The multi-million dollar Life Sport programme has been suspended pending the outcome of the audit by Finance Minister Larry Howai. The Sunday Guardian learned that the programme has been placed in suspension mode as the investigation by Howai’s team progresses to the second stage: interviewing people affiliated with the programme.
The programme, according to the government Web site, was the brainchild of Sport Minister Anil Roberts and was seen as a way to use sports to help youths between 18 and 25 who live in at-risk communities. The fall out from the suspension and investigation means no money can be paid out to those participants until after the audit is completed. At its inception, the prgramme catered for 60 participants in each of the 33 areas earmarked for the programme. Each participant received a stipend of $1,500 per month.
When the programme first received government approval in 2012, it was allocated $6.6 million which was increased by $23 million one year later. By 2014, the programme allocation had shot up to over $113 million. The Sunday Guardian has learned that the Life Sport programme has been audited twice before this most recent audit ordered by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, but was never suspended since its inception back in 2012.
The controversial programme has already been investigated twice by the same Central Audit Unit (CAU), the financial investigative unit under the Ministry of Finance which is undertaking this third audit. Former Life Sport director Henry Charles, in an interview with the Sunday Guardian, revealed that he left back in February because of the “inconsistencies” during his short tenure. “I just decided to call it quits,” Charles said.
When pressed further, Charles said he was “not surprised” by what has surfaced with regards to improper spending under the programme. “I was there for a year, and I am in no way surprised by what I am seeing now.” Charles said during that one-year stint, he met with CAU investigators twice and was willing to meet with them again in order to facilitate this third audit. “I spoke with them before, gave them all the information I had during the first two audits,” he said.
But even with Charles’ revelations, checks by the Sunday Guardian show, the programme continued running before, during and after those audits. The Sunday Guardian texted the Prime Minister to ascertain whether she was aware of the two previous audits but received no response. Howai and National Security Minister Gary Griffith were also texted and e-mailed with the new information, but gave no response.
Howai team combs through books, documents from the programme
In keeping with Persad-Bissessar’s call last week Saturday for a financial audit of the programme, Howai yesterday said his ministry had already commandeered most of the documents and financial books relating to the programme. In response to an e-mail earlier yesterday, Howai said that the financial investigators at his ministry have already gathered relevant documents and financial books from the Ministry of Sport and have begun combing through them.
“The audit has just commenced, and the officers are still in the process of collecting information.” The second phase of the audit process, the interviews, are expected to start within the next week, the Sunday Guardian learned. Howai confirmed that “other various officers and participants in the programme” will be interviewed “after they (officers) have completed their initial data collection.”
Chief among the interviewees, the Sunday Guardian learned, is Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Sport, Ashwin Creed, who has only just returned to T&T after a prolonged absence. Though Creed did not respond to several calls and texts to his mobile phone, the Sunday Guardian has learned that he is expected to be interviewed next week.
The Sunday Guardian learned that Creed, as permanent secretary, is also the accounting officer for the ministry and as such has become central to unravelling the disbursement of millions of dollars by the Life Sport Programme, which initially fell under the remit of the Ministry of Sport. The programme has since been reallocated to the Ministry of National Security.
Last Saturday, at the People’s Partnership fourth anniversary rally, Persad-Bissessar announced that the Life Sport Programme would be handed over to the National Security Minister, but Griffith will not be able to take over the programme until Howai’s audit is completed. Griffith had originally announced that he planned to utilise military personnel to supervise the programme to ensure any criminal element is rooted out, but all plans are currently on hold.
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Griffith said that “raw data” gathered so far, however, showed that “intimidation tactics” were used to bully the people involved in the programme. “But further investigation is needed to confirm that,” Griffith said. “The Life Sport Programme is an ideal tool to reach the at-risk youths, and it will not and should not be subjected to any criminal act,” he said.
Creed back home
Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister and head of the Public Service, Reynold Cooper, yesterday confirmed that Creed was back in the country. In a brief telephone interview, Cooper said that Creed was on “vacation leave.” “He is allowed 35 working days, and he was on vacation leave,” Cooper said.
Just last week, however, Cooper gave a different reason for Creed’s prolonged absence. In that report, Cooper was quoted as saying that Creed sought emergency leave from April 14 to 22. Cooper said then that Creed spoke to him on the phone, and he did not get the impression Creed was “fleeing for his life.” Cooper admitted that Creed gave no reason for seeking the emergency leave.
According to that report, Cooper said that Creed had told him his leave was due to “family business,” then Creed returned to T&T and later went to China from April 28 to 30, on official business, to sign a memorandum of agreement on coaching and other assistance T&T was sourcing from China. He then took ordinary vacation leave from May 15 to 23.
Last month, speaking at a community meeting, Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley revealed that one permanent secretary was forced to flee the country because of threats from criminals. While he did not call any names during his address, the details of the Life Sport Programme, including Creeds’ hasty departure and lengthy absence, were soon circulating in the public domain.