By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Water & Sewerage Corporation’s (WSC) immediate past chairman yesterday blasted Ernst & Young (EY) for “stooping so low” as to challenge his $2,900 meal expenses.
Leslie Miller, the former Tall Pines MP, slammed the accounting firm for being “so trivial” in including the Corporation’s payment of his lunch bill among the ‘other irregularities’ identified in its forensic audit.
EY’s probe of the Corporation, tabled in the House of Assembly on Wednesday, found it was required to pick up the tab for Mr Miller’s East Villa Restaurant lunches even though this was not officially part of his contract. “Although not specifically approved in his contract, EY noted that former chairman, Leslie Miller, would frequently dine at East Villa Restaurant and have the bill sent to WSC for payment,” the forensic audit found. “During his term as chairman, WSC paid $2,900 for Mr Miller’s meals at East Villa Restaurant.”
The outspoken Mr Miller immediately hit back yesterday, suggesting that such “privileges” were common for Board chairman and executives at Bahamian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). He suggested his successor as Water & Sewerage Corporation chairman, Adrian Gibson, was likely receiving similar benefits.
“Every executive or every chairman or every Board has such facilities and certain privileges,” Mr Miller told Tribune Business. “It’s so trivial to be so low and come out with these things that make no sense.
“The chairman there now will have the same privileges. How do you get to that level in an international accounting firm; to stoop to that level. How’s that possible?”
Mr Miller also blasted EY’s finding that he “used his influence as a Member of Parliament” to persuade the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) to approve the awarding of a $5.56 million contract to construction firm, Island Site Development (ISD).
Due to the terms of the Water & Sewerage Corporation’s infrastructure improvement loan from the CDB, the latter’s approval had to be obtained before contracts were awarded to project vendors.
Documents attached to the EY report show that the CDB initially rejected the Corporation’s decision to award the ‘South Andros Water Supply Infrastructure’ contract to Island Site Development.
An August 11, 2016, letter from William Ashby, a portfolio manager in CDB’s economic infrastructure division, said: “The recommended bidder, Island Site Development, did not satisfy the Qualification Requirement that a minimum Current Ratio of 2.0 be demonstrated over the two years from 2014 to 2015.
“Accordingly, in accordance... with the Instruction to Bidders in the tender documents for the contract, we recommend that the Water & Sewerage Corporation award the contract to the lowest evaluated bidder which satisfied the qualification criteria.”
An August 25, 2016, e-mail purportedly from Mr Miller responded by saying the Corporation “appreciates your justification for the revised decision”. However, it quickly countered: “Please be advised that the Government of the Bahamas is completely satisfied with the works done by ISD and their financial viability.
“Therefore, we are not in agreement with your decision to reverse awarding the contract to them and hereby request the ‘no objection’ to the award of the contract to ISD be given as directed by the Board.
“As you might be aware, this is the election season in the Bahamas and we are seeking to ensure that the economic pie is shared among all deserving contractors and, in this case, it is ISD.”
The CDB reversed its original decision just four days later, giving its ‘no objection’ to the contract award to Island Site Development - a company described as “first class” by Mr Miller yesterday.
Defending his and the Corporation’s position, the former chairman also slammed the EY report’s reference to his e-mail as “an absolute lie”, adding that he never used this method to communicate.
“I wrote no e-mail to the manager or anyone else. It’s an absolute lie to say I sent an e-mail. I’ve never sent an e-mail to anybody in my life,” Mr Miller told Tribune Business.
The August 25 e-mail, attached to the EY report, carries Mr Miller’s name and cell phone number at the bottom. However, his name does not appear as the ‘sender’, who appears to be a ‘Dodee Fox’. This suggests that while Mr Miller may not have sent the e-mail itself, it was sent on his behalf.
The former chairman, meanwhile, argued that Island Site Development won the south Andros contract “on merit” and had “the best price by far”.
“Island Site Development had the best proposal in there,” Mr Miller told Tribune Business. “They had the best price by far. Island Site Development is a company that probably can do better work than any foreign company in this country.
“It’s first class, first class. We awarded that contract based on price and merit, and we got quality for money. Their price was the lowest, no ifs and buts.”
Mr Miller also followed Opposition leader, Philip Davis, in seeking to discredit EY and its forensic audit findings by questioning why the company appeared to have a monopoly on all such assignments from the Minnis administration.
“Why is is that every time they [the FNM] win they go to the same company?” he asked. “Why is there no competitive bidding? They go to the same company [EY] all the time without any bids.
“Why is it always them when we have all these accounting firms in the country? Why is it the same firm for every government contract? It’s the same political trait to downgrade the people there [in government] before. Why are you doing it? I’d like to know the cost associated with that audit. Why do these things?”
Mr Davis has written a letter to EY’s global head calling for a ‘peer review’ of the company’s Bahamas practice by its fellow accountants, claiming that it is being used to help conduct a politically-motivated witch-hunt against members of the former administration. Some, though, view this call as an attempt to distract from the audit findings.