The war on corruption which President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared in taking office in 2006 has got casualties on both sides of the isle. While in rare cases a number of scoundrels in Government are exposed, shamed and tamed, frontline commanders prosecuting the Government’s anti-corruption campaign have also got hit fatally leading to their fall. The latest victim is the Executive Director of the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC) Peggy Varfley Meres who has tendered her resignation from the critical post due to what she called “conspiracy theories” of undisclosed sources. The Analyst reports.
From the tune of her resignation letters to the Board of the PPCC and to the President of Liberia, and her response to a report by a special committee on the activities of the Commission, the exiting PPCC Executive Director is sounding like a commanding withdrawn from the frontline at a time the battle is so very much intense and decisive. The PPCC by any measure has been a reliable citadel of Government in the fight against corruption, since indeed public procurement has historically been kleptocrats’ ideal springboard for amassing quick wealth. Peggy Varfley Meres therefore had a tough job, which she thought she would push to a logical conclusion but circumstances of such an assignment would not let her do so.
She appears not willing to leave until much damage was done to the corruption empire. In her resignation letter to the Board of the PPCC, she wrote: “There are two projects that I feel duty-bound to oversee and complete (Regulations/Step-by-Step Manuals & Strategic Plan). It would be unfair of me to leave those undone. I suggest an effective date of July 1. If, however, you need more time to find a replacement, I am willing to extend that date by two weeks. On the other hand, if you feel that an earlier departure would be more convenient to you, I would certainly understand.”
Further, she told President Sirleaf:“In this role I was confronted with several challenges, including the lack of overall support in implementing the Commission’s elaborate mandate, as well as outright resistance to change on the part of Procuring and Concession Entities. Madam President, in spite of these challenges, we managed to succeed in many areas, including exerting the role of the Commission as an important actor in preventing corruption, as well as insisting on the need to ensure that the best total cost and benefits are attained for public monies spent.”
But how come this seemingly enthusiastic head of an anti-corruption corruption entity could not continue?
Special Committee Report
Following the visit of President Sirleaf in January this year at the offices of the PPCC, there came the need for a critical review of the activities and programs of the Commission. This led to the appointment of a 3-man that comprised Commissioners Charles Collins, Chairman; Kona Beysolow; Member, and B. Miller Catakaw, Member.
The Committee’s report came out and heaped a bulk of the defects of the Commission on Executive Director Meres. The committee reportedly found that Director Meres delegation of responsibility was poor; she gave operational carte blanche to “special confidants”, amongst other things.
It is not known how the committee’s report amounted to the resignation of Meres, something she said she did after “considerable thought and soul-searching, I have decided to resign from my position as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC).” She added: “I can assure you it was not an easy decision to make.”
In her response to the allegations against her by the special committee, the former PPCC Executive Director wrote: “The striking co-incidence associated with the President’s visit to the Commission on January 16, 2014, the report by the former Acting Chief Executive Officer (who was absent during said visit), and the setting up of the Special Committee by the Chairman confirm all conspiracy theories of a vain attempt to undermine the Commission and cast suspicion on its work.”
She noted that “It is further demonstrated by the failure of the Special Committee to link its elaborate terms of reference to findings and recommendations. I would also like to point out my interest in the committee’s findings linking the President’s visit to the Commission as a classic example of what is referred to in Finding #3c as political pressure brought to bear on the Commission by some Procuring Entities. We have not succumbed to this pressure and hence this report is probably another subtle maneuver to cow us into submission.”
She denied she had any confidants and that regarding delegation of authority, every important staff was given his or her due opportunity to work and perform.
The report also mentioned that the workflow chart currently being used by the PPCC Secretariat indicates that the receipt, flow and handling of requests were mainly processed by two employees considered to be confidants of the Executive Director, and that the various sections of the Secretariat are not involved in processing procurement requests.
According to Madam Meres, the staff referenced as confidants were young professionals who were recruited through the President Young Professional Program (PYPP), which recruits, trains and places mentees in Ministries and Agencies (M&As) under the guidance of a mentor, based on match-making of skills requested.
She explained: “This two-year program has gained admiration among International sponsors (John Snow Incorporated (JSI), NIKE, Humanity United and USAID-GEMS), as it recruits the best and brightest through a rigorous process, and puts them through a structured training geared towards addressing the capacity deficit and brain-drain our nation faces today. This process is devoid of patronage and/or nepotism.”
The report also accused the exiting PPCC executive director of unilaterally increasing her own salary but in response she clarified that the increment went across the board affecting every staff, and it was a management decision.
She said it is very interesting that the Board proceeded to investigate unconfirmed reports without first having an audience with her to discuss the matter.
“I wish to state that the payroll is a part of the budget, and if the Board did not approve the entire budget, then certainly the payroll was not approved by the Board,” she said, and added: “It therefore leaves me to question the reason for which particular interest was lent to the payroll. Further to the above, a thorough review of the payroll reflects that there was an increment to the salaries of all staff, and that bonuses were even given to the Board.”
Notwithstanding, she said, the committee only observed an increment to her salary, validating that this exercise was nothing but a witch hunt exercise.
The out-going PPCC executive director states further: “I informed you and the Board, Mr. Chairman, that I had made representation to the Legislature for increased budgetary appropriation for salary among other items, and that funding had been received, from which I applied increment to the salaries of the entire staff. You will note that the Board did not question the source of their bonuses because I had well communicated with you all on the matter."
The Special Committee also blamed Madam Meres for delays in processing requests from procurement entities, but responded that the Special Committee is aware that holding all factors constant, a procurement request would normally be processed and responded to within a period of three to five days.
She however said as has been communicated to the Board on numerous occasions, delays in the procurement process are largely attributed to the delay in the passage and approval of the national budget, and the submission of procurement plans and cash plans, etc.
In addition, she noted, there are issues of capacity deficit, among other issues that Procuring Entities are faced with.
To prevent the unlimited exchange of letters, the Board has been informed that the Secretariat would at times place letters on hold, and communicate with the respective Heads of Entity/Procurement Directors to ensure that queries were addressed, she said, and added: “However, most Procuring Entities abuse this provision made by the Secretariat and delay in addressing queries raised by the Commission. In addition, you are aware that the Commission operates a manual system, and that the Secretariat remains understaffed due to inadequate budgetary allocations; all of these challenges pose their own constraints in the process, thereby possibly affecting the time factor in processing procurement requests.”
She said while the Board is very much aware of the situation obtaining, the Committee nonetheless intentionally commissioned the report against her “for other ulterior motives.”