ST. VINCENT:- The government has ordered an audit of the Agricultural Diversification Programme amidst allegations that Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Allan Alexander, is involved in a business that sold to the ministry at exorbitant prices, items imported tax-free in the ministry’s name.
Leader of the Opposition and president of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Arnhim Eustace, blew the whistle on the development yesterday, Dec. 6, ahead of general elections next Monday, Dec. 13
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).
Addison “Bash” Thomas, an NDP candidate for next Monday’s general elections called for Alexander to resign.
But Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves told journalists on Tuesday, Dec. 7, that he learnt of the development last week Wednesday and has since asked the Director of Audit, who is out of state, to look into the purchases at the ministry.
“The allegations, as I understand them, are that as Permanent Secretary [and] the accounting officers in the Ministry, he (Alexander) ordered, over a two [to] three-year period, a number of items, mainly computer and computer accessories, and that the intermediary local business entity was one owned by Alexander,” Gonsalves said.
“That was the gravamen of the complaint. It does not mean that because that complaint has been made that Alexander is corrupt,” said Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Finance.
He however said that several questions arise, including whether the Service Commissions Department permitted Alexander, a public officer, to operate a business and on what terms.
Gonsalves said that while the Service Commissions Department would generally grant approve such business applications, it often stipulates that the public servant “can’t do business with the government”.
“Clearly, a conflict of interest, on the surface of it, would appear to arise. But do we as yet know whether the permanent secretary involved gained anything for himself or another by this process of ordering,” Gonsalves said.
Gonsalves said that Alexander, the son of the last Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hendrick Alexander, was a “bright promising public servant”.
The Prime Minister said the public servant called him last Wednesday to inform him “that there is an issue regarding the ordering of these items over a three-year period or thereabout”.
“…all of those items can be used in an agricultural diversification project … and if any of the things that were bought were being used by the public servants engaged in that project, that would be quite in order,” Gonsalves said.
He, however, said that neither he nor Eustace “know what are those facts”.
“…so a jump from an allegation to a conclusion of corruption is a major jump in which I shall not be engaged,” Gonsalves said.
He said he was unsuccessful in his attempts to reach the Director of Finance for an update on the situation on Monday but the Office of the Director of Audit told him that they were “gathering the background information”.
“Now, this party has its manifesto and our record is clear on this. Our stance against any form of corruption or any procedural breeches,” Gonsalves said, referencing the Unity Labour Party 2010 election manifesto.
There was a series of different purchases over a period of time, none in excess of $20,000. Therefore, none is required to go to the Tenders Board.” Gonsalves said,
He further said that an accounting office should not do any business with the government “because he must be above any reproach”.
“So, there is a procedural issue which Mr Alexander has to answer here. Then, secondly, the role in relation to possible conflict of interest and other issues which is procedural, which may be more than procedural,” Gonsalves said.
“But, to see whether there is any issue beyond procedural impropriety is a matter which the audit will reveal for us. It is unfair, therefore, to level this snare of corruption. You don’t do that unless you have the evidence,” he added.
He said that while his administration had strengthened accountability, supervision, and transparency “persons from time to time may breach these rules”.
“That’s why you have then in place to ensure that any breaches would be detected, will come to light and the director of audit would be able to handle these things efficaciously and that is what is happening here.”
It is the second government programme cited by Eustace since August for misappropriation of state funds or shirting of government procedure.
In August, Eustace told Vincentians that the Director of Audit uncovered misappropriation of funds and skirting of procedure under the Cuban Integrated Health Programme at the Ministry of Health, where public servants bought fast food from the state purse.
Gonsalves said on Monday that “no suggestion is made and none can be made that any politician, any member of the political directorate is involved in anything that amounts to procedural impropriety or amount to seeking and having a gain on any government activity.”
He said that this compares to previous NDP administrations when Eustace and former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell purchased state lands at “knock down prices”.
Gonsalves had made similar pronouncements in August when the wrong doings at the Ministry of Health became public and has not told citizens the contents of a report from the permanent secretary of that department.