By Landing Ceesay
Mrs. Santang B. Houma, the Financial Controller at the Ministry of Health Project Coordination Unit, testified in court today that the Global Fund grants undergo a thorough audit process following the completion of projects.
Mrs. Houma, serving as the first prosecution witness (PW1) in the corruption, theft, and economic crimes trial involving three Ministry of Health officials, was subjected to questioning by defense lawyer Lamin S. Camara.
Mrs. Houma conveyed her comprehensive institutional knowledge of programs executed at the Ministry of Health from 2018 to the present.
In her capacity as the Financial Controller, Mrs. Houma disclosed her involvement in disbursing GMD 11,470,023 to sub-recipients for project implementation within the Health Ministry. She clarified that the disbursement adheres to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Ministry of Health and their implementing partners.
“When these funds are disbursed to the sub-recipients, does the Ministry of Health have a say on how they are utilized except that it must be for the eligible activities,” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
“The only say the Ministry of Health has is that the sub-recipient utilized the funds for the purpose it was disbursed for,” Mrs. Houma answered.
When asked whether the Ministry of Health had any complaints regarding the funds, Mrs. Houma told the court that she was not aware of any.
“It is standard financial procedure that there is a periodic audit of these funds from Global Fund,” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
“Yes, that’s correct, it goes through 3 different financial reviews or audits by three different organizations. There is a local firm, Global Fund has in the country that has been assigned the review of the utilization of the funds. This is done every six months by the local fund agent, known as the LSA. There is also an internal audit directorate under the Ministry of Finance and the external auditors of the project,” the witness told the court.
According to Mrs. Houma, LSA serves as the fiduciary agent enlisted by the Global Fund to conduct financial reviews of its grants. She mentioned that Pa Soli Kanyi leads the LSA team, and there is a finance expert named Modou Nyang. Additionally, Mrs. Houma noted the presence of another finance expert, Sulayman, although she couldn’t recall his last name as his tenure was brief. She also identified Saihou Ceesay as the monitoring and evaluation specialist.
“So These funds go through a fairly rigorous review system or procedure to ensure compliance?” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
Mrs. Houma expressed a positive response and added that the audit is conducted by the Ministry of Finance audit team.
Regarding the ongoing court case, Mrs. Houma mentioned that an audit took place sometime between late 2020 and 2021. However, she couldn’t recall the exact end date, noting that the audit commenced in June 2018.
In her testimony, Mrs. Houma, as the head of the Finance Coordination Unit, stated that she had reviewed the auditors’ report. The final internal audit report, she explained, is submitted to the head of the audited program.
She informed the court that upon completion of an internal audit, the report is sent to the Global Fund. Subsequently, the Global Fund engaged a local firm to conduct a further review.
“I supposed the report by the local firm sent by Global Funds to do a review would be sent to the Global Fund. Is that not the case?” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
AM Yusuf, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Counsel, raised an objection to Counsel LS Camara’s question, asserting that it was more of an opinion than a genuine inquiry. DPP Yusuf claimed that Counsel LS Camara was seeking the witness’s confirmation of an opinion.
Despite the objection, Hon. Justice Jaiteh overruled it and directed the witness to respond to the question. The witness then explained that in the typical procedure, once a review is completed, the report is sent directly to the Global Fund.
“I am not sure whether that is the case in this scenario. But that is the normal process,” she told the court.
“Is it correct to say that HePDO has been an existing partner to Global Funds and the Ministry of Health?” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
“When I joined in 2018, HePDO was one of the Sub-sub recipients in the implementation of the Global Fund grant,” the witness answered.
When asked about CRS and MRC being sub-recipients, Mrs. Houma clarified that CRS functions as a sub-recipient, occupying a higher tier than a sub-sub-recipient.
She explained that the Ministry of Health entered into an agreement with a sub-recipient, and subsequently, the sub-recipient entered into an agreement with a sub-sub-recipient.
Mrs. Houma affirmed during her testimony that MRC has never operated as a sub-recipient or a sub-sub-recipient.
She did acknowledge that entering into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was a standard practice with MRC while carrying out the grant implementation for sample testing and research.
“Would I be correct to say that the funds in respect to the four components you outlined, were disbursed first to CRS and then HePDO?” Counsel LS Camara asked the witness.
“That was not the case for these four activities. Like I mentioned the other day, there is an MOU between CRS and HePDO,” the witness answered.
Mrs. Houma clarified that HePDO was not classified as either a sub-recipient or a sub-sub-recipient. Contrary to the Ministry of Health’s absence of implementing partners, HePDO was designated as an implementing partner in this instance.
Additionally, she attested that the Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) signed between the Ministry of Health and sub-recipients detail the prescribed procedures for fund utilization.
In her testimony, Mrs. Houma highlighted that implementing partners follow their own set of financial procurement guidelines.
“Since they are not public institutions, they are not bound by the GPPA guidelines,” Counsel LS Camara asked.
“My expertise is not in procurement, but I know as I used to work with an NGO that has its own procurement guidelines and was not using the GPPA guidelines,” she answered.
Background of the Case
Mr. Balla Kandeh (the 1st accused), Mr. Omar Malleh Ceesay (the 2nd accused), and Mr. Muhammadou Lamin Jaiteh (the 3rd accused) are facing a total of 19 charges against them.
The charges brought forth by the State encompass official corruption, violating Section 86(a) of the Criminal Code; failure to fulfil statutory duties under Section 115 of the Criminal Code; conspiracy to commit a felony under Section 368 of the Criminal Code; and two counts of economic crimes as specified in Section 5(a) of the Economic Crimes (Specified Offences) Act, cap 13:07, punishable under Section 6(1) of the Economic Crimes (Specified Offences) Act.
Furthermore, the accused are also facing eight counts of forgery, as stipulated in Section 318 of the Criminal Code, and five counts of theft, in violation of Section 252 of the Criminal Code.
These individuals are alleged to have embezzled and stolen a substantial sum of D24,313,332.26 (Twenty-Four Million, Three Hundred and Thirteen Thousand, Three Hundred and Thirty-Two Dalasis Twenty-Six Bututs) during their tenure at the Ministry of Health. Additionally, they are accused of stealing USD 59,256.00, equivalent to D3,901,829.83 (three million, nine hundred and one thousand, eight hundred and twenty-nine dalasis, and eighty-three bututs) while serving at the Ministry of Health.