The assistant secretary assigned to the Police Department, where a junior employee is accused of stealing EC$154,000 through an alleged tyre purchase scam, has told the court that she authorised payment for items that she never saw, contrary to government rules.
“When I got to the police department, I had never worked with SmartStream or accounts before so my engagement at police was the very first time,” Saline Barber, an assistant secretary in the Ministry of National Security, assigned to the police department, told the Kingstown Magistrate’s Court on Friday.
“I was told that as assistant secretary I needed to certify the invoices. Like I made the point before, I did not see most of these things but I certified them. And that’s why I certified,” she said during cross examination by defence counsel, Israel Bruce.
Barber told the court that the accused, Mitra-Ann Prescott, taught her how to use SmartStream, the government’s accounting system.
Barber told the court that having a junior employee that understood the accounting system better than her was the first administrative misstep.
Prescott, of Harmony Hall, is being tried on charges that between Aug. 11 and Dec. 29, 2017, she stole EC$6,500, the property of the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Related to that allegation, she is charged with one count of corruption, namely, that between those same dates, “being employed in the Public Service and being charged with the performance of her duty as a junior clerk attached to the Royal St. Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force by virtue of such employment, corruptly agreed to receive the sum of EC$6,500, the property of the Government of SVG on account of invoices in the name of Gary Gareth Sayers and Gareth Renson Sayers processed by her in the discharge of her duties of her office”.
The second theft charge was in the amount of EC$60,400, reportedly stolen between Jan. 2 and Aug. 14, 2019, at Kingstown.
The third count of theft was in the sum of EC$87,400, allegedly stolen at Kingstown between Jan. 17 and Dec. 21, 2018.
There are two corruption charges, one in relation to each of the theft charges.
When the trial resumed on Friday, Prescott had replaced Jomo Thomas with Bruce as her lawyer and Senior Magistrate Rickie Burnett denied Bruce’s application for an adjournment.
The prosecutor, Crown Counsel Rose-Ann Richardson then called Barber as the next witness.
‘… in 2018, things were a little out of sync, in my opinion’
Barber told the court that she met Prescott when she took up the assistant secretary post on Sept. 18, 2018.
The witness said that her (Barber’s) office is located upstairs the Central Police Station and she is responsible for the accounting division and also does some administrative work relating to human resources.
She said SmartStream records the government’s accounting transactions, including purchases, payment for goods and services, and transactions with external organisations.
Barber explained how SmartStream works, using the purchase of a computer as an example.
“There is a requisition form at the office, so the person requesting the computer would fill a requisition form that has a quotation for the computer attached to it.
“The clerk at the office will enter the information into the SmartStream system in order to produce a purchase order (PO).”
The PO is a document that is sent to a vendor indicating the government desire to purchase.
“Of course, when this is done, it will have to be approved on the system. So after that, we send the purchase order to the vendor. The vendor will give us a bill, if they have their system organised that we can get a bill right away or we will pay first.
“Most vendors will give us the items with the bill. When we get the bill, the junior clerk, who is an enterer on the system, will enter the information for payment in the system.”
Barber said that the information is then sent to the Treasury Department for payment.
She told the court that as a junior clerk, Prescott had access to the smart stream system.The Treasury Department grants access to SmartStream either as an enterer or an approver.
Prescott was an enterer and when she entered information into the system, it would generate the purchase order only after Barber approved it.
“The PO is given so that a vendor can have something to say, ‘This is an indication that we will pay’,” Barber said.
She said that when she was assigned to the police department in 2018, there were three enterers — Prescott, Nyasha Harry, and another person who retired shortly after and whose name she could not recall.
Barber said the system distinguishes who enters what information by placing the enterer “name” on the PO.
Ministry buys ‘all the time’
She told the court that the Ministry of National Security buys tyres “all the time”.
“Do you have a set of vendors that you buy tyres from?” Richardson asked.
“When I got there in 2018, things were a little out of sync, in my opinion,” Barber told the court.
“It seems that we were buying tyres from more than one set of persons. So, at the time, I don’t think there was one specific vendor.”
She said that from what she could recall, in 2018, the vendors were SVG Tyres Sales & Services, Mr. Shallow, “and the person who is here in question about the whole issue — whose name I cannot recall”.
