Acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education Dr Grace McLean has been sent on leave ahead of an investigation into the use of $124 million from Government coffers highlighted in an alarming audit report in which two senior civil servants have been pinpointed.
The special audit report on activities at the Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE), for which the education ministry has oversight, pointed to a failure of fiduciary responsibility on the part of its officers. The audit covered the period April 2016 to September 2021.
Auditor General Pamela Monroe-Ellis has referred the findings to portfolio minister Fayval Williams to be passed on to the police or an anti-corruption agency for investigation.
In a terse statement yesterday, the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) said McLean would proceed on leave as of today “in light of the auditor general's report concerning fiduciary and related issues at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, and the investigations being pursued”.
The OPM said this would ensure that there is “no hindrance, real or perceived”, to the course of the investigations.
Chief inspector for the National Education Inspectorate Maureen Dwyer has assumed McLean's duties.
The auditor general has also called on the Ministry of Finance to have the two senior officers named in the matter pay back the $124 million. The disbursements included payments made between March 2018 and April 2020, totalling $94.9 million; payments made between August 2017 and April 2018 totalling $21.1 million; and payments between August 2017 and June 2020 totalling $7.9 million.
Monroe-Ellis had identified both the acting permanent secretary and permanent secretary as having failed to implement measures to ensure that Government funds were appropriated in keeping with the requisite law and established guidelines, and that arrangements had been put in place to safeguard government resources.
In a letter addressed to the Auditor General's Department two weeks ago, McLean pointed out that $94.9 million of the $124 million represents funds deducted from the per student fees for the occupational associate degree that was paid to the JCTE. She also sought to provide an explanation for disbursements of $11 million, and $199,000 to the JCTE between April and June 2020.
According to the acting permanent secretary, this amount would have otherwise gone to the institutions that offered the programmes.
“The funds transferred to the JCTE technically belonged to the institutions and therefore an alternative could be to request of the members of the JCTE to account for the funds that were spent by the JCTE, as the member institutions should be aware of what the funds belonged them was used for,” she wrote.
Monroe-Ellis, in her report, had also said the JCTE's leadership refused to provide her with requested documentation, as the chairman had asserted that he privatised the government entity and the auditor general had no authority to review such records.
According to the report, the acting permanent secretary suggested that her hands were tied in the matter and that the ministry would cease doing business with the JCTE.
Another letter contained in the report, from McLean to Monroe-Ellis on December 23, 2019, stated that “the chairman of the JCTE had maintained that the JCTE is a private entity governed by its members and he has seen no documentation to suggest otherwise”.
She said the JCTE was requesting a breakfast meeting on January 7, 2020.
Monroe-Ellis commissioned the special audit to determine if the JCTE was adhering to its mandate in the context of the audit of Caribbean Maritime University, where a possible conflict of interest between the JCTE and the permanent secretary in the ministry had been identified.