Tue | Dec 7, 2021

Citing wait for legal opinion, acting PS defends payouts

Published:Wednesday | October 13, 2021 | 12:12 AM

Acting Permanent Secretary Dr Grace McLean has sought to provide an explanation for the education ministry’s handling of more than $100 million paid to the Joint Committee of Tertiary Education (JCTE) without reportedly knowing specifically how the funds were spent.

In a response to Monroe Ellis’ special report, which was tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, the embattled McLean said that once the ministry obtained documentation regarding the JCTE’s registration as a private entity, steps were taken to obtain a legal opinion on whether it should continue its partnership with the committee.

“The ministry could not have acted based on word-of-mouth information given at the meeting on January 6, 2020, without the supporting documents required to verify the accuracy of the information,” McLean said.

The acting permanent secretary noted that based on the ministry’s assessment, the partnership with the JCTE continued until the legal opinion was obtained.

On receiving the opinion, McLean said the ministry “immediately wrote to the JCTE to sever ties and that they would have to make direct arrangements with the member institutions to collect the administrative fees”.

She said the $11 million paid to the JCTE on April 7, 2020, was the final payment for the 2019-2020 academic year of the 10 per cent administrative fees deducted and paid over on behalf of the member institutions.

“It should be noted that the $199,794.00 paid on June 22, 2020, after the legal opinion of June 10, 2020, was for services rendered and a purchase order, he was already issued, and payment process had already commenced,” McLean added.

But Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis reminded McLean that Cecil Cornwall, the JCTE chairman, reiterated his position at the January 6, 2020, meeting in “your presence” that the JCTE was a private entity governed by its members.

“Our position is that the PS (permanent secretary) has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the Government’s funds. You indicated that you were unaware that JCTE was a private entity. In that regard, it is expected that you would have ceased transfer of funds until receiving a legal opinion,” the auditor general stated.

“Nonetheless, you continued to approve the transfers of funds amidst the uncertainty and the chairman’s defiance,” Monroe Ellis added.

McLean said she noted the recommendation for senior officers to be surcharged in the sum of $124 million that was paid to JCTE and could not be accounted for.

The acting permanent secretary said that the $95 million represented funds between 10 and 20 per cent deducted from the per-student fees for the Occupational Associate Degree (OAD) that were paid to the JCTE.

She said this amount would have otherwise gone to the institutions that offered the programmes.

“As per MOU, with each institution, 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 to them was used for,” McLean said.

Further, she said that the $29 million transferred to the JCTE was for services the committee conducted and for conference fees where persons attended.

However, Monroe Ellis said her position remained unchanged, noting that the JCTE and the ministry must account for all funds under their stewardship.

“Both have an obligation under law to maintain and provide adequate accounting records, such as original supplier invoices, bank statements, and payment vouchers. Invoices from JCTE do not replace the need for original suppliers invoices,” the auditor general maintained.