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PM renews assault on COVID food initiative

PRIME Minister Philip “Brave” Davis in Parliament yesterday.
Photo: Racardo Thomas/Tribune Staff

PRIME Minister Philip “Brave” Davis in Parliament yesterday. Photo: Racardo Thomas/Tribune Staff

• Slams ‘astounding’ control, record deficiencies

• But report makes no corruption, fraud findings

• Two non-profits, with 28.6%, not accounting

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Prime Minister yesterday renewed his assault on “astounding” deficiencies with the COVID-19 food assistance initiative even though a 138-page audit report produced no evidence of corruption, fraud or misappropriation of funds.

Philip Davis QC, while tabling the report in the House of Assembly, effectively doubled down on his criticisms of the former Minnis administration’s programme, and the National Food Distribution Task Force that oversaw it, by asserting that two non-profits that collectively received almost $15.158m - some 28.6 percent of the total $53m spent - have yet to produce financial records showing how the monies were used.

Blasting what he sought to portray as a lack of transparency and accountability, the Prime Minister also introduced new allegations. He asserted that some of the fees charged by providers were “exorbitant”, zeroing in on a $6 per food parcel “delivery fee” that was invoiced by Showman Bahamas to Hands for Hunger, one of the non-governmental organisations (NGO) responsible for distributing food aid to thousands of needy Bahamian families at COVID-19’s peak.

Mr Davis said the report by Kershala Albury, president and principal consultant at her own firm, ATI Company Ltd, had uncovered “18 categories of major deficiencies” largely relating to what he branded as poor record-keeping, lack of documentation and the absence of internal controls over how taxpayer monies were spent to feed more than 55,000 Bahamian families after the economy collapsed almost overnight.

He also slammed the failure by two NGO participants, Lend a Hand Bahamas and IDEA Relief, to provide ATI Company with any financial records even though they received $11.159m and $3.988m of taxpayer monies respectively. In particular, Lend a Hand Bahamas received 21.05 percent or $1 out of every $5 taxpayer dollars distributed to the Task Force, its share being second only to that of Bahamas Feeding Network, which was handed $11.397m.

“Ten million dollars of the Bahamian people’s money is simply unaccounted for,” the Prime Minister told the House of Assembly. “We call on those with knowledge of the underlying facts to come forward. Those who have failed to provide answers and evidence still have an opportunity - and an obligation - to do so.

“I’m not casting aspersions. I’m saying that we need answers. I’m not prejudging the circumstances we have uncovered. We cannot say definitively whether we are looking at jaw-dropping incompetence... or something considerably worse..” In a message to the public, he added: “Look at the report for yourself. It makes startling reading. For now, no conclusions, but understand where next we should go.”

Mr Davis used language such as “startling”, “astounding” and “breathtaking” to describe the audit’s findings, and what he termed a “lack of co-operation” in producing records of the Task Force’s operations. However, the audit stopped well short of levying any charges or findings of financial misconduct or wrongdoing, instead focusing on problems with procedures, processes and internal controls.

The report also lamented that several NGOs had concentrated their spending and food procurement with several large vendors, such as Sysco Bahamas (Bahamas Food Services); Super Value; Price Right; Sawyer’s Fresh Market; and Showman Ebistro. There was no acknowledgement, though, that they may have been able to get a better deal on pricing by dealing in bulk with larger vendors.

“NGO expenditures related to the Food Programme were concentrated to a minimal group of vendors and did not appear to be representative of a reasonably proportionate mix (with the exception of One Eleuthera Foundation, who had a satisfactory expenditure mix),” the report by ATI Consulting said.

For Bahamas Feeding Network, “Sysco accounted for approximately $2.7m or approximately 40 percent of the costs during the Food Programme”. As for Hands for Hunger, “Showman Ebistro accounted for more than $5m or more than 80 percent of the costs during the food programme”.

Mr Davis, in his House of Assembly address, singled out Showman Ebistro for special attention. He tabled several invoices or bills, worth close to a collective $1.5m, that it had issued to Hands for Hunger for what were largely described as delivery and distribution services provided to it in its role as part of the National Food Distribution Task Force.

“Some of the records which were kept raise even bigger questions, Madam Speaker. Why were such exorbitant fees paid for some services?” Mr Davis asked. “For example, one restaurant was paid $6 per box for the delivery of each food parcel..... This amounted to approximately $50,000 per month.

“We need answers for this. The auditor is trying to get it. Don’t you think it appropriate that they get it so we have an understanding of what these things mean? You ask yourself: Why pay $6 for the delivery of those parcels and what was in those parcels? Tins of corn beef, flour. It looks like the delivery cost more than the package. Don’t you think any right-thinking person would ask what this means?”

