Though some needy residents benefitted from the nearly $4 million in Covid-19 Assistance Grants handed out by House of Assembly members during the pandemic, others abused the programme in the absence of adequate safeguards and accountability, according to a report by Auditor General Sonia Webster.
Grant recipients, Ms. Webster found, included HOA members’ family members; people who received thousands of dollars of support from other pandemic aid initiatives; and fully employed public officers.
“The HOA Covid-19 Assistance Grants initiative enjoyed some measure of success as it was able to assist persons in financial hardship brought on by the pandemic,” the report states. “There were, however, a number of applicants who took advantage of the programme to obtain public funds in order to accommodate their lifestyle or otherwise obtain grants in the absence of genuine need.”
The report’s only recommendation is to stick with a reform enacted last year after the Commission of Inquiry: Instead of being handed out at HOA members’ discretion, all assistance grants should remain within the remit of the Social Development Department, the auditor advised.
The 28-page audit report drew criticism from HOA members last Thursday after it was tabled in the House.
Some members challenged the information presented in the document, claiming that it didn’t present an accurate picture of some of the circumstances surrounding the grants. Mitch Turnbull (R-D2), for instance, clarified that a $4,000 grant he issued to Sharia de Castro, sister of Sharie de Castro (R-at large), was used for educational purposes on Jost Van Dyke.
“What [the report] doesn’t state is that all documentation which was required was submitted by myself,” he said. “I take this job and this responsibility toward the people very seriously, and I believe there’s a little more diligence that could’ve been exhibited in the way that this report was prepared.”
Call for ‘context’
Opposition member Marlon Penn said he wanted to provide more “context” on the information in the report.
“The elements that we discussed and agreed upon in the final document is missing [from the report],” he said. “The absence of context would make it look like individuals are greedy and came to the HOA and got thousands of dollars without justification.”
He gave the example of Marilyn Marquis, who he said needed a “life-saving” surgery and was awarded $10,000 by Julian Fraser (R-D3).
According to the report, however, other recipients were not so needy.
“The ‘demonstrated hardship’ requirement for the Covid-19 awards were not immediately discernable in these cases,” according to the report. “A payment of $5,000 was made to one individual to cover his credit card and telephone balances, $5,000 made to another relative for car repairs, and $5,000 to yet another towards purchasing a vehicle.”
Cabinet approved the Covid-19 assistance grants programme on Sept. 8, 2020 as part of a response plan spurred by the economic effects of the pandemic.
Grant funds totalling $3,900,000 were distributed equally between the 13 elected HOA members, who each received $300,000 to assist people in need. The programme guidelines stipulated that assistance should cover projects and programmes to help people with hurricane preparedness issues and other hardships experienced as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The audit report, which was laid on the table last week in the HOA, was the result of a recommendation made in the COI report, in which Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom suggested separate audits into the HOA assistance grants and other Covid-19 assistance programmes.
In the COI report, Sir Gary found that the HOA’s Covid-19 grant programme was executed poorly and that funds were essentially distributed at the sole discretion of individual HOA members, resulting in grant money being used to settle pre-pandemic obligations and being paid to some public officers whose salaries had not been affected by the pandemic.
Ms. Webster echoed those findings.
“The HOA Assistance Grants initiative was formulated to address the immediate and urgent needs of such persons and others who suffered hardship as a result of the pandemic,” she stated in her report. “The absence of controls in the programme led to multiple [cases of] abuses and the award of public funds to ungenuine applications.”
The programme also set out several other rules, but many of them were broken, the auditor found. Applicants, for instance, were supposed to be required to specify which representative they were seeking assistance from and to provide the following information: employment status, purpose for the grant, amount requested, salary at the date of the application, personal identification, and documentary evidence of hardship, according to the report.
But those requirements often weren’t met, the auditor found. Instead, some grants were approved without evidence of genuine needs brought on by the effects of Covid-19, according to the report.
Additionally, there was no tracking mechanism in the programme or any initiative to refer applicants to other Covid-19 programmes better suited for them, which led in some cases to duplicate awards going to the same applicant, the report stated.
One resident made several applications, submitting different residential addresses on two of them and ultimately receiving awards from seven representatives totalling $9,200, according to the auditor.
Another applicant submitted three variations of her name and received four grants totalling $8,500, the report stated.
Under the programme rules, representatives were not allowed to award grants to immediate family members, but they were permitted to — and did — award them to the parents or siblings of other HOA members, the report stated.
Additional requirements included a $5,000 cap on each grant unless the financial secretary approved a larger one; the implementation of a tracking system to prevent the award of multiple grants to one person; and the prohibition of assistance to any organisation not registered or operating in the territory.
“The requirement for the financial secretary to review and approve all exceptions to the programme, including applications for amounts in excess of $5,000, was not adhered to,” Ms. Webster added.
Only four payments over $5,000 were reviewed by the financial secretary, all of which related to community or district projects. The 13 others were approved by then-Premier Andrew Fahie.
The oversized grants ranged from $5,500 to $12,500, with five grants totalling $10,000 or more.
Ms. Webster also found numerous instances of grants being awarded to the same individual across different assistance programmes operated during the pandemic. Twelve people, for instance, received HOA assistance grants as well grants from the farmers and fishers initiative or the Small Business Assistance Programme.
In some cases, recipients got grants from all three programmes, receiving as much as $50,000, Ms. Webster wrote.
Third-party rule broken
Another requirement — paying the grants to third parties rather than individuals directly — was frequently disregarded as well, according to the auditor.
Of about $3.8 million disbursed, 73 percent was given directly to the applicants instead of vendors. The representatives with the lowest compliance in this category included Mr. Fahie (2.7 percent); then-Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer (2.1 percent); and Mr. Turnbull (8.1 percent).
In contrast, Shereen Flax-Charles had the highest compliance rate, awarding 86.3 percent of her funds directly to vendors, according to the report.
“The effect of this was greater accountability and a larger pool of individuals served from the funds,” the auditor wrote.
‘Limited time and resources’
Ms. Webster acknowledged that the programme was driven by representatives in “an environment with limited time and resources,” which “may have contributed to the absence of adequate review of the applications and non-compliance with the guidelines.”
The report also explained that the audit included a review of applications submitted to each representative, a review of the payments made, dialogue with HOA staff, and a questionnaire completed by the HOA clerk.
The audit also faced limitations: Unsuccessful applications were not submitted for audit review and a full database of applicants submitted by the HOA was incomplete, the report stated.
The auditor eventually received a full list, but the delay hampered her review, according to the report.