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Officials face off amid AIC auditing scandal

Published:Monday | November 17, 2014 | 11:00 AM
Dennis Hickey
Donovan Stanberry
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Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

ALMOST NINE months after the Auditor General's Department revealed that some $202.5 million could not be accounted for by Agro-Investment Corporation (AIC), the investment arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, former and current officials there are facing off amid a simmering scandal now threatening to rock the ministry.

This as an internal audit has determined that millions of dollars are still unaccounted for, with no clear indication of how the money will be recovered and no indication of proper corrective measures to prevent any such recurrences.

Emailed Letter

In an emailed letter, dated Friday, November 7, 2014, Dennis Hickey, former chairman of the AIC board, took issue with Donovan Stanberry, permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry, over his handling of the matter.

Hickey wrote: "I was alarmed therefore to have had a conversation with a senior member of staff of the ministry just yesterday, who indicated that 'next week things a go buss and your world will come tumbling down'. The member of staff outlined the process that the ministry intends to follow as per: fire the CEO (a process which has started) in order to stop the further investigation of the AG's audit, then to damage the reputation of the former chairman and ASCO (Project Consultants Ltd)."

After two years as chairman, Hickey opted not to continue in the position after his tenure officially ended in April. He even turned down a request from Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke that he continue in the position, until a new board was appointed, citing a desire to give more time to his job as executive director of the Tourism Product Development Company.

"The auditor general's report had indicated that $33.9 million was withdrawn from the Agricultural Development Fund during the period March 2009 to January 2012. I have also had same letter attached dated March 26, 2012 in which under your signature you gave retroactive approval for said $33.9 million to be paid out despite glaring misrepresentation (sic). The letter was prepared by the former CEO and there was no evidence seen to substantiate the expenditure. Discrepancies were noted between the amounts quoted on the letter and the actual record examined at AIC," said Hickey in his seven-page letter.

In its 2013 annual report, the Auditor General's Department indicated that its audit revealed serious managerial weaknesses in relation to the administration of AIC's agricultural assets, pointing out that there was a general lack of strategy towards fulfilment of the AIC's mandate, and that it did not develop an operational plan to define priorities, outline performance targets and optimise its revenue potential.

However, when contacted on Tuesday, Stanberry downplayed the issue before directing The Gleaner to seek answers elsewhere.

Not Breaching Protocol

"I am not breaching the protocol. Questions relating to AIC, I'd rather the AIC board speak to that ... ," he said.

Stating that he was "in the middle of something", the permanent secretary then advised that he did not have a contact number for Aaron Parkes, the new chairman of the AIC board.

"I don't have one, you know, because he was just appointed, very recent ... ."

An internal audit done by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in June showed that some of the same issues highlighted in the auditor general's last report were still not addressed and the checks and balances still not implemented.

Everton Spencer, chief executive officer of the AIC, directed The Gleaner to send its queries by email.

Hickey subsequently stated that he would provide a fulsome response by today.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com