Foreign Minister in the dock as ACC finalizes Lhakhang Karpo report for OAG

The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) is in the final stages of handing over the Lhakhang Karpo report to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for prosecution.

This case could turn out to be the first major embarrassment to the PDP government as sources indicate that the then Haa Dzongda and now Foreign Minister Lyonpo Rinzin Dorjee will be charged by ACC along with others like Dzongkhag Engineer, Site Engineer etc.

All cases investigated and charged by ACC are treated as corruption cases and charged accordingly.

Fake muster roll payment

One major finding from the ACC report is that the former Dzongda along with the Budget officer, engineer and others had approved what according to ACC are hundreds of fake names on the muster roll for muster roll payment.

It has been learnt that the ACC found this out after spending more than two years tracking down around 400 or so fake names on the muster roll, many of whom had never even been to Haa.

It has also been learnt that on questioning the former Dzongda and now Foreign Minister and other officials after tracking down the names, the Foreign Minister had claimed that the additional fictitious names were put so that the real workers could be paid a higher wage.

This paper quizzed the Foreign Minister on why fictitious names were ever put in the first place and why the minister as the former Haa Dzongda had allowed it along with the committee.

Lyonpo Rinzin Dorjee said, “We hired Chukha Dzong construction people who wanted higher than normal wages. Faced with labor shortages and delay in the project, we in the committee in a closed door meeting decided to internally adjust for the higher wages by putting in additional names of people not working in the project so that the real people working could be given the wages of the other names put there.”

“To start with the Lhakhang Karpo project was not a normal project that required Home Ministry and Finance Ministry clearances. There were already concerns over delay of the project as time had to be spent on planning and the blue print and also skilled workers were not available despite our best efforts. The project also had to meet high quality standards,” said the minister.

When the reporter asked for the minutes of the closed door meeting or any written and signed documents justifying and instructing such a move at the time by the committee, the minister claimed that the committee decision had been a ‘verbal one’.

The minister said that the committee had made the decision based on the petition of the workers for higher wages.

However, no government or finance rule permits the addition of fictional names to justify higher payment to laborers.

The ACC’s 2012 Annual report which mentioned the first phase of the investigation stated, ‘As of October 2012, the total expenditure incurred was Nu 14.390 mn out of which Nu 4.370 mn was against muster role payments. The quantity of work done at the site point to huge fictitious muster roll payments. “The ACC report goes on to say, “Some households had paid Nu 3,000 in lieu of monthly labor contribution. There was also a corresponding daily per head labor payment of Nu 165 from the government.”

Timber works tender

Another major issue in the ACC report is on the tendering of timber works for the project. According to the report the Foreign Minister as the Haa Dzongda had violated laws to unilaterally give the tender to a L.D Sawmill without going for a retender.

The report says that in 2011 a tender was floated for timber works for a saw mill for which around 10 bidders participated.  However, all the bids were very high including the lowest bidder LD Sawmill who offered Nu 37.7 per cubic feet which was well above the market rate of Nu 18 to Nu 20.

In this light the Dzongkhag tender committee decided to go for a re-tender.

In the end the Haa Dzongda in response to a letter from L. D Saw mill had written a note authorizing L. D Sawmill to do the timber works at Nu 27 per cubic feet. According to the ACC the tender was given violating procurement laws as the tender committee was not involved. Later the Haa Dzongda further authorized the amount to be increased to Nu 37.7 per cubic feet.

In an interesting new development the Foreign Minister accused the 10 bidders of forming a nexus or cartel to jointly bid and jack up prices. “This is a common practice in other Dzongkhags causing loss to the government,” said the minister.

The minister claimed that he had a ‘closed door’ meeting with some members of his tender committee who were the project engineer and budget officer and they had a verbal discussion and approved giving the tender to L.D Sawmill.

The minister said with time constraints for a delayed project and fear of the cartel fixing prices they had decided to give it to the lowest bidder.

However, the minister did not explain why the committee awarded the work to the very member of the suspected cartel jacking up prices instead of retendering it.

