LOCAL Government and Chieftainship minister Litšoane Litšoane has accused councillors and officials of the Maseru City Council (MCC) of effectively stealing M3, 5 million meant for development projects to pay themselves loans and salary advances.
Mr Litšoane said the illegal diversion of funds had badly affected the council's cash flows to the extent that the MCC was unable to pay its employees their July 2019 salaries. As a result, the ministry had to divert M500 000 meant for an electrification project to help pay those salaries.
But the MCC has vehemently denied the minister's allegations in what has now become a ferocious war of words.
The minister and his principal secretary, Khothatso Tšooana, said they were now probing corruption in the MCC. Mr Litšoane said they were also investigating how councilors ended up sitting on the council's tender panel and awarding tenders in contravention of the Local Government Act of 1997 which specifically prohibits councilors from being part of the tender panel.
Maseru mayor, Mpho Moloi, and some of her fellow city councillors have now gone on a war path against the minister and her principal secretary, accusing the duo of trying to tarnish their images by spreading "false claims" that they had helped themselves to council money to pay themselves loans and salary advances. She also accuses them of having an underhand agenda of trying to influence tenders in the MCC in favour of their acolytes.
Councillor Lebohang Karala said it was also wrong of Messrs Litšoane and Tšooana to say the current council had crafted policies to illegally help themselves to council funds when the same policies had been given the green light by the previous governments.
He said it was not true that councillors had taken M3, 5 million from the council coffers, but only M77, 900 had been given out as loans or salary advances.
Addressing the media this week, Mr Litšoane said he had discovered that the councilors had drafted and implemented another policy to give senior MCC officials allowances for international trips without his knowledge and approval.
Mr Litšoane said his ministry had commenced investigations to discover the culprits behind the alleged corruption. He also ordered councillors and officials who had benefitted from the "illegal" loans and salary advances to immediately repay the money. He said councillors and officials should have approached the banks for loans instead of raiding the council's coffers.
"M3, 5 million is missing and it is embarrassing that this month (July), the MCC had trouble paying employees their salaries because some members of the senior management had taken the money to eat it (sic)," Mr Litšoane said.
"This policy (of diverting council funds to loans, travel allowances and salary advances) is against the local government regulations.
"It was never stated in our motivations for the budget allocation to the Maseru City Council that the money was for personal purposes. That money was given by the government to finance development projects. People who want money should go to the banks for loans.
"These policies (of diverting council funds) are illegal and I have ordered that they be stopped immediately. Only the minister of local government has the powers to approve policies and to approve the flow of funds in the councils' accounts.
"The granting of travel allowances is against local government regulations and therefore I have ordered that it is stopped immediately. From now on, the principal secretary will authorise trips for the town clerk and senior officers. I have also ordered the town clerk to ensure that all the money (illegally taken by the councilors and officials) is paid back into the MCC account."
Mr Litšoane said they were also investigating another case of MCC councilors illegally sitting on the council's tender panel in contravention of the Local Government Act of 1997.
"(Maseru) councillors award tenders. This is against the Local Government Act of 1997 which clearly stipulates that the awarding of tenders shall be done by officers who have been trained to do so. Councillors are specifically prohibited from being part of the panel that awards tenders. I have decided to dissolve the MCC tender board. The town clerk will form a new tender panel based on the Public Procurement Regulations of 2007 as amended in 2018."
Mr Litšoane said internal investigations were underway to discover the extent of the corruption in the council and all those found guilty will be named and shamed in addition to being prosecuted.
On his part, Local Government principal secretary, Khothatso Tšooana, said, the investigations had just begun.
"We cannot divulge the details for now lest we jeopardise the investigations. We are doing our part now and the police will take care of the criminal cases should there be a need for such action," Mr Tšooana said.
This week's press briefings by Messrs Litšoane and Tšooana came barely three days after the duo and Local Government deputy minister, Kotiti Diholo, held a crisis meeting with senior MCC officials in Maseru.
The Lesotho Times subsequently obtained an audio recording of the Friday closed door meeting where Messrs Litšoane, Diholo and Tšooana aired their concerns with regards to the alleged misappropriation of MCC funds.
In the audio clip, the trio are heard quizzing some MCC officials who admit that some councilors and officials were loaned money and others had not paid back money they were given as salary advances. Mr Tšooana is heard saying that they discovered that the practice of MCC officials awarding themselves salary advances and loans had been going on since 2004. He said that if the practice was not stopped, the MCC would completely run out of funds.
He added that the council's July 2019 salaries would have been paid without any problems had it not been for the councillors and officials' policy of awarding themselves loans and salary advances.
"I must say that this month (July) we scratched our heads not knowing where we were going to get the money for staff salaries from. There was a M500 000 shortfall on the money for salaries and we ended up taking money from the electricity project to add to the salaries and ensure that staffers are paid," Mr Tšooana said.
In the same audio clip, Mr Litšoane is also heard saying that he was disappointed that the alleged malfeasance at the MCC had been going on even though the council had legal experts to give guidance on how things should be done.
"We have experts in the MCC but it gives me a headache that they didn't pick this up (alleged malpractices) on time. They failed to advise us on time (about the malpractices). Could it be that they are also benefitting from the malpractices hence their failure to advise us?"
Mr Litšoane said that it was a "huge blunder" that M3, 5 million in MCC funds went straight to loans for senior officials and councilors, adding that no government department was authorised to give out loans to its officers and travel allowances for international trips without the requisite approvals.
"I am only hearing in the corridors that the town clerk and others have left the country on official trips yet there has never been approval for such trips from the principal secretary or the Minister's Office. Money is being spent on international trips but there is no law that stipulates that you can make your own decisions without my approval," the minister continues in the audio.
"I know for sure that no department is allowed to loan out money within itself. This practice at the MCC has never happened anywhere else.
"The issuance of loans must stop immediately. I am also giving you a deadline to ensure that all the monies illegally loaned out to civil servants in the MCC must be paid back by 31 July 2019.
"The principal secretary, as the chief accounting officer, should give me a report that everyone who took out loans has repaid them," Mr Litšoane says in the audio.
He said the local government ministry had inspected the MCC's procurement department and established that councillors sat in the tender panel, a practice he said was illegal.
He said the MCC's senior management had failed to explain the councillors' presence on the tender board when the law was specific that they should not be there.