The Ministry of Social Development and Family Services is haemorrhaging millions of dollars in an apparent scheme being operated by some employees who are said to be receiving huge kickbacks and bribes to fast-track social grants applications that have been stuck in the system for months.
This was revealed by Donna Cox, Minister of Social Development and Family Services, days after the 2021 Auditor General’s Report exposed inconsistencies and irregularities that have resulted in state grants meant to assist the needy and vulnerable going into the wrong hands.
The report showed that people as young as 27 are collecting senior citizen pensions, food card beneficiaries obtaining double payments, pertinent information for the processing of grants missing from the ministry’s database, and a payout of $886,350 to 61 beneficiaries whose national IDs did not correspond with their date of birth and four centenarians between the ages 114 to 135 appearing on the system.
In an interview at her St Vincent Street, Port-of-Spain office on Friday, Cox said before the report was made public, her ministry had requested an audit after problems were encountered with the processing of grants. It is now the subject of an investigation by the T&T Police Service and an Investigation and Compliance Unit (ICU) was recently established to “ensure there is no attempt internally and externally to defraud the ministry in the grant payments.”
The ICU comprises 11 investigators, compliance officers, cybercrime experts, quality assurance officers, financial analysts and attorneys.
While many of the alarming issues stemmed from human error, lack of due diligence, checks and balances and accountability on the ministry’s end, Cox said measures have already been put in place to address the troubling issue. She admitted the ministry has also been operating with an old data system that was riddled with flaws, risks and gaps which some people were aware of.
Most of the inconsistencies discovered by the Auditor General are associated with data loaded before October 2019, Cox said.
“It is clear it is a mixture of human error and corruption. I am not here to make any excuses, many of these errors seem to be human errors associated with inputting the data, but there are others which seem to suggest that there may be illegal transactions within the system. I use the word corruption because there is corruption. There is an element of corruption. It is not just human error,” she said.
“This is very disturbing because they remind us of the gaps in the system that can be exploited by the criminal element and which we need to close as a matter of urgency.”
One area of corruption discovered was cheques issued to dead people being cashed. These cheques were returned to the ministry by the families of the dead clients.
“And some of that was taking place . . . it could not have been external persons. It must have been persons internally. The ministry has not been doing what is supposed to do. I can’t only blame the people. There are some vulnerable people who should be on the system and are not on.”
Cox said such encashments amounted to fraud and corruption and the ministry has put in a place a Reconciliation Unit to deal with such cheques.
On the matter of 27-year-olds qualifying for Senior Citizens’ Pension (SCP) grants, Cox said this was attributed to human error and is under investigation.
“The 21 persons who are below pensionable age and are receiving the SCP grants are being investigated by the ICU. You have to understand because of the flaws in the system and problems with the processing and so on persons would find ways to beat the system. These people will have to suffer the consequences of their actions based on the outcome of these investigations.”
The minister was unable to confirm exactly how much money the ministry was defrauded but said the police will treat with those fraudulent matters “from what may possibly be organised crime.” She said such gaps “can be exploited by criminal elements.”
Asked if there was an organised ring within her ministry with the distribution of grants, Cox said: “I cannot totally confirm it but there are a lot of elements pointing to that. There could be.”
It was also found that grants were given to undeserving people. Cox admitted this was not a new development.
“It’s like a criminal enterprise entrenched. This is a number of years. It is not now.”
She said this bothers her to no end and causes her sleepless nights.
“In the ministry, there are supervisors at every level and we feel that people weren’t being supervised properly.”
Action is now being taken against delinquent supervisors for failing to act against wrongdoers, while some employees have left the job. In going forward, Cox said staff must be trained and retrained.
“It is very difficult to pinpoint anyone based on how the process was lax, as to who did what. These are things that have been happening for a while. It’s a culture. Persons would know how to cover up, persons would know how to not say certain things,” she said.
Files of clients who have been beneficiaries of more than one grant have also mysteriously disappeared.
“I don’t know if that was deliberately done so that you would not be able to pinpoint certain persons,” Cox said.
“We have also had instances where there is a query . . . a file goes missing, so who is to be held accountable because that file might contain the information as to the person who may be such as the caseworker or the person who might have been the first point of contact for someone who comes into the office.”
As the ministry undertakes a “clean up exercise” they have also implemented a data verification system which is being integrated into a modern digitised system. The TTPS has conducted interviews with some staff members who have been uncooperative, Cox said.
The minister said she has received information that clients who have been waiting months for their social services grants were approached by staff members who promised to fast-track their applications for kickbacks and bribes. Some clients receive retroactive payments of over $100,000.
“You meet people and they just talk. I have seen people allude to it on Facebook and mentioned that we need to look at certain areas because there are people who are taking bribes or there are people who are asking for money so they can fast track the applications,” she said.
In another explosive and shocking revelation, Cox said they suspect “as much as 5,000 persons” living abroad are receiving SCP and other grants. There are 104,000 SCP recipients each of whom receives a $3,500 monthly payment.
She estimated the monthly payout to the 5,000 beneficiaries at “$50 million that we may be losing based on that.” The ministry distributes more than $4 billion in grants annually.
Cox said the ministry will soon sign an MOU with Immigration Division to put an end to these illegal transactions.
She said people have been receiving the grants because of a worker turning a blind eye or people flying into the country on the anniversary of their birthdays which is the time the ministry would request a follow-up interview.
“So, many people may not come forward now. The word is out that when you come into us, we are now asking for your passport information again. So, we have started doing that to help cut the cost down to reduce the burden placed on taxpayers. When we sign that MOU we will have access to anyone who we have a suspicion on… that we can ask for the information from Immigration Division as to their travel pattern. Once we confirm this we will take them off the system or decide if they will be prosecuted.”
Cox said, she recently found out that someone who has been receiving a disability grant has been living abroad for the past four years.
“This is one case which a family member reported. A number of people receiving disabilities are gainfully employed. The ministry also has to take some responsibility for that because we are supposed to conduct an investigation into these recipients every six months which we have not been doing.
“It is clear people are stealing from the poor and whether it is persons who are staff members or persons on the outside I want the law to take its course. I would like to see them brought to justice,” the minister said.