Asked whether there was a policy in relation to the types of vendors who are paid or engaged, Barber said, “The vendor has to be on the system.”
She said that to get on the system, there is a form that is filled and sent to the Treasury.
“When things are purchased, do you know when they are delivered?” the prosecutor asked.
“Some of them, I was aware,” Barber said. “For instance, if we bought tyres and they are for [vehicle X], the driver, maybe ‘Jim Jones’, gets the purchase order, and he takes it to the vendor whose name is on the purchase order. I will not see the tyres. When the invoices come to the office, they will come to me or a clerk can receive them, so the driver would bring the bill.”
Asked to describe what is on an individual invoice, Barber used SVG Sales & Services as an example, saying their invoices would have the date, an invoice number, and the vehicle number.
It also includes the particulars of the purchase, namely the number and type of tyres, and the vehicles for which they were supplied. The invoice would also include the VAT amount.
“Of course, it would be stamped by the folks at SVG Tyres Sales & Services. When the invoice comes we have to make arrangements for payment. We need to have the clerk now go — not necessarily the person who ran the purchase order. So someone now has to go in and pay the bill and that is another process.
“I am not an enterer so the enterers know what they do when they enter. But at the end of the day, it is entered in a controlled group. So, for example, the 22 of the 4th, of 2022 so it is 22-04-24, PL, meaning ‘police’, the enterer’s name, for instance if it is Jack, ‘J’ for Jack, and 1, 2, or, 2 — 220422 PL J and it can be just that or 0, 1, 2, 3, etc.
“It will come to me for me to approve the payment. I go into the system; there is a section where I can read the details. They will be related to the bill that was received, the date of the invoice, the amount, and once it relates, I approve.
After which it will be scheduled and sent over the Treasury for payment. The Treasury takes the process from there.
Barber told the court that in 2018, Prescott, Harry and the other worker had duties to enter the invoices.
On the PO, the name of the enterer was distinguished by the first letter of her name. None of the other enterers and Prescott have the same letter of their first name. Barber told the court that as assistant secretary at the police department, she was not aware of any discrepancies in the SmartStream system involving Prescott.
The prosecutor then proceeded to show Barber some exhibits, from which the witness pointed out certain information, including the ministry number, programme number, and account number under which the purchases were made.
She said that one of the invoices was for the purchase of four tyres, but did not show for which vehicle.
“I will find it when I go onto the system because that section that says comments, in that it will have something like purchase of four tyres, invoice number 21309/19 at cost per tyres, and VAT amount. That info will also be on the purchase order,” Barber testified.
She said that the clerk would enter the comment. She was, however, unable to say from the document who had created the particular activity sheet.
The next page of the exhibit was an invoice from Gary’s Garage to supply the police department with four tyres at a stated cost for use on motor vehicle G902.
The date of the bill was Jan. 21, 2019 and “Gareth Sayers” signed it.
Barber told the court that she knew the signature “by seeing it here” but did not know for sure that “Gareth Sayers” had signed it.
“But there is a signature?” Richardson asked.
“Yes,” Barber responded.
She said that it was Prescott who interacted with the invoice, as it had “‘M’ meaning Mitra-Ann”.
Barber said that the handwriting at the top of the invoice was Prescott’s.
“When I got there, I saw the handwriting and I got familiar with the persons and their handwriting,” she told the court.
Barber said she certified the invoice for payment on Feb. 7, 2019.
The next document in the evidence bundle was a Feb. 8, 2019 document from “Gareth Sayers”, giving permission to the Accountant General for “Mitra-Ann Prescott” to collect on his behalf any cheque owing to him.
“Who may have received this document?” Richardson asked.
“The Accountant General,” Barber responded.
Bruce objected and asked that the question and answer be stricken from the record. He argued that Barber could not say that the accountant general had received the document.
Barber told the court that on invoice number 27904/19, she could not seeing who had entered the information, but it was in the sum of EC$2,200 for four tyres at a unit cost of EC$550
Invoice 279, had a control number 060519PLM indicating that Prescott had interacted with it, Barber said.
“It is for four 265/70/16 tyres at $550 per tyre, total value $2,200. Date is 05/04/19,” she told the court.
The assistant secretary told the court that she did not know how often tyres were to be ordered for vehicles.
“What I do know is that the police department does not use used tyres,” Barber said.
