Monday, February 19, 2018

Rising tide of trouble

Keith Subero logo53

Mark Fraser

Thousands flooded the capital on Friday to commemorate the end of slavery in 1838.

After weekly congregational prayer (Jumu’ah), some 3,000 Muslims also took to the streets to stage a peaceful mid-day march around the Savannah to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are suffering under Israel’s atrocities in the Gaza.

There was also the snub of visiting Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousafzai, at a mosque in Carapichaima last week by a fundamentalist imam who insisted that, according to Sharia law, it would be “haram” for a woman to address both men and women at the mosque.

At Petrotrin, there were oil spills, now for the fourth time. And in Debe flash floods, unprecedented in recent times, swamped the homes of villagers.

Added to those events there was the departure of Sport Minister, Anil Roberts —although questions linger on whether he resigned or was dismissed. The result, however, was widespread public exhalation after the stench that pervaded his office.

Throughout his tenure, Mr Roberts had invoked the ghost of the PNM as his unrelenting excuse in all confrontations; this time the findings of the audit into the LifeSport programme gave him no such leeway.

Mr Roberts proved to be all ego-pumping without acumen; in office, he was obstreperous and seemed unembarrassed by his public persona as a vulgar clod who viewed the world only through black or white lens—never grey.

He was kind to those he favoured but mean, spiteful and publicly disdainful of others.

Investigations revealed that the LifeSport programme—Mr Roberts’ brain-child—had no proper oversight and there was poor control and monitoring of the $400 million expenditure involved.

Under Mr Roberts’ watch, there were breaches of the Proceeds of Crime Act and procurement procedures. There were deviations from Cabinet decisions; supplier fraud; theft of State equipment and financial loopholes.

So his immediate fate is in the hands of the Director of Public Prosecutions who is also pursuing investigations into former chairman of UDeCOTT, Calder Hart, the person Mr Roberts had publicly flagellated in his daily radio broadcasts years ago.

A source called to alert me: “If you feel the LifeSport programme is a scandal; there are many more scandals out there. Loans were secured to finance LifeSport; look at that method.

“That allows ministers direct control of State enterprises. Examine all of them, starting with the Caribbean Airlines loans; then you see how LifeSport and other agencies are controlled surreptitiously by ministers.”

Urging public vigilance, another source pointed to the proposals in the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill, which was passed in the Senate and is due for debate in the House next week.

“That bill contains elements that could be another Section 34, and people seem unaware of that danger. Once it becomes law, it will be open season for all types of corruption.

“How come? Under this legislation, the system of procurement will be decentralised, within three months. It means the appointment of a procurement regulator, but every ministry will be responsible for its own procurement function.

Each ministry will be required to have a legal and procurement department, with staff trained in procurement procedures. The source said, this set-up exists currently, maybe in only two ministries.

The bill has the support of the Joint Consultative Council and other stakeholders, but they are unaware that the public service is unprepared for the challenge, he said.

“There are so many ministries, most permanent secretaries are inexperienced. The procurement function is handled at the lower administrative level, by persons accustomed to minor purchases. Contracts of professionals were not renewed and procurement is no longer a professional function.

“So what do you have? A broken public service, left without the skill-set and wide open to persons eager to repeat LifeSport violations again.”

The cancer has metastasised. Anil Roberts has been turned over to the DPP and the Integrity Commission, both overworked and understaffed institutions—but should the buck stop with him?

The Finance Minister, and eventually the PM must answer all these questions.

• Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication and management.