a review of the food program, which operated for more than 70 weeks at a price tag of $54 million, uncovered some “startling results”.

In tabling the ATI report on Monday, Davis again used the word “startling”, saying a read of the report was just that — startling.

ATI, which, according to its LinkedIn profile, was founded in 2021, was engaged by the office of the financial secretary of the Ministry of Finance to conduct an “agreed-upon procedures” report. Its president and principal, Kershala Albury, CPA, has been in that role since September 2021, according to her LinkedIn profile.

The company was engaged by the Davis administration in December 2021.

ATI’s scope of work included, among other things: “Review of the task force’s mandate and an assessment of compliance with the directives included herein.”

Financial Secretary Simon Wilson told a Nassau Guardian reporter yesterday that the government was intentional about selecting a small firm to conduct the food program review.

“What we did is we engaged a number of different auditors — large and small firms,” he explained.

“We assigned them things of interest. We thought that this was something that was going to be very minor. The more controversial stuff, we assigned to much larger firms. That’s what happened. We did not [expect it to blow up].”

It is too bad that the prime minister and spokespersons at OPM clouded the food program issue by speaking to matters being uncovered before allowing the auditor to complete her review.

Within a month of the auditor being engaged, OPM Communications Director Latrae Rahming was already making a statement to the media, which turned out to be identical language in the report eventually tabled in Parliament on Monday.

At the time of Rahming’s statement to the media, the auditor, according to the timelines contained in her report, had not yet received data from the task force chairperson, Susan Larson, and various NGOs, and still had much work to do.

In making his statement in January, Rahming said the government had received “preliminary accounts” into the food program’s operations.

Deficiencies

In her report, the auditor concluded there were procedural deficiencies in how the food program ran and said two NGOs that were involved in the program either did not submit requested data, at the date of the report, or did not submit in a timely fashion.

Specifically, the auditor said Lend a Hand Bahamas, which received $11.5 million for its feeding program, under the national effort, “did not submit requested data as at the date of this report”.

The auditor said, “As at the date of this report, Lend a Hand has provided a PDF document labeled ‘weekly accounting dashboard’, containing over 10 blank pages and data that did not meet the requirements of the requested data and documentation.”

Regarding the NGO IDEA Relief, whose fund disbursement totaled $4.4 million, the auditor said, “ATI was not provided with timely data or data that met best practices as at the date of this report.

“In view of reporting timelines, considerations extended from the initiation of the engagement, and the inadequate data provided by IDEA Relief, ATI was unable to complete sufficient and appropriate procedures consistent with our agreed-upon procedures,” the auditor stated.

Given that the auditor stated that she did not receive information from these two entities, Prime Minister Davis concluded that the funds disbursed to them simply “vanished”.

“Madam Speaker, $10 million of the Bahamian people’s money has simply vanished,” Davis declared in the House of Assembly on Monday.

He received the screaming headline he no doubt wanted.

In the minds of many Bahamians, hearing that $10 million vanished was understandably worrying.

Interestingly, a read of the 138-page ATI report does not show the auditor reaching such a conclusion.

While the prime minister encouraged Bahamians to “read the audit report for themselves,” he no doubt knows that there are many Bahamians who will not sit and read the lengthy, convoluted document, so, he appears to be getting some political mileage off his continuing Free National Movement (FNM) corruption narrative, even if there has not, up to this point, been any finding of fraud or corruption in relation to the food program.

Davis indicated that this is not the end of this matter.

He said, “We do not prejudge the circumstances we have uncovered, to say definitively whether such large sums of public money have been subjected to jaw-dropping incompetence, or jaw-breaking conspiracy. But we will find out.”

While we do believe the prime minister has made an illogical leap in determining that $10 million in public funds simply disappeared, we do not seek to ignore the conclusions of deficiencies drawn by the auditor.

As we wrote in our editorial in this newspaper yesterday, as minister of finance, Davis has a fiduciary responsibility to account to the people how money authorized by his ministry was spent.

But the taint of scandal, with which members of the Davis administration have attempted to color the food program, does not appear to be borne out by the report tabled.

We also stated in our editorial that while these findings do not connect the dots of an overall picture of conspiracy to misuse government funds, they are instructive as to the need for better oversight of public money even when there is an emergency at hand.

The auditor observed that there were administrative deficiencies and procedural deficiencies that made it impossible to reconcile the expenditure of public funds.

In some instances, the auditor said, certain NGOs had “erroneously classified” funds.

ATI said, for example, that approximately $588,000 was “erroneously classified” by Hands For Hunger.

The prime minister did not indicate what the next steps are as they relate to uncovering how funds allocated to the food program were used.

Pending audit

We note that the auditor general, who is legally empowered to audit the accounts of the government, is in the process of auditing the food program.

The auditor general under our constitution functions in an independent capacity.

In the exercise of his functions, “the auditor general shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority” (Article 136)(5).

The auditor general must make an independent assessment of the efficiency and effectiveness of government spending.

He can legally compel all involved to provide any information he deems necessary for him to conduct his review.

We have no doubt that Auditor General Terrance Bastian will conduct a professional, fair and independent assessment of the food program.

Whatever his findings are, they can be trusted by the Bahamian people and ought to be respected by our political leaders — both in government and in opposition.

We recall the controversy that ensued in 2015 after the auditor general conducted a review of the Christie administration’s Urban Renewal Small Home Repairs project.

The auditor general concluded that value for money could not be determined. The report was leaked.

Philip Davis, who was at the time deputy prime minister and minister of works, presented a report to Parliament from private auditors which contradicted the auditor general’s report.

Davis, at the time, said, “It is very important to rest any erroneous information that may have been provided to the public as a result of the ‘leak’ of the auditor general’s draft report.”

It will be interesting for sure to see what the auditor general concludes in respect of the food program and what the posture of the prime minister will be.

But the government does not have to wait for the auditor general if there is evidence of $10 million vanishing. If that is indeed the case, that would suggest a fraudulent act has occurred.

Apart from making a political point, the prime minister should turn the matter over to the relevant authorities for a determination on whether there ought to be prosecutions.

This exhausting politicizing of the food program does not serve anyone’s interest, least of all the Bahamian people.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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