OPINION: Another Week, another scandal
By: Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP
Transparency and accountability in the public procurement process was perhaps the most fundamental issue on the political platform of the AFC/APNU when they were in the opposition. Arguably, no other area of procurement was subject to greater scrutiny than the public health system. It is no secret that the pandemonium was generated because New GPC was a major player in the arena. The friendship between Former President Bharrat Jagdeo and the Managing Director of New GPC provided the impetus. Yet, with the barrage of allegations made of irregularities regarding awards of contract to New GPC over the years, not a scintilla of credible evidence was ever presented to support the avalanche of allegations. Significantly, one can hardly recall even a protest being lodged against any of the awards, a facility available under the Procurement Act. Neither was any of these awards ever challenged in the Courts on the ground that they were infected with bias, capriciously done, or done in a manner contrary to and in contravention of the Procurement Act, or any other law.
Indeed, I recall as Attorney General, I defended a Constitutional challenge filed against the State by one of New GPC’s competitors. Its gravamen was that, the Ministry of Health’s public procurement process and that of the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB), were designed and skewed to create an unfair advantage in favour of New GPC and this, was discriminatory against the Applicant. The Applicant was represented by the leading Senior Counsel in the country. I appeared in person. I used the opportunity to present to the Court all the requisite procedures, manuals and guidelines, including those from Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and World Health Organization (WHO) and the Procurement Act – all of which formed the amalgam of the ministry’s procurement methodology. The evidence was thoroughly examined by a very experienced Court, which in the end, dismissed the case, on the ground that the Applicant, abysmally, failed to prove its allegations. The case was never appealed. There is a written Judgment on the matter. In most civilized societies, such a pronouncement from a High Court would have put such a matter to rest. However, in Guyana, the self-same allegations continue to abound, unabated.
Fast-forward to the APNU+AFC in Government. I will argue, and if necessary provide the evidence to demonstrate, that there have been more contracts awarded ultra vires and in violation of the Procurement Act (2003), between May 2015 to March 2017, (22 months) than from 2003 to May 2015 (over 12 years). The most egregious would include, the decision to contract Fedders Lloyd, which was handpicked for the Specialty Hospital, the hundreds of millions awarded for the clean-up of Georgetown, the billions spent on Durban Park, the Parking Meter contract, the Wind Farm project, the four hundred million fertilizer deal, the several deep-water wells given out by Guyana Water Inc. (GWI), the hundreds of contracts being gifted in the Regions in due disregard of the regional tendering system, the rental of the Drug Bond at Sussex Street for fourteen million dollars per month and the over three billion GPL meter contract – all of which were executed without any public tendering system and in violation of the Procurement Act. These examples are not exhaustive, but I believe I have made the point.
Another gigantic scandal
Currently, the nation is faced with yet another gigantic scandal for the procurement of some one billion and five hundred million dollars ($1.5b) worth of drugs by the Minister of Public Health, Ms. Volda Lawrence. It is uncontroverted that this humongous procurement was done ultra vires and in contravention of the Procurement Act and is therefore illegal and unlawful. Indeed, NPTAB was informed after the fact. A week after the matter was made public, the Minister offered her explanations in a Statement. The Statement raised more questions than it provided answers. To begin with, on what basis did the Minister form the sudden opinion that there was an emergency shortage of drugs, when for months she, her predecessor and the Government in and out of the National Assembly, vehemently denied that there was any such shortage. As recent as a month ago, the issue was raised in the National Assembly and Minister Lawrence stoutly denied any shortages. She accused the opposition of misinformation. Additionally, the Former Chairman of Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC), Dr. Max Hanoman, resigned and one of the reasons he gave for his resignation was that, Minister George Norton was refusing to even acknowledge that there was massive shortage of drugs in the public health system. The Minister must proffer a reason for her sudden volte-face.
In the Statement, the Minister speaks about a conspiracy between employees of her Ministry, employees of GPHC and suppliers, to sabotage the public health system, to hold it at ransom and to supply expired and inferior drugs, costing the treasury billions and exposing the nation’s citizens to serious health perils. These are grave and astonishing accusations. It is unbelievable that the Government has not yet unleashed the State Asset Recovery Unit (SARU), the Special Organized Crime Unit (SOCU) and the Guyana Police Force (GPF) to investigate. Moreover, it is incumbent upon the Minister, to make public, the names of those involved in this malevolent plot.
What use is being made of Sussex Street bond?
The Minister contends that she acted pursuant to the Procurement Act. She must state upon what Section she relies. I know of no Section under which she can shelter. The Minister ordered the drugs for GPHC. However, GPHC, by law, is governed by a Board of Directors, whose functions it is to make such decisions. The Board appears not to have played any part in this saga. The available evidence clearly suggests that the Minister usurped the role and functions of the Board. The Minister identifies three companies from which this $1.5B of drugs are to be procured. On what basis did the Minister handpick these three suppliers? The Minister compounds her dilemma by writing to NPTAB informing that she chose Ansa Mcal to supply $606M worth of drugs. Again, no basis is provided for this unilateral act of the Minister. How did the Minister arrive at Ansa Mcal? How did the Minister arrive at $606M? Was there an emergency need for such an extraordinary quantity of drugs?
The matter is exacerbated by the Minister accepting a gift on behalf of GPHC from Ansa Mcal of two storage freezers to store the drugs purchased. What benefits will now accrue to Ansa Mcal for these gifts? Did an offer of this gift made before and influenced the decision of the Minister to choose Ansa Mcal as the supplier? My information is that the remainder of the drugs are currently being stored at Ansa MCAL’s storage bond, for which the Government is, again, paying. It begs the question, what use is being made of the bond at Sussex Street for which the Government is paying fourteen million dollars per month as rent? By the way, we were told, nearly a year ago, that Cabinet ordered the early termination of this rental agreement, what is the status of that decision? Was it simply a decision to appease at the time? From whence did the monies come or, from where is the money coming for the payment of these drugs purchased? These are only some of the questions which must be answered. I cannot close without remarking that the Public Health Ministry has had two full-time Ministers manning the system since this Government took office, whose combined salaries amount to four times the salary earned by Minister Bheri Ramsarran, the only Minister in charge of that Ministry from December 2011 to May 2015. Yet, that Ministry has been plagued with one scandal after another over the last twenty months, with each scandal being more ignominious than its predecessor.
I note that the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) has signaled its intention to review “the procurement process” upon which Minister Lawrence embarked. However, this exercise will be manifestly inadequate to efficaciously address the multiple infractions committed in this ordeal. It requires an investigation and inquiry of a much more amplified scope. The Guyana Police Force, SOCU and/or a commission of inquiry appear better suited.