By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
SOME employees of the Ministry of Education have been questioned at the Central Detective Unit this week and told they were “under arrest” as police investigate alleged misappropriation of funds.
Police are investigating a Department of Education scheme that defrauded the government of nearly $450,000 by manipulating a system of stipends and honoraria. The scheme was exposed by Auditor General Terrance Bastian in a September 12, 2018 report revealed by The Tribune in January.
The Tribune reported last month that the Ministry of Public Service issued show cause letters to ten people implicated in the scheme, requiring the high level employees to defend themselves against allegations in order to avoid termination.
Police have simultaneously been investigating the matter to determine if criminal charges are warranted. The manner in which that investigation has been handled sparked anxiety among staff at the Ministry of Education this week.
A ministry source said Human Resources officials told employees everyone who has received a stipend, overtime pay or honorarium since 2012 could be questioned by police as part of a fact finding mission. Although human resources portrayed the meeting to staff as an innocuous discussion to help officers understand the payment system, the source said people interviewed claim that they have been told by officers that they are, in fact, under arrest. Investigators, this newspaper was told, then quickly assured staff that they face no real legal jeopardy but must be formally arrested so their testimony can be admissible in a trial. The questioning has centred around basic information concerning the stipends or overtime pay employees have received and the people questioned are not believed to be targets of the investigation.
The Tribune yesterday spoke to a ministry employee who has received overtime pay and has sought legal advice after hearing the experience of others.
“Staff felt duped by Human Resources,” the employee, who has not yet been interviewed by police, said. “It’s caused a big hullabaloo and it’s all anybody is talking about. You mean to tell me the only way they could secure testimony is to say we under arrest? Everyone is saying lawyer up and people are distraught.”
Yesterday, Deputy Commissioner of Police Paul Rolle, who previously headed the police Anti-Corruption Unit, declined to discuss details about the questioning of staff.
He said: “The police are investigating the alleged misappropriation of funds within the Ministry of Education. I have not heard from no one who has complained to me about it and I have not seen anything about it. I know none of the persons who were spoken to and I have not had any conversation with them. I have spoken to the investigating officers and we will look into it and find an amicable way in which to proceed with this investigation.”
Deputy Commissioner Rolle noted the law allows police to question anyone while conducting an investigation.
The scheme officials are investigating resulted in taxpayers being defrauded of $448,230. There was no accompanying formal approval from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Public Service for the alleged fraudulent payments. In one instance, an assistant accountant received 43 honoraria payments of $125,505 in 44 months while another accountant received $61,113 in 32 instalments in 20 months. In April, the Office of the Attorney General recommended that 10 people face disciplinary action in connection with the fraud.