The Government has suspended six high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and 24 prison officers from duty on allegations of diverting US$700 000 earmarked for the sustenance of prison inmates to personal use. Fearing an explosive and embarrassing exposé, the officials, who operated a tight-knit chain running across the ministry, Treasury and prison service, quickly reversed a transaction amounting to US$500 000 of the total sum after authorities ordered an audit.
However, the remaining US$200 000 could not be accounted for, giving investigators greater leverage to build a case.
Those suspended are the ministry’s chief accountant, three assistant accountants and two auditors.
Others include the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) chief accounting officer and 23 officers stationed in the finance and procurement department.
An unconfirmed number of officials in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development have also been implicated in the theft, but are yet to be identified.
According to information gathered last week, Treasury allocated at least US$700 000 to the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs for onward transmission to the ZPCS.
The funds, released in tranches in 2013, were specifically dedicated to the day-to-day running of the service, including food purchases for prison inmates as well as fuel, water and electricity bills.
It is suspected the Treasury officials took advantage of known loopholes in the Public Finance Management System (PFMS) to steal.
Working with colleagues in the ministry, they allegedly roped in the ZPCS chief accounting officer and officials responsible for finance and procurement to doctor quotations as well as purchase and receipt invoices for goods and services, which, in some instances, had not been provided. Another group stationed in the stores department would subsequently record receipt of such goods and services.
The clique allegedly siphoned over US$200 000 between January and December last year, according to the latest audit.
Secretary for Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mrs Virginia Mabhiza said the Criminal Investigation Department (Serious Fraud Squad) was now handling the case while a contingent of internal auditors continue to peruse accounting books to determine the full extent of the fraud.
“When we got into office last year, we ordered an audit of the ministry’s books and noted that there had been rampant abuse of public funds that were supposed to have been disbursed to the ZPCS.
“Actually, US$700 000 was unaccounted for and when these accounting officers realised they would be exposed during the audit, they made a reverse transaction of at least US$500 000, meaning they had managed to steal the remaining amount.
“We then suspended the chief accountant, his three assistant accountants and two auditors in our ministry. I immediately wrote to ZPCS Deputy Commissioner Agrey Machingauta to suspend the institution’s accounting officer and 23 other prison officers in the (finance and) procurement section.
“From the preliminary evidence, we have established there are several officials in the Finance Ministry who were part of the syndicate that looted the funds.”
Mrs Mabhiza said her ministry would soon introduce effective measures against such nefarious practices.
“We are now tightening our internal control systems.
“A team of internal auditors is, at present, looking at our balance sheet.
“The culprits involved in this scam will be brought to book once the police complete investigations, which are already in progress.”
The ZPCS has been dogged by criminal practices in recent years.
Last year, the service was defrauded of thousands of United States dollars in a scam involving four of its staff and Zesa employees.
In the same year, several officers in the finance and procurement department were arrested for defrauding the institution.
The ZPCS also lost US$1,8 million after two of its procurement officers inflated the prices of goods and services.