• 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
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.”