Tue | Nov 24, 2020

‘My hands are clean’ - Bernard defends tenure as permanent secretary in education ministry; slams auditor general’s adverse findings

Published:Sunday | August 11, 2019 | 12:16 AMErica Virtue - Senior Gleaner Writer
Former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, Dean-Roy Bernard
Former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, Dean-Roy Bernard

Dean-Roy Bernard, the former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MoEYI), has come out swinging against the adverse findings of the auditor general (AG) into the operations of the ministry during his tenure.

On March 20, Prime Minister Andrew Holness asked for the resignation of portfolio minister Ruel Reid “regarding certain allegations in the public domain”. A probe is currently under way by the police and the Financial Investigations Division into allegations of corruption and misuse of public funds involving a number of institutions tied to the ministry.

The report, tabled in Parliament in July, painted a murky picture of the operations of MoEYI, as well as entities under its authority, including the Caribbean Maritime University (CMU).

Bernard, who has remained silent since he was reassigned and his new duties “communicated during a near midnight telephone call on February 14, 2019”, is now speaking out and challenging Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis’ report, accusing the AG department of potential libel.

In a Sunday Gleaner exclusive, Bernard said he “categorically refutes any assertion that I bypassed the due diligence process in the discharge” of his job.

He used the opportunity to address several adverse findings, while stating that he was not seeking exoneration.

“Let it be clear that I am not seeking exoneration in making these responses, as my hands are clean and my reputation and integrity remain unsullied,” he stated.

He is challenging the findings of the country’s highest accountant and auditor, on procurement and contract award, contract splintering and lack of monitoring for more than a billion of taxpayers’ dollars.

Responding to the suggestion that the MoEYI did not commence the procurement process on a timely basis for activities in its operational and procurement plans for the completion of works before the school term last year, Bernard’s defence was that “directives were given”. A five-year procurement inventory was shown to the auditors, as well as the proposed maintenance programme for 2019-20 for 130 schools estimated at $1.2 billion.

Bernard was upset that the report stated that the ministry provided no “minutes of site meetings and monitoring reports, despite requests, preventing us from assessing the effectiveness of its monitoring responsibility. Instead, MoEYI indicated that regular informal and planned meetings and site visits were conducted and notes taken of issues and concerns. The notes were not presented. These demonstrate MoEYI’s failure to properly plan and monitor the construction works to ensure the delivery of contract objectives. All the construction works exceeded the contractual deadline resulting in time overruns. MoEYI provided practical completion certificate for only one contract. The remaining eight are yet to be completed.”

The former permanent secretary admitted that the minutes were not provided, despite attempts to have project managers complete same. But he bashed the report’s conclusions, stating that the failure to provide documentation “ought not to have led to the conclusion that the ministry and its officers failed to plan and monitor”. He said he was reliably informed that minutes of meetings which he chaired were given to the auditors.

“How then were these not consulted and commented on before such conclusions were arrived at?” he asked.

‘SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE FOR SCRUTINY’

A permanent secretary, he said, cannot control site meetings, as it was the responsibility of the relevant officers, which he put in place. He insisted the minutes “should have been there for scrutiny”. The auditor general said she received neither notes nor minutes.

He also suggested that Monroe Ellis’ office did not know what it was doing, and he was offended at the use of the term “time overrun”.

“While I am not sure why the term was placed in the report, the procurement guidelines do not use the term ‘time overrun’. This is important, as auditors are required to audit against criteria, that is, conditions are matched against standards – that is, laws, rules, guidelines, circulars, etc., before a finding is made. The findings must also be influenced by the reasons for the variance between the condition and the criteria. The report failed to highlight these reasons,” he stated.

He was also displeased that the ministry, under him as the accountable head, “did not demonstrate that the procurement process was fair and transparent, particularly where MoEYI signed six contracts with the same contractor on the same date, which could suggest splintering”.

“No decision was taken in any opaque or any underhanded manner,” Bernard charged.

He said the use of the word ‘splintering’ was potentially libellous, as it implied and “could denote a conspiracy to deceive”.

The six contracts, he said, were for different schools, each with its own “legal identity and each with its own local authority requirements”.

“How could these situations have amounted to such a potentially libellous statement?” he asked.

erica.virtue@gleanerjm.com