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Alleged graft in economic ministry's USD6.7 mln single window project

Fathmath Shaahunaz
03 March 2020, MVT 14:37
Cargo unloading at the commercial harbour in Male'. PHOTO: NISHAN ALI / MIHAARU
Fathmath Shaahunaz
03 March 2020, MVT 14:37

Following a case lodged at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), it has come to light that the USD 6.7 million (MVR 100 million) National Single Window project of the Ministry of Economic Development, was awarded to its contractor on suspicious grounds.

The single window project, which aims to link the economic ministry with the services of other trade institutions across one network, was tendered by the Ministry of Finance. Funded through a loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the National Single Window is intended to provide an integrated platform for trade operations, facilitating hassle-free services for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and Import-Export businesses. This includes the establishment of an online portal for easy submission and transaction of trade-related documents by connecting relevant bodies together.

However, the case lodged at the graft watchdog by a private entity, as reported by local media Mihaaru based on copies of the documents, raised concerns that the project’s contractor, Webb Fontaine Asia Inc, did not meet the requirements specified in the tender, which raises concerns that the project was awarded through means that facilitated corruption. Mihaaru has reported that ACC confirmed the investigation.

One of the main points highlighted in the case was that Webb Fontaine Group had submitted its proposal and documents under Webb Fontaine Asia Inc, its branch in the Philippines. However, the project’s workings are to be undertaken by its main office headquartered in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE is not among the 68 countries listed in the finance ministry's bid document, whereas the Philippines is included. Subject 4.2 of the bid document clearly states that firms from any countries not included in the list are not eligible.

Having highlighted the above, the ACC case accuses Webb Fontaine of deception, alleging that the Group used their Philippines’ branch to falsely win the project for their headquarters in the UAE. The case filed at ACC includes communications between a senior official of the UAE company and the finance ministry, to back this claim. It further accused the main Webb Fontaine office of having carried out various projects in other countries through underhanded means as well.

The second point was that Webb Fontaine Asia Inc in the Philippines had not conducted any single window projects prior to contraction, and thus did not meet experience requirements. Per the documents cited by Mihaaru, the finance ministry’s tender stipulated that the contractor’s portfolio must include a minimum of two similar projects, each valued at no less than USD 4 million. However, the case noted that Webb Fontaine Asia Inc did not have that experience, and that the Webb Fontaine Group had submitted the details of projects carried out by its UAE main office.

This is the first indication that the Philippines’ branch may be a “paper company” used by Web Fontaine as a guise to submit its proposal for the UAE office.

Following the contract signing between the Maldivian government and Webb Fontaine, the Group also released information regarding the project on its website in January, under the name of its UAE headquarters. The details indicate that the National Single Window project of the Maldives is being undertaken by the UAE main office, and that the branch in the Philippines is one of Webb Fontaine’s Research & Development (R&D) Centres.

The case at the ACC went on to highlight that several companies, including international firms, with more experience and qualifications had lobbied for the project at much lower prices. It stated that the government had let the matter lie for five months after opening the tender process, before abruptly “disqualifying” the more capable and suited bidders in favour of an ineligible company, at a high cost to the state.

Stating the above, the case filed at the graft watchdog stressed the likelihood of powerful influence and corruption being involved in awarding. It requested the ACC to urgently investigate the matter, terminate the agreement should the commission find Webb Fontaine Asia Inc to be ineligible, and overcome any losses to the state that may arise.

The matter was first filed by the private entity at the ACC on December 5, 2019, prior to the contract signing between Webb Fontaine Asia Inc and the Maldivian government. The initial case requested ACC to halt the project awarding. However, after ACC failed to act, a second case was lodged on December 11, 2019. ACC informed the complainant that the case has been reviewed and accepted for investigation in February 2020.

According to Mihaaru, the complainant alleged that the economic ministry struck the deal with Web Fontaine during the period of time before ACC took up the case. They criticised the graft watchdog over complacency, asserting that their delay in looking into such a major case of corruption was not in line with the current administration’s zero tolerance policy. They further asserted that awarding the project to Webb Fontaine Asia Inc based on duplicitous documents infringed the rights of other bidders and invalidated the tendering process.

Meanwhile, local authorities have yet to officially announce any details about the project’s contractor. Mihaaru stated that they have reached out to the economic ministry and finance ministry via phone call and in writing, for details and comments.

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