Fisheries Ministry audit reveals mismatched expenses, widespread abuse of fuel subsidies

The Auditor General’s report on the Fisheries Ministry for 2010 reflects “differences in interpretations” rather than actual fraud in the ministry, Minister of State for Fisheries and Agriculture, Dr Hussein Rasheed has claimed.

Dr Hussein Rasheed served as the Ministry’s Finance Executive from 2010 to 2012.

Parliament’s Finance Committee is currently investigating issues raised in the audit report published earlier this year. The committee on Tuesday summoned Fisheries Minister Ahmed Shafeeu and senior officials of the ministry for questioning.

Committee members expressed concern over the audit report findings. Committee Chair Ahmed Nazim said there was a “systematic problem” in the ministry, while MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa said “nothing had gone right”.

The Auditor General’s report highlighted several cases of the ministry’s failure in adhering to financial laws and regulations.

Issues raised in the report include discrepancies between financial reports submitted by the ministry for audit and actual expenses records kept by the ministry, reporting of unspent figures as expenses in the ministry’s financial report, failure to collect fines and other money owed to the state, bypassing bidding and tender processes in awarding projects, and irregularities in releasing fishing subsidies, among other things.

The disparities between financial statements submitted by the ministry and financial records at the ministry amount to a difference of more than Rf 4 million (US$260,000). The audit report said the ministry had reported unspent money in bank accounts and safes across different atoll and island offices as expenditure in the finance report.

However Rasheed said the ministry considered money deposited to island and atoll accounts for different projects as expenses.

“We record them as expenses after dispersing the money to the atolls. But the Auditor General considers it spent only after the money reaches the pockets of who it was meant for. The money is there in the accounts. It is not lost. This is just a matter of difference in interpretation,” said Rasheed.

He further said that although the ministry had officially responded to the draft audit report sent by the Auditor General, the ministry’s comments did not seem to have been considered in the final audit report.

“We cleared a lot of issues in our response. But the public is only exposed to the contents of the audit report which does not include any of the ministry’s comments. I am quite sad at the distortion of truth by some critics that has unjustly affected the ministry’s reputation,” said Rasheed.

The audit report expressed concern over the failure of the ministry to take action against bad contractors. It stated that in several cases where contractors had failed to finish the project on time, despite several deadline extensions, the ministry had not taken any action to collect fines and liquidated damages owed to the ministry by law.

The report also said the ministry had made payments to contractors without adequate evaluations of their work and to parties who did not meet the required standards for projects.

Rasheed said some of the contracts were signed before the change of government in 2008 and their contents did not always allow the ministry to take action.

Regarding the missing contents in the ministry’s safe, recorded in the audit report, Rasheed said he was confident that “under my authority and knowledge, nobody took away any money.”

“The auditors emptied the contents of the safe on a table which had books and other things already on it. That day they concluded that one envelope was missing from the safe but we later found it and informed the Auditor General’s office,” explained Rasheed.

Commenting on the accusation that the ministry had failed to properly maintain attendance records, Dr Rasheed said the audit report was compiled when the ministry had just started using a new security system after shifting to Velaanaage. He said the system registered staff going out even if they went to the adjacent office to use the bathroom. However despite the use of this system, attendance records were still kept as an Excel spreadsheet.

In 2010 the Majlis allocated 100 million rufiya as fuel subsidies for fishermen. According to Fisheries Ministry records, 75 million rufiya (US$4.8 million) was released as fuel subsidies to fishermen. Some of the concerns raised in the audit report included releasing fuel subsidies to fishing boats without collecting any data of fishing trips made, and the issuing of subsidies to non-fishing vessels such as passenger boats.

The Audit Office took a random sample of 168 boats which collected fuel subsidies on a specific date, and discovered that only two of the boats went fishing on that date despite collecting the subsidy.

Dr Hussein Rasheed said releasing the subsidies was based on the declarations made by the fishermen as it was currently impossible to confirm whether a specific boat went fishing before collecting the fuel money.

“This is a very important issue and we raised this concern even when the initial discussions about the subsidy were held in the parliament. The only way I can think of is installing a tracking device on the boats. Like we have said before, we can’t keep a policeman on every fishing boat,” said Rasheed.

The fishermen are required to fill both sides of a subsidy slip available from the ministry to collect the subsidy. The audit report also highlighted 3543 missing subsidy slips printed by the ministry.


Transparency Maldives launches free legal assistance for victims of corruption

Victims of corruption in the Maldives can now seek free legal assistance from experts at a new centre launched yesterday.

The “Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre” (ALAC) established by Transparency Maldives and funded by the government of Australia, will offer assistance and legal advice for both local and foreign victims of corruption in the Maldives.

Victims and witnesses of corruption can call the centre’s toll free number – (800) 300 3567 – and lodge their concerns and complaints anonymously.

The ALAC aims to provide legal assistance to victims and abolish corrupt practices in the nation through collaborations with relevant government and state institutions, private organisations and individuals and other stakeholders.

A Memorandum of Understanding has already being signed between the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and the centre. Further negotiations are ongoing with 18 different organisations including the Elections Commission, Civil Court, Local Government Authority, Police Integrity Commission and Maldives Customs Service to discuss ways to collaborate in the centre.

