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NHT snap search! - Contractor general intensifies probe into awarding of contracts by the state agency

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2010 | 1:00 AM

Tyrone Reid, Sunday Gleaner Reporter

WITHOUT WARNING, an investigative team from the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), accompanied by the police, turned up at the New Kingston offices of the National Housing Trust (NHT) last Friday morning to conduct a snap audit.

This was part of the continuing probe into suspected contract irregularities at the agency.

The OCG officials were armed with a letter addressed to NHT executive director Earl Samuels, informing him of the unannounced records review.

The letter was copied to Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who has responsibility for the NHT; acting Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, Onika Miller; and Howard Mitchell, chairman of the trust.

The team was headed by an accountant and included two members of the OCG's construction contracts inspectorate.

The three-member audit team reportedly arrived at Park Boulevard - home of the NHT - around 10:30 a.m., and for some six hours combed through official documents under the watchful guard of Jamaica Constabulary Force personnel.

Full cooperation

Contractor General Greg Christie told The Sunday Gleaner that no advanced notice had been given to the management and staff of the NHT.

On Friday evening, Samuels confirmed that officials of the OCG conducted a snap inspection of the company's records in connection with the alleged fraud surrounding the registration of contractors.

"They turned up with a letter and we allowed them to inspect all the records," Samuels said.

He added that prior notice of the inspection was not necessary because the NHT was not attempting a cover-up.

"We are an open book. Anyone is free to come at anytime. We are under the Access to Information Act. We have nothing to hide. If there is anything untoward, we would like to know that also," Samuels added.

Mitchell, who heads the NHT's board, was unaware of the audit when he was contacted on Friday evening.

"But I know that we are in contact with the OCG (and) that he is conducting an investigation," Mitchell said. "We have given him carte blanche to go wherever he wishes, to do whatever he wants, and to speak to whomever he wants, to speak to. So it's possible; I don't know of it for a fact,"

Late Friday evening, Christie informed The Sunday Gleaner that his team had received full cooperation from the NHT and that his staff members were returning to the OCG's Oxford Road office with the findings, including site-meeting minutes. "We will evaluate the information and make further assessments," he said.

List of contractors

Christie, whose no-holds-barred posture on the monitoring of the public contract awards process has gained him admiration and disdain, pledged that his team would leave no stone unturned. "We will look at the whole nine yards," he said.

Among documents the audit team was interested in was the NHT's list of contractors under its Small Contractors programme.

Christie told our news team that his office wanted to ascertain the number of contractors on the list. Those documents and other particulars to be obtained from the NHT will aid in determining the extent to which the programme has been compromised.

The team was expected to view all pertinent official documents and make copies of the ones germane to the investigation for cross referencing when they returned to the OCG.

The Sunday Gleaner under-stands that it is likely that the trust's procurement procedures were being breached. Sources close to the unfolding saga pointed out that the government entity's contract awards process is seemingly rife with corruption.

Last Wednesday, the OCG revealed that it had uncovered what appeared to be an elaborate criminal conspiracy involving a group of sham contractors exploiting the NHT.

The probe also implicated at least four NHT employees, who are being treated as persons of interest. No NHT employee has been sacked but those named in the allegations have been sent on leave.

A director who worked at the OCG for 18 years reportedly confessed to involvement in the racket and has been fired.

tyrone.reid@gleanerjm.com