Sunday, May 29, 2022

BURS collected only P20 million from wage subsidy scammers

The government may never be able to recover all the money that was scammed out of government coffers via the wage subsidy scheme that was introduced in 2020 to cushion both employers and employees from the effects of Covid-19.

Last year, the Head of Public Relations in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, Fenny Letshwiti, revealed that out of the 20 701 Batswana-owned companies that benefitted from the scheme, about 870 of them were found to have obtained money from the fund through “fraudulent” means. These employers claimed the subsidy on behalf of their employees but kept it for themselves. Consequently, the Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) recovered P20 million.

Sunday Standard now learns that whereas the Ministry had stated that “most of the companies have been handed over to the Botswana Police Service for investigation and possible criminal prosecution”, no additional money was ever recovered from the scammers.

“There have been no further collections beyond the P20 million previously reported,” revealed Mable Bolele, BURS General Manager Communications, adding that BURS “continues to explore possible acts of misdemeanour around the wage subsidy scheme through field audits and other means of engagement with the employers.”

On the other hand, Ministry sources have described the situation in near-apocalyptic terms. They state that the scheme, through which government disbursed a total of P976 184 185 86, was a misconceived political misadventure that saw the government shortcircuit normal procedures.

“Given the amount of money involved – close to a P1 billion, it is possible the P20 million is a mere drop in the ocean,” says a source. “The fraud that has become apparent was quite extensive but we still don’t know its extent.”

While Bolele asserts that “all the conditions laid out for benefit under the scheme were sufficient to address any legal loopholes that could have arisen”, sources tell us otherwise: that shortcircuiting procedures opened up a lot of loopholes that errant employers exploited and that such loopholes were the reason no one has been prosecuted almost two years later.

Oddly, while Covid-19 expenditure was audited, the Auditor General’s report is completely silent on how money from the Fund was spent. While the report could state that hospitality establishments tricked P58.9 million from the Ministry of Health and Wellness for quarantine accommodation; that Mileage Group and Pula Rich Investments were paid a total of P80 million but failed to fill their whole orders; and that P638 479 was spent on a call-centre that was never used, it says nothing about a much bigger sum (P976 million) was controversially disbursed. We further learn that investigations into the fraud became a logistical nightmare and were quietly abandoned.

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