Speaking at the ALAC launching ceremony, President of the ACC Hassan Luthfy welcomed the initiative to open the centre and called on stakeholders to lend their support to make the effort a success.

“The ACC stands to gain the most benefit from ALAC. The centre would make the commission’s work a lot more efficient,” Luthfy said.

Luthfy also expressed his satisfaction with the NGO in general adding that the ACC had received the most assistance from Transparency Maldives since the commission was formed.

Speaking at the ceremony, Executive Director of Transparency Maldives Ilham Mohamed highlighted the importance of assistance from relevant institutions in the advocacy projects currently undertaken by the NGO.

Transparency Maldives is currently in the process of formulating a new Anti-Corruption bill, Right to Information bill, Transparency in Political Party Financing bill and a bill on increasing transparency in the Decentralisation programme.

“While we are working on these bills it is very important for different people to offer their input into the process. We need more people to discuss their ideas with us, more debates on public forums or in the media. It would make the bills more complete,” said Ilham Mohamed.

The ALAC will also address issues related to labour authorities and human trafficking – one of Transparency Maldives’ “biggest concerns” at present.

Project Director of Transparency Maldives, Aiman Rasheed, said “the whole system [of expatriate labour] is just so corrupt. So we have an agreement to bring a member of staff from Transparency Bangladesh here over the next year to help us deal with complaints from Bangladeshi workers,” he said.

The Maldives rose slightly to rank 134 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2011, a mild improvement on 2010 when the Maldives was ranked 143th – below Zimbabwe.

Rasheed said at the time that the ranking could not be compared year-to-year, especially in the Maldives where there were only a three sources used to determine the index (India has six).

“Corruption in the Maldives is grand corruption, unlike neighbouring countries where much of it is petty corruption,” Rasheed said. “In the Maldives there is corruption across the judiciary, parliament and members of the executive, all of it interlinked, and a systemic failure of the systems in place to address this. That why we score so low.”

Maldivians voted in the country’s first democratic elections in 2008 bringing an end to the 30-year rule of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The first democratically elected President resigned in February following mutiny from security forces allegedly loyal to the former dictator.


JSC members ‘too busy’ to meet and adopt Standards of Procedure

The need to spend quality time with family, party political duties, and other outside commitments has prevented the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) from meeting to adopt its Standards of Procedure, now overdue by 10 months.

According to the JSC Act, the Standards of Procedure should have been adopted by January 26 this year.

The Standards of Procedure, or House Rules, are required to set the rules and regulations according to which the JSC should carry out its Constitutional responsibilities.

The JSC is an independent body constitutionally mandated to oversee the ethical standards and principles of the country’s judiciary.

Without the Standards of Procedure, the Commission is run on ad-hoc basis, often according to the discretion of the chairperson.

The day-long meeting in which members were to work on adoption of the Standards of Procedure was scheduled for Saturday.

It was also decided that the meeting would be held outside of Male’ from 9:00 in the morning till 8:00 pm.

JSC Chairperson, Supreme Court Justice Adam Mohamed, excused himself from the meeting citing court work and family commitments on Saturday.

Dr Afrasheem Ali, Deputy Chair and Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), could not attend the meeting as his Saturdays, he told the JSC, are reserved for party political work.

Majlis Speaker Speaker Abdulla Shahid and Civil Service Commission President Fahmy would not be in the country on Saturday.

For Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Didi, the reason for being unable to attend was the location of the meeting. He was unwilling to travel outside of Male’.

The venue of the meeting had not been finalised when the meeting was cancelled. JSC Interim Secretary General Moomina Umar told Minivan News that it would have been a place where members had access to full conference facilities, allowing them to focus on the urgent issue at hand fully.

Moomina also said that subsequent attempts by her to move the meeting to Male’ to facilitate objections had not received a positive response, forcing the meeting to be cancelled.

The ten member JSC needs six members present before a meeting can be held.

On 21 October, JSC Chairperson Justice Mohamed walked out of a meeting in which some members pushed to have adoption of the Standards of Procedure put on the agenda as a matter of urgency.

Judge Abdulla Didi, who excused himself from Saturday’s meeting because it was to be held outside of Male’, also walked out of the meeting with Justice Mohamed, making it impossible for members to put the Standards of Procedure on the agenda of its next meeting.

Justice Mohamed, speaking to media, blamed his decision to desert the meeting on the ‘vulgar behaviour’ of the President’s Member at the JSC, Aishath Velezinee.

Velezinee, along with Attorney Ali Sawad, JSC Lawyer Ahmed Rasheed and JSC Member of the General Public had objected to the continued and systematic manner in which the JSC Chair avoided making adoption of the SoP a matter of top priority.

The JSC released news of Justice Mohamed’s desertion of the meeting immediately, an act which he has claimed is against JSC Regulations as communications with the media cannot be done without prior majority consent of members.

The claim, however, is inaccurate.

A unanimous JSC decision dated 2 September this year (JSC-B1/10/200), authorised Media Officer Hassan Zaheen, Deputy Legal Officer Abdul Fatthah Abdul Ghafoor and Moomina Umar to speak to the media on its behalf.