Lusaka Province Permanent Secretary Charles Sipanje yesterday, through the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), apologised to tax payers for the theft and wastage of public funds under his administration.
Sipanje, who appeared before the Committee to re-submit his responses to the audit queries cited in the Auditor General’s Report for the financial year ended December 31, 2017, also angered the Committee members after it was discovered that his deputy and four other accounting officers had made several irregular withdrawals in his absence and concealed the information.
Solwezi West UPND member of parliament Teddy Kasonso was the first one to express disappointment, saying Lusaka Province was the worst provincial administration in terms of public finance management.
“Before I even go to specifics, I want to say that this sitting for Lusaka Province, for me, is the worst so far. My question is, is there capacity at Lusaka Province in terms of financial management? Everything here is as if there is no PS, there are no accountants! PS, have you got the capacity? I am being very specific? Things have broken down! This is the worst ever since we started sitting,” Kasonso observed.
Milenge constituency PF member of parliament Mwansa Mbulakulima echoed Kasonso’s query and equally added his disappointment.
“I want to follow what honourable Kasonso has said, [and] even the people who have accompanied you, controlling officer, who are very highly educated and you don’t have to wait for the public accounts to remind you of this or public accounts to get annoyed! In your earlier submission, you had given us that the releases by Ministry of Finance; this is the column and on your own, you have submitted that this is what you had released to various departments giving us the variances. And that is the reason why you are saying this under-funding must be explained,” Mbulakulima said.
“Now, on your own, you have brought another schedule, which changes everything. Acting financial director, you know from accounting point of it the importance of materiality. Now with this shift, surely, do you think you can go to any conference or any meeting and then you survive, you expect people to just clap for you? What will stop us thinking that you are now just window dressing? You are just trying to cover-up. I feel very disappointed!”
Sipanje in his response conceded the irregularities under his administration and detailed them.
“Obviously, I do have the capacity, but as I had indicated earlier on, chair, things at Lusaka Provincial Administration went terribly wrong, why? This is an institution, which if you know the structure of the province, the Permanency Secretary is assisted by senior officers and very key, the deputy Permanent Secretary, who also chairs the finance committee, and also the principal accountant. Now, if you have the same people who are supposed to be assisting the CEO of the institution; officers who are also signatory to all the accounts and they are the ones in the forefront to do wrong things, a lot of information was concealed,” narrated.
He said having served as PS for seven years, this provincial report was the worst ever among all his reports.
“When these anomalies were discovered, I was also shocked and if I show you the schedule, with your permission, the way monies had been withdrawn during the period I had taken leave; as you might be aware I am entitled to 42 working days and there is a requirement that we all take leave. There is no commutation of days because of austerity measures. With your permission, I will show you the schedule on how money was withdrawn when I was on leave and how money was signed for by the deputy Permanent Secretary and the principal accountant. Because these are two officers who had done wrong things, they had to conceal a lot of things. But, yes, I agree [that] wrong things were done and that is why four accounting officers have already been dismissed and one senior DPS (deputy Permanent Secretary is under suspension pending his further determination of his case,” Sipanje explained as he displayed a schedule of withdrawals amounting to over K2.2 million.
“Having been Permanent Secretary for seven years, this has also been one of my worst reports, I can confirm. Through you, chair, we, as provincial administration, would also like to say: ‘sorry’ to the tax payers,” Sipanje submitted.
But Mbulakulima told the sorrowful PS to stop handing public funds as if it were “his father’s petty cash.”
“We are not going to gloss over this matter, it is one of those issues that we should stand firm on and ensure that justice prevails. Public funds must be recovered. You cannot be playing with money like it’s your father’s petty cash! So, we call upon the law enforcement agencies because sometimes also they relax a lot. Issues of this nature must be taken seriously and at a faster rate, [but] of course, without a miscarriage of justice and that way we are going to restore confidence on the Zambian people,” Mbulakulima said.
In sending off the controlling officer, Committee chairperson Howard Kunda asked Sipanje to put in better control measures to avoid facing the same problem.
“And you have conceded here that this has been your worst report on the matters that I have referred to, and that is to talk about poor record-keeping and you have conceded here that poor record-keeping is the reason why some of the queries have come about because some people have opted not to give the auditors the information that they require when they are there. Of course, you have referred that there were some officers, who were just doing theft, just stealing government resources and, therefore, they were hiding the information because they didn’t want to be caught at that time. So, it is very important that systems are put in place to ensure that these records are kept properly. We don’t want in fact to see you here, PS, to come and appear before this Committee to be asked about these issues,” said Kunda.