Ghost Payment? US Auditors Question US$1.5m Ebola Burial team Fund

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By Festus Poquie

Audit of US Ebola response programs in Liberia points to risk of fraud in burial team payments
Audit of US Ebola response programs in Liberia points to risk of fraud in burial team payments

The United States government audit of selected Ebola response activities, which USAID and its partner – Global Communities managed and implemented shows money intended for burial team could have landed in wrong hands.

US auditors are examining financial records across West Africa to establish whether the little over US$1billion spent in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to finance the American government’s response in halting the Ebola Virus epidemic that rocked the region was appropriately and accurately utilized.

The US provided the largest amount of money towards the grand fight against the Ebola disease, obligating US$1.7 billion. Federal auditors and investigators are now performing 13 different audits and reviews to ascertain the accuracy of obligations, disbursements and accountability of reported amounts.

One audit has been concluded in Guinea, where auditors detected flawed contracts.

In Liberia, there are ongoing audit, and investigation focusing amongst others, the awarding of contracts and financial performance of implementing entities.

The audit focusing on Global Communities response activities in the country has been concluded with findings indicating the entity did not exercise sufficient controls over payments to burial and disinfectant team members.

Due to the absence of control that could validate payment trail the audit established the program was assonated with fraud and duplicated payment risk.

Global Communities in accordance with the contract reached with the American should have paid monthly salaries to each burial and disinfection team member to carried out their duties safely and effectively in all 15 counties.

The award documents, the auditors said required the implementer to establish a transparent and secure system that required payees to acknowledge receipt of payment. The award further stipulated that the implementer would use an electronic payment system. But Global Communities did not follow the rules.

The entity paid salaries to burial and disinfectant team members in cash and made to  sign next to their names, indicating they had received payment.

But the audit said “According to burial teams in three counties, team members did not have proof of identity documents such as national cards, voter cards, or driver’s licenses to confirm identification. Implementer officials confirmed that members did not present identification at the time of payment. Rather, program officials relied on the team leader’s knowledge of the team members.

“The implementer had not established more controls because of the team members’ circumstances. The implementer paid all burial and disinfection team members in cash, a high-risk form of payment, because most of them did not have bank accounts.

“Implementer and USAID/Liberia officials explained that banking services are not easily accessible in some parts of the country. While some team members could open a bank account if asked to, others would find this a hardship because of the transportation costs associated with getting to the nearest bank and bank charges. The implementer paid team members without verifying their identities because, as team members, implementer officials, and information from USAID/Liberia corroborated, many Liberians do not have identification documents—national cards, voter cards, or driver’s licenses”

According to the implementer, the total estimated value of payments to team members under the program was $1.5 million.

However, the auditors rejected USAID and Global Communities justification for cash payment with no identification card.

The Audit: “Paying salaries in cash without verifying identities is risky: a team member could collect his own salary and that of an absent member and sign for both, or team members could claim the program did not pay them. As a best practice to reduce the risk of fraud in another award, USAID/Liberia’s Financial Management Office reimburses government workers only if they have a bank account. This added layer of control would mitigate the risk of improper or duplicate payment.

“We therefore recommend the following : In coordination with Global Communities, implement procedures to improve controls over payments to burial and disinfection team members by depositing salaries directly in bank accounts when possible or confirming team members’ identities with identification cards.”

Regarding the US$6million purchased vehicles, the auditors pointed out the program did not start to develop transition plans for disposing of key assets .

“Without transition plans, the value remaining in the vehicles could be wasted, and the burial site could fall into disrepair, it observed.

According to the audit, Global Communities was awarded a 4-month grant for $758,864 on August 22, 2014, to implement the Assisting Liberians with Education to Reduce Transmissions Program. Four modifications extended the award through October 21, 2015, and increased the total amount to $32.1 million.

The objective of the program was to promote community preparedness for and responsiveness to exposure to Ebola in Liberia through community engagement focused on case management and social mobilization and communications. Additionally, the program conducted some contact-tracing4 activities, which spanned both case management and surveillance and epidemiology.

Thus, with respect to Global Communities’ response activities the validity the audit said “the way the implementer collected data reduced confidence in the reported results—for instance, on the indicator Average percentage of total burials completed with a 24-hour countywide response time. Global Communities staff used the date of death provided by the family of the deceased (say, 1:00 a.m. on September 6) and reported as completed within 24 hours any burials done by the following day (by 11:59 p.m. on September 7). Calculated in this way, the time could easily exceed 24 hours, extending to nearly 48 hours. Either using the number 48 in the wording of the indicator or not including burials completed more than 24 hours after death would have yielded results that are more precise.

“From discussions with both implementer and OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance) staff, the audit team learned that adjusting this indicator could yield other valuable information. First, calculating performance from the time of the call requesting burial rather than the date of death would have captured burial team’s performance more precisely. Second, comparing the time of death to the time of the call for burial could provide indirect information on the effectiveness of social mobilization.”