On Friday, a group of civil society organisations began collecting signatures to a petition calling on Antigua and Barbuda’s Governor General Sir James Carlisle for a public inquiry into alleged fraud at the state-run Medical Benefits Scheme (MBS).
And the thirteen organisations under the umbrella of the Coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations (CNGO) have threatened a civil suit if the request is ignored.
“Nobody is above the law… well some of those possibilities are some of the alternative actions that the coalition is considering (and) at that -appropriate time, if such a time ever occurs, such steps would be taken,” lawyer Joanne Massiah told reporters when asked whether legal action against Sir James was one of the options.
According to the Commission of Inquiry Act, only the Governor General can appoint such a commission to inquire into any matter that is in the welfare of the public.
The decision by the CGNO affiliates to petition the Governor General came over two months after their
individual formal and other calls on him and Prime Minister Lester Bird to hold an inquiry failed.
In handing over to the Director of Public Prosecutions an interim report of a forensic audit into the MBS, Bird has already said that a Commission of Inquiry would be too expensive and a waste of time.
Based on the interim report, the board of directors of the MBS was dissolved and three senior managers of the MBS suspended pending the DPP’s examination.
The affiliates of the CGNO are the Antigua Employers’ Federation, Antigua and Barbuda Chamber of Commerce, Antigua Small Business Association, the Medical Association, Antigua Bar Association, Institute of Architects, Antigua Hotels and Tourist Association, Antigua Christian Council, United Vendors Association, Antigua Workers Union, Antigua Trades and Labour Union, Antigua Human Rights Association and the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP).
Baldwin Spencer, Leader of the Opposition and the UPP, rejected suggestions that his detractors might argue that the petition is being politicised because the coalition was established at his initiative.
“It transcends party politics (and) what it does really is to involve the people of Antigua and Barbuda into dealing with an extremely serious matter and we feel that as a political organisation, and that as a part of civil society, we have a responsibility to facilitate whatever process there is,” Spencer told the news conference.
The number of names that is being targeted over the next two weeks was not disclosed and the grouping is tight-lipped about further action on the drawing board should the Governor General ignore the petition.
The CGNO is proposing that the Commission of Inquiry probe the disbursement of funds from each account established and operated by the state-run fund, and the procurement policies and practices for administrative, medical and pharmaceutical supplies and equipment with special regard to weaknesses and abuses of the said policies and practices.
Former Health Minister Bernard Percival,who has since been made Minister of Home Affairs, Urban Development and Renewal, without prejudice pending the outcome of the audit, has pleaded innocence. The MBS legally falls under the Health Ministry.
“No matter what happens; no matter what the auditor finds, a Public Inquiry is required to convince the public that government’s intention isn’t to grab all the sardines and leave the sharks to swim,” said Former health minister Bernard Sebastian Percival.
Stating that he was certain that he would not be among those to be jailed for fraud, Percival said that he was willing to go as far as taking a lie-detector test.
“The least the PM can do is to make a public statement saying there is nothing in the interim report that implicates me or (Dr. Erol) Cort. But anything done now short of a Public Inquiry will leave the impression that we are trying to release ministers and grab the small people,” Percival said.
– Daily Observer dated April 02, 2001
Among the charges that Percival has publicly denied is one that he and a local medical practitioner had opened a pharmaceutical supply company in Miami and instructed that all purchases be made from there.
Prior to ordering the forensic audit, an MBS official was caught allegedly defrauding the entity of U$8,500. She was summoned for a departmental hearing, paid back the money and was fired from her job.
Percival said that although senior officials of the MBS informed him that there were no more such cases, at least four more cases totaling at about ECS60,000 to EC$70,OOO have been uncovered involving the now dismissed employee.