Romero Dorsett, Showman Ebistro’s principal, declined to comment when contacted by Tribune Business yesterday on the basis that he had not heard the Prime Minister’s comments. He indicated, though, that he may respond at a later date once he had “researched” what was said and the context in which the remarks were given.

Meanwhile, the ATI Consulting report said after Hands for Hunger took over the National Food Distribution Task Force’s work on Abaco it spent $1.5m or 32 percent of its budget on procuring food from Price Right. And, back in Nassau, the Bahamas Red Cross purchased $1m or 55 percent of its supplies from Super Value.

Susan Holowesko-Larson, who ran the National Food Distribution Task Force, declined to comment on both the Prime Minister’s comments and the report as the latter was still being reviewed. She previously disclosed, though, that some 1.447m food parcels and vouchers had been distributed to needy Bahamians at COVID-19’s peak. Some 14,427 households, identified as “highly vulnerable”, had been the focus for the $53m, 70-week initiative.

Dr Hubert Minnis, who was prime minister when the Task Force was created, did not respond to this newspaper’s calls and messages seeking comment yesterday. And Michael Pintard, the Opposition’s leader, declined to address the ATI Consulting report until he had read it. “I want to be well-informed in speaking about it given the way the Prime Minister has positioned the story as startling and so forth,” he added.

Mr Davis, addressing the report yesterday, said: “In the general findings, 18 categories of major deficiencies were noted. These ranged from a widespread lack of record-keeping, and widespread inconsistencies relating to the sums of money handled, to a complete absence of minutes being kept of meetings, agreements and actions.

“In other words, although tens of millions of the Bahamian people’s dollars were being spent, not even the most basic safeguards were in place. A government that [preached] about transparency at great length and at every opportunity did not conduct even the most basic oversight of a major government initiative. This audit is astounding in documenting the failures of the government in establishing reporting and monitoring protocols, or internal controls.”

Comments

ohdrap4 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Who says it is an "assault"? The Tribune's wording is too biased.

But I need a job that pays eighty dollars to deliver a package within 20 miles. Fedex only charges sixty to deliver to Florida.

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bahamianson 1 month, 2 weeks ago

No, need to ask him why the contractor got a contract in Andros to build a dorm for 2 million and he did not know about it. How can a contractor get a contract without going through the correct protocols? That is the question he needs to answer. Did we all forget? So politicians need to stop playing games. We are the ones whom are suffering.

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stillwaters 1 month, 2 weeks ago

While Brave is in the spirit of disclosing ....I wonder what's our bill for all the extensive travelling they have done so far. I know what Clint said, but would still like to know the amount, and why why some of that can't be used in the food program. Also, please disclose all the legal preparation that went into the building of those houses....all the legal stuff that the housing minister was asking Minnis for, disclose yours please.
Also, disclose how we are going to stop Nassau form sinking during heavy rain. So many more disclosures we need man..........but your disclosures only have to do with the previous government. Thought you said this will be the beginning of more accountability and that you were lifting the veil of secrecy.

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themessenger 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Speaking of disclosures, have they all, Davis included, finally filed their disclosures as required by the law or are we to be subjected to more of Windy Clints psycho babble?

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Bahamianbychoice 1 month, 2 weeks ago

I am reserving any judgement until the Auditor General completes his review. The report is from an outside auditor that I hear put unrealistic reporting time frames in place and then noted documents unsubmitted. I am tired of the rhetoric that both political parties seem to stoop to.

The bigger issue I believe is the Government asked the NGOs to help during a very tough time in this country’s history. To mobilize very quickly under difficult circumstances. Offered no transparency on what would be the reporting requirements or support in helping the NGO’s get staff this in place to meet those requirements. The NGO’s should never have been put at risk of being given funds directly; Government really put these organizations in an unreasonable situation by not establishing out of the gates the required procurement strategies and reporting requirements. The Government is at fault for allowing tax payer funds to be distributed without tight reporting procedures in place. The local NGOs are not high end businesses with financial departments in place they are composed of volunteers. The process was flawed from the beginning. Think the Government needs to take responsibility as well in all of this.

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sheeprunner12 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Pot is calling kettle black ................ If Davis and his former/present PLP Ministers were transparent and accountable in 2002-2007 and 2012-2017, then they may be able to stand up in Parliament and pontificate about how corrupt and unaccountable the FNM was.

But we all know how bad the Christie-led government with Davis as #2 was during those periods. That is why it is hard to accept anything that Davis is saying at this time. We remember him as Minister of Public Works/Bahamasair/BAMSI/BPL & WSC during 2012-17. BADDDDD

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