Sep 10 , 2021

Federal public prosecutors have withdrawn charges they filed against former officials of the Ministry Education, accused of grand corruption in the procurement of textbooks.

The accused have walked out of prison almost six months after their first arrest over the allegations that their "misconduct" caused the state to lose 218 million Br.

The officials were detained in February 2021. Prosecutors accused them of causing delays and held them responsible for the shipment of substandard textbooks supplied by two India-based companies, Pitambra Books Pvt Ltd India and Nova Publication & Prints Pvt Ltd. Despite having received 80pc of the 30 million dollar contract value, the two companies did not complete deliveries until October 2020, close to three years later.

Public prosecutors charge that the textbooks were found to have low-quality covers and paper and a lower number of pages than specified in the contract documents.

Another official, Bochu Sintayehu, former legal department head of the Ministry of Finance, was also taken into custody. He was accused of writing a letter to the Education Ministry on behalf of the Finance Ministry in July 2018, reversing the decision of the Board of the Public Procurement & Property Administration Agency made three years earlier, to include another bidder, Burda Druck India Pvt Ltd, before the contract was awarded to the two companies.

Burda Druck had filed an appeal with the Board, claiming its bid had been unfairly dismissed.

However, the charge brought against Bochu was dropped by the Attorney General on "public interest" grounds within a month. But court hearings for the other defendants continued until last week when the Attorney-General Office wrote a motion to judges at the Federal First Instance Court, dropping the charges against all the officials. The Office said it decided due to doubts about the reliability of material evidence used in the case.

The defendants included Nigusse Beyene, a former director in the Ministry, who was accused of overlooking the decision by the Procurement Board. Shewalem Mare, former procurement director at the Ministry of Education, in charge of the procurement process, was accused of writing a letter to senior officials at the Ministry, requesting intervention contrary to procurement rules. She was charged with failure to require penalties on Nova and Pitambra for the delay in delivery of the textbooks.

Eshetu Asfaw, curriculum preparation and implementation director at the Ministry, was charged for distributing the sub-standard books.

The remaining procurement committee members were charged with negligence in conducting sample testing before the books were imported.

However, the material evidence used in the case needs to be re-examined, including findings carried out by an internal auditor of the Ministry of Education, according to the Attorney-General.

"Internal audits are one of the issues we have identified as a challenge in our prosecution," said Zelalem Fekadu, deputy director of the corruption division at the Attorney General's Office.

His Office uncovered new evidence during court proceedings contrary to the information contained in the audit report. This led to the Office of the Federal Auditor-General to conduct a fresh investigation, disclosed Zelalem.

Yohannes Woldegebriel, legal expert and a former public prosecutor, shares the same views on the unreliability of internal audit reports.

According to Yohannes, internal audits should be used to ensure financial activities within the office are compliant with its policies.

"Sadly, it has been customary to use internal audits in corruption cases," said Yohannes.

Noting the belated decision, Yohannes commends the Attorney-General for its decision to withdraw charges for breaking a "taboo".

"They've made the right decision to review the case," said Yohannes.

The investigation will continue, and charges will be pressed if evidence surfaces to be sufficient, Zelalem.

Officials of the Ministry of Education were unavailable for comment.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1115]

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