Also the alleged closed door meeting did not involve all the members of the much larger Dzongkhag level tender committee with various sector heads from livestock, culture, education and health in addition to the dzongkhag engineer, budget officer and Dzongda himself.

“L.D Sawmill was already the lowest bidder and in keeping with finance norms we in the closed door meeting approved the rate at Nu 27 per cft which was 50 percent above the market rate,” said the minister.

However, according to the ACC report there is no such norm and the decision had been illegally taken by an individual.

This paper asked the minister why he further increased the rate from 27 to Nu 37.7 originally rejected by the tender committee.

In response the minister said, “He came to me with an appeal letter saying that Nu 27 per cft was too less. As required by the project management we had forced him to put up a saw mill within the project compound to prevent leakage which entailed a lot of cost. Another justification was that unlike other sawmills he could not do other works and his machine lay idle when there was no project work. The costs were too high for him and so the rate was further increased.”

According to the ACC report no financial rules allow such discretion.

In response to a question the Foreign Minister also said that it was only a matter of coincidence that his wife was construction his house at the same and anyhow most timber in Thimphu came from Haa.

Diversion of construction materials

The ACC’s 2012 report said, “Mild Steel rods had been diverted to the project staff’s friends, either contractors or Dzongkhag officials. The project engineer had received gratification for accepting sub-standard construction materials from the suppliers.”

The report also said, “Construction materials “lent” to friends did not come back until detected by the investigation team. A truckload of cement was brought to the store after a few days of the shortage being detected by the investigation team, in the guise of borrowed cement.” The final ACC report also has details on such diversions.

The Foreign Minister said, “The project management had to retain a large amount of cement and construction materials which did not make much sense as if cement is kept longer then it could get spoilt. So, some of this was lent out to some contractors who were doing other projects with the understanding that it would be put to good use. In the end all the materials were returned back.”

He also denied that the project staff had received any gratification or had accepted substandard material.

He said that he personally not even gain a Paisa or a matchstick from the project.

Possible Resignation or disqualification?

The paper asked the Foreign Minister if he would step down or resign from his position as Foreign Minister if he was found guilty.

Lyonpo said, “I will step down from the post of Foreign Minister only if the court convicts me and explicitly requires me to step down, otherwise I will not step down even if the judgment goes against me as I have a clear conscience and have done everything with the best intentions in the interests of a project that was getting delayed. I have not benefitted in any way personally and even if there were procedural issues it would have been for constructing a high quality project in a short time with various hassles and challenges.”

The minister said that he would not step down since he believed that it would be a slap on his face and shameful and send a wrong precedence to all 20 Dzongdas implementing projects and developmental works in Dzongkhags. He said then Dzongdas would stop taking decisions for the fear of making procedural mistakes or other mistakes.

The minister said, “Certain rules are made by people for people and if one feels the project is being delayed due to certain weaknesses in some areas then the Dzongda can decide by using intuition. Certain rules have to be bent so long as it is for the project. I think rules are required to be bent at times.”

A source said that even if the Foreign Minister is found guilty on procedural issues it would be equivalent to misdemeanor as the ACC case would be a criminal one in all probability. According to the National Assembly Act a MP can be disqualified if the MP is criminally convicted. In addition to affecting his current office any conviction would cut short the ministers political career like in the case of the former Home Minister and Speaker in the Gyelpozhing case.

The Constitution under Article 23 for Election lays out the clause for disqualification in section 4c which says, “A person shall be disqualified as a candidate or a member holding an elective office under this Constitution, if the person: Is convicted for any criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment;”

Section 179 (a) of the Election Act disqualifies candidates who ‘have been convicted for any criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment.’

The issue first came to public light with the annual RAA report that placed supervisory accountability on the Dzongda for not being able to produce documents on the expenditure of Nu 5.054 million for the re-construction of Lhakhang Karpo along with other observations.

The Opposition questioned how the former Dzongda had been given an Audit Clearance to take part in the 2013 elections.

The Lhakhang Karpo was construction started in 2010 after a Royal Command was issued in 2009. The Lhakhang is supposed to house the abode of Haa’s guardian deity Ap Chundu.  The approximate budget for the project is now around Nu 30 mn.

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