The Auditor General’s Report on the Management of Ebola Funds for the period May to October 2014 was tabled in parliament on the 12th February this year by the Deputy Speaker of Parliament-Hon Chernor Bah who is also chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The audit was undertaken in order to ascertain whether allocations and donations received for the fight against the Ebola virus disease were utilised with due regard to economy and efficiency; and that internal controls were observed accordingly.
Traditionally, the audit of any institution's finances would normally take place when an activity for which funds have been provided has been completed and financial statements submitted for auditing purpose. However, due to the declared public health emergency following the Ebola outbreak, there was a sudden surge in the inflow of funds specifically for that purpose from the government and other generous individuals and institutions.
In this regard, it is not unusual for supreme audit institutions such as the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL), to carry out audits as and when such funds are being disbursed. Generally, this is to ensure that funds are fully and solely directed to the cause at hand and where there are anomalies, these are promptly audited and referred to the appropriate authority for redress.. As such, since the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) have been in charge of the management of the Ebola Response Funds which are public funds, the ASSL then conducted a real time audit.
This report attracted a lot of public attention as it was widely discussed on traditional media such as radioand television,and in newspapers; as well as social media like Facebook and WhatsApp. It was also a topical issue at public gatherings within and outside the country.
There were lots of controversies surrounding certain legal issues on who had the power to act on the report. According to the Anti- Corruption Commissioner, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, the ACC has the legal mandate to act on issues that border on corruption. This led the ACC to invite 39 individuals whose names were highlighted in the report, to appear before it. However, this was countered by the majority leader in parliament, Hon. Ibrahim Bundu who made it clear that it was only parliament that has the legal mandate to act on the report. He further advised the ACC invitees not to heed the invitation regarding the Ebola report. However a compromise was struck by both parliament and the ACC and on the 25th February, the Public Accounts Committee of parliament started a public hearing on the report at Committee Room No 1. The hearings generated a lot of interest and were always well attended with lots of public officials, citizens,journalists and diplomats in attendance. Hearings were also broadcast live on national radio and television.
At the the opening session, the Auditor General, Mrs Lara Taylor-Pearce, while addressing the hearing, defined auditing as an independent and systematic examination of books, accounts, documents and vouchers of an organisation to ensure that they have been properly maintained as required by law. She pointed out that as auditors, they draw their conclusions and make recommendations based on evidence presented by the audited agency during the course of the audit. The Auditor General stressed that for the purpose of clarity, the public should know that during the course of auditing, the burden of proof rests with the audited institution and not the auditors.
The Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Chernor Bah, who also doubles as Chairman of the PAC, referred to PAC as one of the standing committees in parliament whose functions are outlined in the rules of procedures of parliament. He said among other things that parliament should be guided by public opinion, but should not be led by it. He craved the indulgence of the public to give parliament time to do its work as stipulated in the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone
Mr Tamba Momoh, Deputy Auditor General, Specialised Audits informed the audience that during the course of the audit, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the Emergency Operational Centre were the two clients that were audited. He said, before commencing the audit of the Ebola funds, an engagement letter which gave detailed information about the purpose of the audit was sent to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation on the 2nd of October, 2014 which he said was signed and returned to the Audit Service as a demonstration of their willingness to cooperate with the ASSL in the process. He further said an open conference meeting was held with the management of MOHS on 8th October, at the MOHS.
During the deliberations, the Director of Financial Resources in the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Mr. Festus A. Kuyembeh disclosed that he realised during the course of the audit, that there were cheques dishonoured by the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank. He told the committee that based on the advice of the auditors, he wrote to the donors and some of them subsequently did what was required for the cheques to be honoured. However, Mr Kuyembeh later told the hearing that, all remaining donated cheques which amounted to Le 1.6 billion and which were previously dishonoured by the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, were cleared off. The PAC also dealt with aspects of the report that dealt with the procurement of Ebola related items countrywide. It was clearly evident during the hearings that The ministeries of Health and of Transport did not adhere to the National Procurement Act.
The Committee also observed that most of the contractors did not pay withholding tax to the National Revenue Authority (NRA), as required by law. In this vein, The Committee ordered all indebted contractors to pay their accrued withholding taxes to the NRA before the end of March 2015.
The Committee also disclosed that more than $ 2000000 (two million dollars) was owed to contractors for work already done and ordered NERC to provide a comprehensive list of all contractors who are owed monies by government and to ameliorate long delays in the payment of such sums.
In rounding up the public hearings, Hon. Chernor R.M Bah thanked the SLBC for relaying the proceedings live. He commended the Auditor General for the efficiency and professionalism with which the report was producedand also thanked her for being present throughout the hearings.
He said “auditing is an exercise that aids government’s transparency and accountability aspirations, and should not be frowned upon or taken as offensive.” He said the issues raised remained inconclusive until after the report shall have been speedily, debated and concluded in parliament.
The public hearings ended on the 23rd March 2015.