KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent — The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) wants to see the back of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture amidst claims that he is involved in a business that sold to the ministry at exorbitant prices, items imported tax-free in the ministry’s name.
NDP president and Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace said on radio on Monday, Dec. 6, that he was awaiting a response to a Nov. 23 request for the Director of Audit, who is out of state, to investigate several purchases by the Agricultural Diversification Programme, “starting as far back as 2007”.
The alleged misconduct at the ministry are becoming public one week ahead of the Dec. 13 general elections and as Vincentians await an explanation from the Dr Ralph Gonsalves government about misappropriation of funds at the Ministry of Health, unearthed by the Director of Audit in August.
Eustace did not call for the resignation of the high-ranking public servant, but Addison “Bash” Thomas, an NDP candidate for the elections next week, said that the permanent secretary, who is the son of the last Speaker of the House of Assembly, should go.
“…here is another classical case of corruption in the Ministry of Agriculture,” said Thomas who is the NDP’s “voice of the farmers”.
“I have been reliably informed, like Mr Eustace, that most of these items are not in the Ministry of Agriculture … The farmers and the New Democratic Party are calling on this permanent secretary to resign immediately,” Thomas said, also on NICE Radio.
Eustace said he has 70 pages of document which show that three businesses, including one in the United Sates, were associated with the transactions.
“I also know who owns some of these companies. I am not giving all the information now. In one case for sure, [they are] local people, whose family is involved in the Ministry of Agriculture in making some of these payments,” Eustace said.
“… Not only to my mind is that rampant corruption, it is also a violation of the rules that govern when ministries buy things. Again, I want to say this is tax payers’ money. … Taxpayers are paying for this,” he said.
Among the items that Eustace said were sold to the ministry, were a microphone cable imported at a cost of US$12.14 (EC$32.78) and sold to the ministry for EC$1499.76 (US$555.46).
He also mentioned a ten-channel mixer costing EC$255 (US$94.44) and sold to the ministry for EC$968 (US$358.510 and a transmitter costing EC$637 (US$235.92) and sold to the department for EC$2005.67 (US$742.84).
The items sold to the ministry also include sound and lighting equipments, computers, and computer supplies, with several of the purchases made as few as three days apart.
“Are you telling me all these items are purchased for use to assist in the Agricultural Diversification Programme?” said Eustace, a former prime minister and minister of finance.
He said buying items in small quantities, as the Ministry of Agriculture reportedly did, violates the government’s purchasing rules.
He, however, said that when items are bought in large quantities, public servants “have to abide by certain conditions”, including going to the Tenders Board.
“But, to avoid those conditions, as was the case with Ministry of Health, they break down the orders into smaller amount so it does not attract attention. … It is really hard to believe … I just really can’t believe it. I keep thinking I have some wrong information, but it is there,” Eustace said.
In August, Eustace told Vincentians that the Director of Audit had found that civil servants managing the Cuban Integrated Health Project at the Ministry of Health had bought computer supplies and fast food and paid monies to the International Airport Development Company (IADC), contrary to government policy.
Gonsalves defended his ministers against any wrong doings and told Parliament that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health would write him a report on the matter within a week.
The contents of the report have not been made public.
A former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture was earlier on in the Gonsalves administration fined for theft of the ministry’s property.
“This kind of corruption has to be stamped out in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Eustace said, adding that an NDP administration would not tolerate such acts.
“I have said that our position, on assuming office in this country: anyone caught in illegal transactions will have to face the court,” he said.
“When this kind of thing happens, you waste down the financial resources of our tax payers,” Eustace said.
He added that the alleged misdeeds at the Ministry of Agriculture were talking place even as the administrator at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital sent consultants at the facility a memorandum saying several “routine tests are not available” there.
“The hospital cannot do those routine tests. They don’t have the material to conduct the test but somebody is overcharging in another ministry, wasting the taxpayers’ money which could be used to do some of these things, if you had to do a different allocation of the money,” Eustace said.
“And, we have said in the New Democratic Party, on matter of this type, there is no excuse. The judge will determine where you go and when you go. This must stop! It is sapping our resources, it is endangering out economic development. You will hear more about this at another sitting,” he said.
I Witness-News was unsuccessful up to late Monday evening in its attempt to get a comment from the government.