ARMY officers have been implicated in the theft of more than M4 million meant to pay unskilled workers hired by the Forestry and Land Reclamation ministry in various community programmes known as fato-fato projects.
This has been revealed in the ongoing Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearings in the parliament. The hearings have so far unearthed serious irregularities in the use of public funds in different ministries and government departments.
The Forestry and Land Reclamation ministry runs projects aimed at rehabilitating the environment. Workers in the projects are now being paid in cash, unlike in the past when they used to be compensated with food rations in what was called “food for work” programmes.
The PAC was this week told that the ministry had lost M1, 676,865.40 which was withdrawn by representatives of two unknown companies masquerading as suppliers of products and services to the ministry.
The ministry’s Principal Secretary, Ntahli Matete, said he became aware of the loss soon after his appointment in August 2017 by the newly installed Thomas Thabane coalition.
“The money was kept at the Standard Lesotho Bank and it was mysteriously withdrawn from our fato-fato bank account,” Mr Matete said, adding, “It was withdrawn in two tranches in December 2016 and March 2017”.
“Police investigations suggest that the mysterious withdrawals were made by two companies pretending these were payments for services provided to the ministry. The bank however, suspects that it was an inside job by a banker who has since been taken to court”.
He said the police informed him that they were still investigating the matter and they could not say at this point whether or not the banker worked in cahoots with officials from the ministry to commit the alleged offences.
Mr Matete said the ministry has since resolved to use private security companies to transport its money to prevent ministry officials from stealing the funds. He said they had also resolved to request the bank to directly pay beneficiaries.
He said their efforts to have the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) investigate the fato-fato projects had hit a brick wall after the anti-graft body declined saying it needed to allow the Auditor General’s office to do its work.
PAC Chairperson, Selibe Mochoboroane, told Mr Matete it was not possible for the implicated banker to have pulled off the scam on his own without any assistance from the ministry’s officials.
“Are you telling me that a banker can just withdraw the ministry’s money without any authorisation from the ministry?
“State funds do not just vanish into thin air. We need the names of the investigating officers,” Mr Mochoboroane said.
Mr Matete also revealed that the ministry had lost a further M1, 041, 145.50, stolen in a strong room before it was used to pay fato-fato employees.
He said the police subsequently informed him that two suspects, one of them a soldier had been remanded in custody. The soldier had been assigned to guard the ministry officials in charge of paying the fato-fato workers.
“Some of the suspects have fled the country and the police are looking for them,” Mr Matete said.
The PAC also heard how the ministry was robbed of another M600 000 at its offices in Mohale’s Hoek.
A ministry official, Sekoati Sekaleli, however said no action was ever taken to recover the money after the police’s Crime Investigating Department (CID) informed them that there was no compelling evidence to arrest the suspects in the matter.
The forestry ministry’s accountant, Sekhonyana Letsie, told the PAC that it was normal practice to keep money in the strong room before paying the workers.
He was backed by Human Resources Director Lomile Khasoane who said the money was usually withdrawn from the bank a day before the payments to ensure that it was verified.
The ministry also lost other amounts of M96 800, M48 700 and M17 000. It also lost other amounts ranging from M10 000 to M30 000 in the Leribe district alone during the 2014/15 financial year.
A ministry official, Majoro Khoanyane, said the Leribe losses occurred in the 2014/15 financial year when a group of men wearing army uniforms, and suspected to be soldiers, arrived at the ministry’s district offices, overpowered the security guard and tied him up before escaping with the safe box containing the money.
PAC committee member, Moeketse Malebo, said it was worrying that army officers were heavily involved in the disappearance of public funds.