Ministry of General Education Permanent secretary Henry Tukombe yesterday told the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that there had been a cartel composed of officials from the Ministry of General Education, Ministry of Finance and some banks who had been siphoning money.

The Auditor General revealed in the report for the year ended 2016 that amounts totalling K3,488,327 involving 12 transactions were paid to three officers of the ministry without any explanations or documentation.

It was noted that in an effort to conceal the fraud, different names and initials, L Bwalya P, L B Phiri, Bwalya Phiri, Lawrence Phiri, Bwalya Phiri, of the same payee were used for different transactions.

Finance Minister Felix Mutati recently announced that some accountants had been suspended from the two ministries to pave way for investigations.

Appearing before a disappointed PAC yesterday, Tukombe explained that ever since he assumed office as Ministry of General Education PS, he had been trying to uncover the fraud.

“I was appointed in 2016 on 13 the July…to start with, I have been in the ministry for some time now and the guy, the officer involved, I transferred him at one point, out of the ministry and of course he resisted, calling us all sorts of names. But I was promoted and became PS and I reminded him ‘do you remember what I told you last time?’ So in the process of me asking for him to give me a reconciliated statement so that I can know what is the opening stock and what is the closing stock, yes I discovered these things after two weeks. That’s the time now when we opened our eyes and said ‘go deeper and make sure that you discover who this L K Bwalya [is]’. When they called a name, I said ‘I remember. This is the gentleman’. ‘Is it not you?’ ‘Yes it’s me’ and he resisted for a period of time. The gentleman honourable members, he resisted, he denied and I said ‘yes it’s you gentleman that has done this’. We wrote to the bank, by that time, he even moved into finance [ministry], he was almost going into foreign service. I wrote back calling him back to say can you come and help us with the investigations,” Tukombe explained.

“We had chats with the Accountant General just to make sure that this case is put to rest and they all responded in the affirmative. He came back. So the gentleman, L K Bwalya, he was the one at the helm of everything. Yes I wrote to the bank to ask for the 12 transactions and what came back was less than three. They only acknowledged three cheques that time. The rest they could not give us the details. Even when the external auditors, they did the same and I think the response was the same like the earlier one that I was given. So Chair, it’s a delicate issue because it is involving three institutions, Ministry of General Education, Ministry of Finance and also the bank.”

He said it was a delicate issue because it involved a lot of ministries.

“The cheques were kept by the then chief accountant that side. He realized that the time we said ‘can we now have hands on the cheques’ and the cheques could not be traced. I have said there three parties involved and the delicacy of the case might jeopardize the investigations. What did we do after that? We automatically quickly started working with Ministry of Finance, ourselves and other wings. Chair, suffice to say, finance went straight into the system and they realised that one of their officers was involved in this and they were working in a cartel arrangement to say push the money this way and do the following things and the like. So finance suspended the gentleman from there, we also did the same. At the bank, we may not have jurisdiction but there is this financial framework that we sign for them to honour the cheques. And like we expected we are all involved, meaning the banks, ourselves and the ministry of finance for us to address the issue. It is quite a big thing,” said Tukombe.

“It is true we cannot defend ourselves with empirical evidence in this manner to say we are doing everything right. We are not doing right. We have not done right. And we are not just seated because there is so much we have to do…Chair, it all started as a result of the death of the permanent secretary that I succeeded. So I said let me get back to learn because I have been in the ministry and we know each other with certain people. And of course I could receive reports from some areas of other wings to say monitor the following officers. You know, when they are drinking, they flash a lot.”

But Acting Auditor General Roy Mwambwa said had the ministry taken heed to warnings in previous audit reports, the fraud would have been uncovered before government lost colossal sums of money.

“If you notice, in our previous reports, 2014 and 2015, we did raise the issue of failure to make bank reconciliation in the Ministry of Education and I want to believe that that was the starting point because if the Ministry of Education had taken our advice in 2014 to do the reconciliations, this issue could not have escalated into 2016 because they would have discovered it then. But they decided to ignore what we had reported in 2014 and 2015. The government has lost money, the people who were responsible for reconciliations are still in government. They should have been doing this on a monthly basis as required by financial regulations. But the ministry ignored what we had reported in 2014 and 2015 and they brought it up in the 2016 audit,” said Mwambwa.

PAC summoned the former chief accountant to respond to queries but by press time, he had not yet appeared.