The Ministry of Health, on Tuesday, defended its COVID-19 expenditures, slamming the Auditor General's report on the ministry as biased and unfair.
The compliance audit report released last week revealed that the health ministry had spent millions in violation of the Public Finance Act, whilst claiming to procure ventilators and other medical supplies for the nation's COVID-19 response.
Per the audit, the health ministry's negotiations with Dubai company Executors General Trading to obtain 75 ventilators, were rife with corruption, including claims that the order was placed following a recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The report further highlighted that the health ministry had settled an advance payment of MVR 30.9 million with Executors General without a guarantee, covering 90 percent of the total cost of MVR 34 million. Per the report, the advance payment was in violation of the Public Finance Act, which mandates the state to acquire a performance guarantee by the companies.
Health Minister Abdulla Ameen, along with some senior officials of the ministry and bid committee, were summoned to a meeting with the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, to be questioned regarding the matter.
At the sit-down, the minister and other staff maintained that they had operated in line with the Public Finance Act and relevant procedures to procure the ventilators, asserting that nothing was done to facilitate corruption or illicit enrichment for any entities.
Considering the urgent need worldwide for ventilators at the time, as well as the lacking resources and equipment in the local health sector, Minister Ameen stated that he approached WHO's Country Representative Dr Arvind Mathur for recommendations on swift procurements.
Ameen stated that he passed on the contact and information provided by Dr Mathur to the ministry's Financial Executive Ahmed Aslam, with instructions to determine the swiftest way to procure ventilators.
He maintained that his exchange with the WHO Representative were not "secret, private talks" as inferred in the audit report, but "official communications to attain the necessary information to overcome a situation of national danger".
The minister indicated an email received from a staff at the WHO Country Office as evidence that the exchange was official. He asserted that all subsequent actions taken based on the email did not constitute as unofficial or in violation of regulations.
Deputy Minister Aboobakuru Abdul Kareem and other ministry officials also backed Ameen's claims, stating that they chose to procure ventilators through Executors based on their trust on an official recommendation by the WHO.
The bid committee's chair and Deputy Minister Fathimath Nishama also confirmed that a staff from the WHO Office had passed on Executor's name to the ministry from Dr Mathur, and the committee decided on the Dubai firm after confirming that it supplied medical equipment for WHO.
However, Nishama noted that the staff in question said that Dr Mathur's recommendation of Executor was not in an official capacity, contradicting with Ameen's stance.
Noting that talks of bringing in 200 ventilators began with the policy group formed by the President's Office for the COVID-19 response, Ameen stated that once tasked, the health ministry had requested permission from the Ministry of Finance to carry out the project under a single-source procurement policy.
Ameen declared that the ministry tasked Executors, along with Naadu Pvt Ltd and MedTech Maldives to procure total 149 ventilators, with permission from the finance ministry and the Attorney General's counsel.
According to Ameen, the finance ministry authorised the procurement after referring to Subject 10.3 of the Public Finance Regulations, which refers to situations exempt from the regulations such as issues of national security and public safety. He stated that permission was granted based on the urgent need for COVID-19 response equipment at the time.
The minister reiterated that the three companies were tasked with procuring ventilators, and the payments made with the full knowledge of all relevant authorities.
In response to questions regarding the MVR 30 million advance payment made to Executors without a guarantee, Financial Executive Ahmed Aslam stated that the payment was settled under permission granted by the finance ministry. Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer had authorised the health ministry to proceed in accordance with the Public Finance Regulations.
Although the audit report claims that the health ministry did not request finance's permission regarding the guarantee for the advance payment, the health ministry has denied the allegation.
The ministry explained that waiting for the guarantee would have wasted too much time and that the ventilators had to be reserved within a limited time period. According to the audit, Executors had informed the health ministry that the ventilators were stocked in a warehouse which charged USD 25,000 daily.
Furthermore, Ameen shed light on the audit report's claim that the advance payment was initially to be deposited to a private account, a move obstructed by the finance ministry.
Admitting that the health ministry initially received details of a private account for the payment, Ameen stated that upon seeking finance's counsel, the latter stated that the move required a board resolution. Thus, the health ministry later made the transfer to Executor's account, the minister said.
Ameen and other health ministry officials also raised concerns over the compliance audit report allegedly "glossing over most details", and painting the ministry, as having shifted the blame onto the WHO, in an unflattering light.
He insisted that although the ministry shared all relevant documents with the Auditor General's Office, the final report not only failed to properly detail the communications between the health ministry and WHO, but further did not highlight the urgency of the situation in Maldives at the time.
Deputy Minister Aboobakuru added that the report referred mostly to information attained from other sources instead of the ministry's data and documents, calling it, therefore "biased" and "far removed from just".
In addition, Deputy Directo Ahmed Gasim revealed that although the report was sent to the ministry for comment prior to publication, the Auditor General's Office did not include all the subsequent information sent by the ministry in the final report.
Currently, the Anti-Corruption Commission and Maldives Police Service are conducting a joint investigation into the health ministry's COVID-19 expenditures highlighted in the audit report.
In connection with the controversy, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has suspended several senior officials sitting on the health ministry's bid committee as well as Financial Controller Ahmed Aslam.
Following the public uproar over the corruption allegations revealed by the Auditor General's Office, Minister Ameen also recused himself from all duties until the investigation is concluded.
The ministry is currently headed by the acting minister Mohamed Aslam, the incumbent Minister of National Planning, Housing and Infrastructure.