An audit report into the Agricultural Society of T&T (ASTT) by the Central Audit Committee (CAC) of the Ministry of Finance has unearthed increasing allegations of impropriety, mismanagement of public funds, breaches, unauthorised use and disposal of assets and unlawful possession of State lands.
The CAC conducted the audit dated August 2019, on the request of Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat.
The objectives of the audit were to determine whether governance arrangements and reporting processes were robust and conform to legal, regulatory and best practices.
The CAC reviewed the governance and financial arrangements of the ASTT over the period 2016 to 2018 with specific reference to but not limited to the following:
* A claim of $1,647,430.29 against the ASTT for unpaid rent.
* Payment of monthly fees to the ASTT board members.
* Maintenance of bank accounts by the ASTT.
The 32-page report stated that in 2016 the ministry wrote the Commissioner of State Lands requesting an investigation into the alleged distribution of State lands in Chatham by the ASTT to its members.
It also stated that the ASTT had not submitted accounts to the Auditor General for auditing for more than ten years.
“It purported that the society was unable to prepare it accounts for two reasons-the ministry withholding funding to the ASTT in 2013 and due to its operating records and assets held by its former landlord for non-payment of rent.”
The report showed that the ministry expended $32.8 million of State funds from 2007 to 2018 to the ASTT.
It further stated that since 2008 the ministry had received a myriad of reports and complaints about the society.
The audit found that the ASTT’s act was outdated and deficient to facilitate adequate governance and oversight of the society.
“There was lack of transparency in the conduct of its annual elections, growing concerns and disassociation by farmers groups and members of the society over the modus operandi of the ASTT, lack of accountability and reporting to stakeholders and failure of the ASTT to prepare and submit financial statements for more than ten years.”
The report further stated there were increasing allegations of impropriety, disregard of rules of the ASTT, mismanagement of public funds, co-mingling of funds, unauthorised use and disposal of assets.
It also stated that there was lack of oversight by the Ministry of Agriculture and follow-ups on matters affecting the probity of actions of the ASTT, including unlawful possession of State lands, usurping the role and authority of ASTT’s secretary, intimidation of public service staff and failure by the society to abide by decision and recommendations of the permanent secretary in the Agriculture Ministry.
Two audits conducted in 2012 by the ministry Internal Audit Unit showed that ASTT’s accounting practices were poor and lacked proper oversight in the expenditure of funds.
It also stated that internal controls were weak and this exposed the organisation to material misstatements in its final reports and the likelihood of erroneous decisions and the “possibility of money being manipulated for private gain.”
Some of the findings from the Internal Audit revealed:
Cheque payments were issued without verification of bank balances, cash book was not balanced at the end of the workday, deposit slips did not agree with subscription cash book nor bank statement, correction fluid and pencil markings were prevalent on accounting records, deduction made from certain staff for arrears of salary was never remitted to the Board of Inland Revenue.
To exercise some control over the management of funds at the ASTT, the permanent secretary and the ASTT signed a MOU in January 2013 which set down specific provisions for the use of public funds.
However, the audit showed there was non-compliance with such MOU as funds continued to be deposited into the ASTT’s regular account and not a separate bank account as required.
“It was found that the ASTT president was paid a duty allowance of $6,500 per month contrary to the MOU.”
The report pointed out that the act governing the ASTT was outdated and deficient to facilitate adequate governance and oversight.
It was recommended that the ASTT’s act be repealed and the ministry immediately stops payment of monthly stipend to members of the Committee of Management and consider commissioning a forensic audit into the ASTT, given the plethora of allegations against them.
President of the ASTT Dhano Sookoo in a telephone interview with Guardian Media said having examined the report she observed there was no signatures or names to the audit.
“All I am saying I don’t know if it is a valid document.”
She said no one from the Ministry of Finance visited the ASTT’s office or informed her that an audit was being conducted.
However, Sookoo said she received “a document” from the PS and has given an undertaking of a date for a response.
“I am going to give my response with all the backup documentation that is in my possession.”
She said the Ministry of Agriculture has been spending the ASTT’s money.
Sookoo forwarded a letter dated November 2, addressed to Rambharat which stated that since mid-2013 to current, the ministry took full control over the ASTT’s annual budgetary allocation.
“Recent information discovered through my limited authority notes that there has been ongoing financial discrepancies and misappropriation of the society’s funds at your ministry,” the letter stated.
“I am not a one-man team. The ASTT has a board and whatever decision is to be taken the board will take those decisions,” Sookoo defended her position.
Rambharat in a Whatsapp message said the audit report was sent to the ASTT in the normal course of things to get their comments and in particular the response of officers identified in the report.
“A deadline for the ASTT’s response was given by the PS. It is when those responses are received and considered by the PS, the next step will be determined. The audit report specifies that based on numerous issues which came to my attention and were passed to various PSs in the ministry to review and advise me. I took the steps of requesting the audit. I am clear in my mind that there are issues to be addressed in the ASTT and I have always been ready to deal with those issues once the facts were known to me.”