straight to the point – from different points of view

Who wants million dollars

Who wants million dollars

The headline said it all. More than 8 million dollars had been paid out to fraudulent claimants of COVID relief grants. This was based on a report from the Auditor General into the expenditure of the massive amounts of public funds to assist various sectors of society through these difficult times. Several commentators and politicians had raised consistent concerns about the lack of controls and the inadequate reporting on its use. Now we have it officially from the Auditor General that those concerns were merited.

Once again the Auditor General has delivered yeoman service to the nation. She has consistently reported on failures of controls and accounting in the public sector, especially in Tobago. Her reports paint a dismal picture of corruption and waste. More importantly they point to areas that cry out for further examination and possible remedial action by other authorities. Her departments good work is unfailingly undone by the lack of a response from the other agencies tasked with investigating and prosecuting corrupt individuals as necessary. Read any one of her reports and you will see not just statements but also clear evidence and documentation of financial misdeeds.

In this case, there are some lessons to be learned as to how and why these corrupt acts occur. We can learn a great deal from how the authorities have responded to the disclosures. We can even speculate as to the probability or otherwise of this corrupt use of 8 million dollars being the only such abuse within the billions that have been similarly spent on COVID relief.

So how did this double dipping happen and how as it discovered? As part of the COVID relief there were several “pots” of money that claimants could access. The two pots concerned were mutually exclusive, in other words a person could access one or the other but not both. Naturally, you had to provide a form of national identification to qualify.

What the Auditor General found was that very many people simply applied for both grants and were approved for them. The Auditor General simply compared the list of recipients. I hope you noticed that I used the word list and not database. We’re talking about simple lists like a list of students in a classroom. We’re not speaking about complex databases that require specialist skills. We’re simply trying to ensure that Harry (and everyone else) is not in two classrooms at the same time.

The authorities knew that individuals were not eligible to receive both grants. They knew this when they designed the grants. They would also have known from past experience that some persons would attempt to breach the rules. They would surely have known that under the stress, financial and otherwise of this lockdown, many more persons than usual would be tempted to test the system t try to put some more food on the table.

Since they knew that this temptation existed and that people were hard pressed financially at the time, are we to believe that they could not foresee the result of an absence of checks for double dipping by applicants? It seems certain to me that they knew this would happen and elected to present that to loophole to the public for misuse. Did the entire population know that this loophole existed?

An important question that we should now address via deeper analysis of the data and through inquiries with applicants is whether any were prevented from double dipping. Put more bluntly, was double dipping allowed or even designed for some and not for others? Were some persons perhaps advised that they could double dip and others not?

A modestly competent database consultant could have had a unified system designed, developed and implemented well in advance of the rollout of these grants. It would have held details of all successful applicants against which new applications would be vetted. Double dipping would have been all but eliminated at a cost of less than five hundred thousand dollars. It would have saved several million dollars. It would have been a bargain, but we chose to leave the door wide open for reasons the authorities must be required to explain.

I must point out that even the Auditor General’s report does not assure us that eight million dollars is the full amount lost via double dipping of these two grants. We don’t know whether they were able to trace applicants who used different forms of identification on their applications. I hope that they checked but it may not even have been possible given the current state of our data. This is a reminder of the value of a unified identifier for every citizen if we are truly to reap the benefits of digitisation.

What of the other grants, I hear you ask. Blocking leakage of scarce resources through double dipping with these two grants was simple to the point of being childlike. Yet we failed. Our leaders casually wash their hands of any responsibility and they express no concern for how other more complex grants might have been similarly or more outrageously abused. It should concern us all that such simple and effective checks and balances were overlooked or deliberately blocked.

To many, this disclosure is of little concern, reflecting a loss of “only” eight million dollars. I take the opposite point of view. I hear alarm bells ringing, alerting us to a raging fire of abuse of the rescue funds that we shall be repaying for decades. I have no doubt about the scale of concern we should all have for the likely corruption and waste of our patrimony. This small disclosure by the Auditor General portends much greater abuse that we can ill afford.

If this abuse and others that lie undetected are to be acknowledged and dealt with, as they should, we must have an independent and thorough inquiry into the disbursement of such relief monies. We would not be the first country to do so. It is recognised internationally, in countries large and small that the need for urgent relief created avenues for corruption. Several have now taken steps to look back at their performance retrospectively. This helps them to avoid repeats, now and in the future as well as holds miscreants to account. All citizens should want and demand that, regardless of political affiliation.

Permit me to digress in closing. I have heard our political leaders say that they will not be pursuing those who illegally double dipped. I have two comments. The first is that I have sympathy for the assumed plight of citizens who resorted to double dipping. That of course is on the assumption that the double dipping was not for the benefit of a select few, something we should test. My second point is a legal one. Is double dipping not fraud and therefore falls under the umbrella of the Fraud Squad or similar agency? Do politicians have the power to decide who is prosecuted and who isn’t?

In Tobago we already have the precedent of THA thumbing their noses at two High Court judges by defying their orders in the Charlotteville Mall matter. We now appear to have another unfortunate precedent of politicians protecting fraudsters from the attention of the agencies who were created specifically to deal with all fraudulent acts.

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