“Why did you certify these documents?” the prosecutor asked.
She told the court that in relation to the extant matter, she did not have occasion at any time to speak to the accountant general.
“Is it the policy to certify every document, every bill that comes to you? Richardson asked.
“I’s not sure if it was a policy but when I got there I was told that as A.S., I need to certify the documents before they go to the Treasury.”
She said that she later learned of a policy that vendors providing goods and services for the government must be registered businesses.
“In relation to your new-found knowledge, what did you learn?” the prosecutor asked.
“First, I learnt that if I didn’t see an item I was not supposed to certify it… And, as a matter of fact, since I approved, I am not supposed to certify.”
Asked if she ever gave Prescott any instruction to make purchases specifically from Gary Sayers or Gareth Sayers, Barber said:
“Maybe I did because once the driver comes to me requesting tyres, I would have given her the requisition because at the time we did not use the requisition as much but I would have told her the driver needs tyres so she would have made a purchase order, just as I would have done with the other clerks.”
“My question was for a specific vendor or generally to make an order for tyres,” Richardson said and asked Barber if she gave instructions generally to purchase from Gareth Sayers or Gareth’s garage?
Barber said she gave general instruction to purchase tyres.
Barber told the court that her access to SmartStream is personal to her “because I have a password”.
Asked if she had ever shared her password or access code with Prescott, Bramble said there was no need to do so.
“When I just got there and wanted to know about the system, Prescott was the one who assisted me. I would login and sit there and she would assist me.”
‘first administrative misstep’
During cross examination by Bruce, Barber told the court that while she was the supervising officer, Prescott understood SmartStream better than her.
“You agree with me that that is the first administrative misstep?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes,” Barber responded.
The witness said that she did not know Prescott’s SmartStream password
“… even if I did, I didn’t know how to enter things on the system.”
Barber told the court that while Harry also had a password, she could not say whether it was the same as Prescott’s.
“Would you agree, Madam Assistant Secretary, that if Ms Prescott and Harry had the same password they could have entered information as each other?” Bruce asked.
“I guess that could have happened,” Barber told the court.
She said that based on Bruce’s question it was possible that the documents generated, and purported to have been created by Prescott, could have been generated by Harry.
“One would have known that the other’s password was the same as her, if that was the case,” Barber said.
Bruce put it to Barber that the enterers had the same password.
Barber heaved a sigh. She paused then said, “If I say I agree it means that I know. If I say I don’t agree, it means I know. But I do not believe–”.
The magistrate told her that the question was not about what she believed but whether she knew.
“I don’t know,” Barber responded.
She confirmed that the only way to differentiate between who entered information on the system was the first letter of the enterer’s first name.
“So that let’s use today’s date, for example, that if Ms Mitra-ann Prescott made an entry, it would say 22/04/22 PL M0? And if on the same date Nyasha makes an entry, it would say22/04/22 PL N0?” Bruce asked and Barber answered yes to both questions.
She said that the only difference between those entries would be “M” for Mitra-Ann and “N” for Nyasha.
“And I just want to be clear on these accounting deficiencies that we have in our system that have to go out there now for all to know, that If Mitra-Ann made an entry and instead of putting in ‘M’ put in ‘N’, your record will tell you that it is Nyasha that made an entry, when in truth and in fact it could be that Mitra-Ann made the entry?” the lawyer asked.
“I am not sure if that can happen when you are using the system,” Barber said. “Because remember Mitra-Ann logged into the system with her login ID and password. SO I don’t know if she can put an ‘N’ for Nyasha or Nyasha can put an ‘M’ for Mitra-Ann,” Barber responded.
“You are saying now there is a login ID and password?” Bruce said.
“They have a login ID and a password,” Barber responded. She explained that each person has a login ID and a password.
Supervisor instructed orders be made without documentation
Barber told the court that as of Sept. 18, 2018, she is the supervisor of the clerks who enter the information into SmartStream, creating the POs.
She said that the permanent secretary was her supervising officer at the time.
“In all fairness to you, Ms Barber, you will not on any Friday morning simply go to either Nyasha or Mitra-Ann and say, ‘Make a purchase order for X, Y, or Z’,” Bruce said. “That is not the norm, right?”
Barber responded, “If I have a request from someone, I will do it.”
