PM Marape please clean up the National Housing Corporation

James Marape is the new Prime Minister. He takes the reigns of a government decimated by corruption.

The entire policy and administrative apparatus is disoriented by years of graft.

Marape promises to make PNG a wealthy and vibrant nation.

But a body full of parasites can never be nourished, no matter how much it eats.

The nation has eaten its mineral, oil and gas wealth, with no nutritional gain.

The parasites ate it all.

If the PM is serious about making life materially better for citizens, the body politic of the nation must be dosed with a medicine that can destroy the disease within.

Some parasites are more difficult to identify and lance than others.

As PM Marape must go for the low hanging fruit. Makes examples. Show he is serious. Failure to act will invariably signal complicity.

Arguably no fruit hangs lower than the National Housing Corporation (perhaps only matched by the Department of Health).

An institution set up to provide the nation with affordable housing has become a slush fund for senior officials and Ministers.

According to the National Court, and Auditor General, under the stewardship of John Dege (Managing Director), and Paul Isikiel (Housing Minister), NHC funds were routinely abused.

Video: Small mercies, Dege failed in his 2017 bid for parliament on a People’s National Congress ticket

Perhaps fittingly during the last gasps of the O’Neill regime, to the dismay of many, Magistrate Cosmas Bidar decided to throw out charges brought against Mr Dege by the RPNGC. Magistrate Bidar expressed sympathy for Dege, claiming he ‘was just a CEO’ and a ‘sacrificial lamb’.

Dege has previously argued the same, telling journalists ‘I am always the victim’.

Mr Bidar’s senior colleagues on the National Court have taken a less generous view of Mr Dege.

He was accused by Justice Gavara-Nanu of acting in a ‘fraudulent and deceitful’ manner, after the NHC illicitly snatched the Iravela family home.

Image: Dege used fraud and deceit the courts claim, in an attempt to sell off the Iravela family home.

While Justice Canning accused the former NHC Managing Director of ‘sinister’ activity for his role in executing an attempted fraud. If successful it would have seen a property belonging to the Vailala family go to the then Defence Minister Dr Fabian Pok.

Marape is in a prime position to atone for the sins of the O’Neill government by holding past NHC officials to account.

PNGi, during 2018, documented some of the serious abuses which occurred under Dege and Isikiel, in a three part series (see Part I, Part II, Part III).

At the time, the Auditor General’s Office had not published its findings for the year ending 31 December 2014. A time when Dege was in charge of the NHC, and Isikiel his Minister.

Now it has. The report makes for sobering reading.

The Auditor General portrays the Housing Minister and his trusty Managing Director, as men drunk with power, using the NHC as an extravagant private piggy bank.

If you think this sounds a little over the top, try this on for size.

The Auditor General reports: ‘In three (3) instances, payments totalled K24,000 were made to a company for production of the Managing Director’s [John Dege] portrait. The expense was personal in nature and could not use the public funds’.

When taxpayer dollars weren’t being used for extravagant portraits of John Dege, they were being used to send the Minister overseas so he could enjoy the first class medical treatment, denied to those paying his bills.

The Auditor General reports:

On 18 August 2014 the Minister for Housing and Urbanization [Paul Isikiel] directed the acting Managing Director [John Dege] through a memo to provide some funds for his trip to overseas for medical treatment. The acting Managing Director‟s approval footnote read “Approved. Kindly prepare ticket for both Minister and wife, including hospital bills and accommodation. I suggest we pay K50,000 in total”. A “PAY CASH” cheque no. 249228 was raised on 2 September 2014. The payment was in breach of the Public Finance Management Act and Salaries and Remunerations Committee determinations.

On another occasion Dege is reported to have approved a ‘pay cash’ cheque for Isikiel, in the amount of K70,415, to fund overseas travel. Dege claimed the travel had been endorsed by the PM. No such endorsement could be found by the Auditor General. The so called travel expenses were never acquitted.

According to the Auditor General Dege readily paid out suspicious cheques to others, at the Minister’s request.

The Auditor General reports: ‘The Minister for Housing instructed the Managing Director to make available K10,000 to meet protocol expenses for a foreign delegate of investors in relation to the Duram Farm Housing Project through his memo dated 11 June 2014. A “PAY CASH” cheque no. 248967 was raised on 12 June 2014’.

The Auditor General  discovered a further K131,500 in cashable cheques. He found that ‘most of the payments related to Duram Farm Housing Project’.

Perhaps all of this shows Magistrate Bidar is right, Dege was the ‘sacrificial lamb’ for those higher up the food-chain, notably his Minister, Paul Isikiel.

Er, not quite. Dege also splashed the cash for his own benefit.

‘In eight (8) instances, payments totaled K26,000 were made as entertainment allowances to the Managing Director’, the Auditor General reports.

This was in violation of SRC determination.

The report continues: ‘In four (4) instances, payments totaled K20,100 were paid to guards escorting the movements of the Managing Director. This was in contravention of the SRC determinations and double dipping by the Managing Director as security allowances were paid fortnightly through his pay’.

It was also found that ‘on 17 April 2014 the Managing Director’s Office through a memo directed a payment of K5,000 donation to Paramana United Church. A “PAY CASH” cheque no. 248816 was raised on the same day’.

The seventeenth of April was evidently a good day for the Church. According to the Auditor General on the very same day another “PAY CASH” cheque no. 559939 was cut, this time ‘for an amount of K10,000 [which] was made to the Minister upon his request to personally donate it to Paramana United Church’.

Although the Auditor is at pains to observe, there is no proof the money ever went to the Church.

The same errant approach was witnessed with respect to large contracts. For example, ‘In two instances payments totalled K142,000 was made to a company for capital works done dating back to 2010. I noted that the Managing Director [Dege] solely approved the purchase requisition, direct immediate payment and signed the cheques. There was no sufficient documentation to justify the formal contract entered into and work done in 2010’.

Mr Marape, if the fruit was hanging any lower to the ground it would be covered in dirt.

If you are serious about tackling graft, knock on  the NHC’s door!