Last year when COVID gripped the nation, and shut down the economy, the Barrow Administration had to rush to the aid of the 10s of thousands of workers who lost their jobs.
One of their flagship relief efforts was the Unemployment Relief Program, which provided approved applicants with $150 cash every two weeks for a 12-week period. First, it was directed through the Social Security Board, but, when that became too much of a headache, the program was re-directed through the labour department - and that's where slippage occurred.
Indeed, as might be expected when any large amount of public money is spent in a hurry - there was fleecing of the public purse.
7news has obtained a leaked copy of an audit report which indicates that substantial sums of money were diverted in an irregular manner. Investigations are suggesting that deserving applicants were jilted out of money they were due because the funds were accessed instead by government employees at the Belize City Labour Office or persons close to them.
Here's how it worked: applicants had to submit their applications, which was done mostly only through a web portal. Once they provided adequate proof of job loss and their social security number, their applications were vetted, and payments were disbursed via direct deposit into a bank or credit union account, or via a prepaid Top-Up card, which she or she had to pick up. All applicants had to submit their cell phone numbers, which the government used to provide important updates on the status of their applications.
An investigation by the Audit Department suggests that somehow, disbursed monies were withdrawn, but not by the deserving applicants who needed the aid. Instead, the evidence trail is pointing to the interception of those funds by corrupt insiders.
The audit's findings were leaked publicly via a series of screenshots, and for much of today, our news team has been examining them. Daniel Ortiz has that story.
In paragraphs 12 and 13, the audit team notes they asked Monica McFoy to explain why as an employee of the labour department, she did not take notice of the fact that the cell numbers of her sisters and her brother were listed as the locations where the personal identification numbers were sent for access to the funds.
In Paragraphs 14 and15, the audit team asserts that the funds for 12 applicants were apparently intercepted by Misty Usher, the cleaner of the Labour Department's Belize City office. That was a total of $10,800 dollars, the majority of which was already withdrawn from accounts that she or her relative would have access to. Their personal cellphone numbers were found on the signature sheets used by the department for recipients to sign whenever they are retrieving top-up cards.
Then, the cell number belonging to the boyfriend of Keisha Terry, an employment officer at the Labour Department, was used in connection with 3 applications, where approximately 2,671 dollars were diverted. Out of the 3 applications, Keisha Terry was one of the vetting or verifying officers.
When the Audit Team tried to question her about that irregularity, they were informed that she was on sick leave and that she later tendered in her resignation letter. That was a major concern for the audit team, and they have pointed out that this could have made Terry a flight risk. Their social media search indicated that Terry was out of the country since February, and so the team could not interrogate her about that case.
The next leaked portion of the report then focused on an internal investigation from the Labour Department back in November of last year. In that case, one applicant signed to receive a top-up card that was supposed to have gone to another applicant. It appears that this person signed for the card and actually forged the signature of the intended recipient.
The auditors came to the conclusion, quote, "It was, therefore, illogical to conclude that this was a mistake. The fact that Ms. Keisha Terry and or any other officer in the Department failed to notice that someone else willingly signed as another recipientâ€¦ reflects a lack of attention to details and poor internal controls at the Labour Department Belize City Officeâ€¦The matter should have been immediately referred to the Police Department. There was an apparent act of fraud by both the issuer and the recipient, which could have been confirmed by the available records and witnesses. End quote.
The auditors suspected, "the top card never leftâ€¦ and was still in the possession of Ms. Keisha Terry."
And then, it appears that that personnel from Belize City Labour Office tried to rectify the situation about this apparent forgery, and in so doing, they allegedly violated public service regulations and made "unauthorized" contact with Heritage Bank about the URP program, which was in the jurisdiction of only the administrators of the program.
The leaked documents then indicate that approximately $11,700 was paid out to 13 applicants who lied on their applications about losing their jobs. That sum of money was completely lost, quote, "due to improper vetting", end quote.
Then in paragraph 77, the auditors make a very worrying conclusion based on their investigation. They said, quote, "We note that from the Belize City Labour Department, a total ofâ€¦ (114) top-up cards for Phase 1, at a value ofâ€¦ ($87,900) andâ€¦ (1,489) top-up cards for Phase 2 at a value of one million, three hundred and forty thousand, one hundred dollarsâ€¦ that are now questionable as to whether [or not] these funds reached the intended targeted recipientsâ€¦" End quote.
In this leaked report, the auditors were also critical of the instructions which the Labour Commissioner allegedly gave employment officers to increase the speed of their batch vetting. There is concern that they ended up cutting corners in order to meet that requirement.
On August 26, 2020, according to this report, the Commissioner allegedly asked Employment Officers to increase their application vetting process by a "MINIMUM" of 1,000. Each officer was expected to vet at least 150 applications for each 7-hour work. The auditors were allegedly able to confirm this instruction with the former Minister and the then CEO. By the calculations of the auditors, an employment officer would have to complete a call for each of the 150 applicants within an estimated 2.8 minutes, hardly enough time to do any meaningful verification.
Then, in paragraph 84, the auditors took notice of another request from the Labour Commissioner to 10 verifiers and vetters to reach a target of 40,000 applicants reviewed in 1 day. By the estimation of the auditors, each case would receive a maximum of 1 minute. They were allegedly advised to ask if the applicant worked at the company listed and if yes, the follow-up question was to find out when the person was laid off.
The auditors did their own sample verification, and their tests took an average of 5 minutes. They were able to prove that 1 or 2-minute interactions with employers were "not feasible".
We understand that the findings of this report have already been brought to the attention of officials in the Briceno Administration, but because nothing has been done about it for weeks now, it was leaked publicly. Audit reports, such as this one, don't become public until after they have been laid before the House of Representatives. So, technically, this is still a draft report.
In tomorrow's news, we'll tell you about the strong recommendations being made by the audit team for police to investigate these irregularities.