She said there is no document or place where she wrote down every such instruction she gave to the enterers to create purchase orders.
“So you agree with me you could have given Mitra-Ann a hundred instructions to make purchase orders and you have no document to prove that,” Bruce said.
“Not an entire hundred,” Barber responded.
The lawyer told the witness that he was just suggesting a figure.
“Based on what you said, yes,” Barber said.
Bruce told Barber that he was not challenging her honesty by asking “Can you later on deny giving that instruction to Ms Prescott or Ms Harry?”
“Yes I can,” she said.
She told the court that based on the record that is kept in SmartStream, any discrepancy or error would “reflect on the approver, starting from the police department”.
“So it would be Mitra-Ann’s fault?” Bruce asked.
“If she enters the wrong thing it is her fault, but if I missed it, it is my fault for missing it.”
Bruce told Barber he was not talking about entering the wrong thing and recapped the line of questions and answers given.
He asked whether it would appear that Prescott “is up to something” if the same order is made for the same vehicle four weeks in a row.
Barber said that was the case but there would be no record to show that she had been instructed to place those orders.
“So Mitra-Ann would look like the beast, or Peter in the deep blue sea,” Bruce said.
Clerks entered info in each other’s control group
Barber told the court there were times in the police department that enterers were asked to enter invoices in each other’s control group.
She was asked whether, based on this, when Prescott enters information in her control group for Harry it is a true reflection of the request made by Prescott or by Harry.
Barber said that the bill is entered under a control group for payment so it does not matter who entered the information.
“A bill is there to be paid, anybody can take it and put it in their control group for payment.”
Regarding the invoice 21309/19 that Barber was shown during her evidence in chief, she told the court that she could not tell by looking at the invoice who entered the information.
Asked whether she could tell the court whether 21309/19 was printed off the government’s SmartStream system, Barber said, “It looks to be.”
She, however, said she could not say where the invoice came from.
Barber told the court that she did certify the document as a true and correct representation by Gareth Sayers for payment.
She said the fact that there is a handwritten reference “07/01/19 PL M0” to the top of the invoice did not suggest any wrongdoing by Prescott.
“And as the office who is supposed to make sure that before government money is paid out, everything is intact?” Bruce asked.
Barber said that was the case.
She said that she signed the document, suggesting that all was well for payment.
Barber told the court that Prescott did nothing wrong in this regard.
She told the court she could not say whether the accountant general received the document in the evidence bundle.
Regarding invoice 27904/19, Barber agreed that the invoice bore no connection to Prescott.
She further said that if the document was created on SmartStream, she could not say who had entered the information.
Supervisor missed ‘red flag’
The witness told the court that she did not know anything about the signatures on the far left hand corner of the document.
The fact that the document referenced “M” did not suggest that Prescott did anything wrong, Barber said.
In one instance, two invoices were created on the same day for tyres for the same vehicle, only that on one invoice, the size of the tyre was “15” and the other was “16”.
“You, as the assistant secretary, seeing these two documents pop up on you the same day, for approval, would you agree with me that there ought to have been a red flag?” Bruce said.
“I missed it,” Barber told the court.
“But none of that is as a result of something wrong by Ms Prescott?” Bruce said.
“No,” Barber said.
“So as it relates to those transactions that I just took you through, you agree that there is nothing untoward that is lodged at the feet of Ms Prescott?” Bruce said, in relation to the documents in the bundle.
“Yes,” Barber said.
Barber said she could not recall control group numbers being entered incorrectly.
She said that as she is not an enterer, she did not know whether the system created control group numbers automatically.
Temporary workers accessed SmartStream
She told the court that in the police department there were times when temporary officers entered information in the system.
These temporary officers would not have their own password and ID and accessed SmartStream based on the enterer they are working alongside.
She said the temporary worker may have created a purchase order that would end up showing as a purchase created by Prescott when she did not create it.
Barber told the court that the same could have occurred with Harry’s account and that one could be looking at a document that says “M0” when Prescott did not create it.
Barber could not say whether the computer used by the different enterers helps to identify them and whether that is where their ID is created.
She said there were times when different enterers were using each other’s computers.
If Prescott’s was logged in on her computer and Harry used it, the documents would show up as having been created by Prescott, Barber told the court.
“So when you said I am able to differentiate who entered what by the name on a purchase order, that the system is set in that way, do you agree that the system could give you, as the AS, misleading info?” Bruce asked.
“Yes,” Barber said.
System ‘open to corruption’
The lawyer asked the witness to explain what she meant when she said in evidence in chief that in 2018 things were “out of sync” at the police department.
“When I got there, the whole system of requisitioning, which means you are requesting something in writing, was not in place as it should. So we needed tyres, for G967 and the driver or the person, the officer-in-charge, would say, ‘My vehicle at Stubbs, G967, requires tyres.'”
“This is not an indictment on you and I am happy you sported the deficiency, but you agree with me this was a gross deficiency?”
“Yes,” Barber said.
Bruce said that without imputing anything improper about police officers, based on how the system operated, a police officer would remove the tyres from the vehicle, sell them and have them replaced on the same day.
“You agree the system was open to corruption?” he asked Barber, who responded, “Yes.”
Regarding the stamp that Barber said invoices would have, she told the court that none of the invoices that purported came from Gareth Sayers had a stamp or seal on them.
“Administrative accountability oversight? What do you say?” Bruce asked.
Barber said there are many other invoices that do not have stamps.
“I was later told by the Accountant General that we are not to do business with individuals who are not registered and they need to have a stamp.”
Barber said that “apparently” those violations were taking place before she got to the police department and even after she got there.
She said that she learnt, “maybe in 2019” as the deficiencies.
Barber told the court that the fact that Prescott may have attended to invoices without Sayers’ stamp or seal did not mean she was doing anything improper at the time.
She said that based on what she knew, the Treasury department entered Sayers’ name as a vendor.
“We do the application. Mr Sayers, in this case, would have put an invoice, so we put the application with the invoice and sent it to the Treasury, saying, ‘We would like to do business with Sayers, please put it on the list’,” Barber told the court.
She agreed that it was the police department’s doing that resulted in Sayers becoming a vendor, adding that as head of the department, she takes responsibility for that.
The witness agreed with the lawyer that the fact that she did not see the tyres purchases was “ another deficiency in the state apparatus”.
She said Prescott did nothing wrong when she entered into the system the information on the invoice
“You were told that you need to certify invoices and as a consequence, you simply certify without seeing things necessary,” Bruce asked.
Barber said that was the case and agreed with the lawyer that that “represented another monumental blunder” on her part.
Barber said that on no occasion did she certify a document because Prescott told her to do so.
Asked if there was an arrangement that certain people entered for specific things, Barber said:
“When I got there, I just met persons dealing with certain things. I was new, so if you know about this, you deal with this. If Ms Prescott was not there and I needed to enter something I just asked somebody else to do it.”
She agreed that making purchases for the police department without requisition opened the system to corruption.
“And we have taken steps to correct it,” Barber further stated.
She said she was not aware of a requirement that the items purchased were to be shown to Prescott as proof of purchase.
Barber told the court that the police vehicles that travel great distances, such as those in North Leeward and North Windward and the Rapid Response Unit would require change of tyres more often.
“Even with that knowledge, there was no system in place to give you a broad interval to determine how often these frequent -change vehicles would need new tyres?” Bruce asked.
“None,” Barber said.
“In fact, the records that are in question, the documents relating to expenditure that are in question in these proceedings, have been certified by you?”
“Representing true request, bill of items, and receipt of items,” Bruce said.
“Yes,” Barber told the court.
“Even if an enterer or a clerk were to create a PO, if the supervising officer does not affix his signature to the relevant documents thereafter, then no sort of improper purchase of any sort can take place in that department,” Bruce said.
“You are correct. It has to be certified,” Barber told the court.
She told the court that she had been hearing of but has never read a policy in the police department or the government system that vendors cannot authorise a government worker to collect payments on their behalf.
She said she has never heard of such a policy in a meeting and even if Prescott was asked to collect money for Sayers, she cannot say that was wrong.
“I cannot say she cannot collect money. I don’t have any evidence that she was wrong,” Barber told the court.
During re-examination, Barber told the court she did not know the travel route of the vehicles for which the tyre orders were made.
“In relation to smart stream, are you aware of the security measures of that system?” the prosecutor further asked.
“Yes. No sharing of passwords,” Barber said.
The trial continues on June 28.