THE Public Accounts Committee on Monday questioned the legitimacy of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) director, Palesa Khabele and said her post was a duplication of roles with that of the Finance ministry’s principal secretary.
The FIU is an anti-corruption entity which was established by the government in 2008 in terms of the Money Laundering and Proceeds of Crime Act of 2008. Its mission is to become “a dynamic centre of excellence providing financial intelligence reports for combating money laundering and terrorist financing in Lesotho and internationally”.
It operates within the Ministry of Finance.
Ms Khabele, who has been its director since its inception is facing fraud charges along with other senior FIU officers. It is alleged that they could have concealed evidence of money that they obtained from the organisation through fraudulent means. The funds were allegedly deposited into their insurance accounts held with a local company.
And on its first sitting on Monday, PAC chairperson Teboho Sekata demanded that Ms Khabele provides documents that authenticate her appointment and state why her job could not be done by the principal secretary in the Finance ministry.
The PAC also questioned why Ms Khabele was reporting directly to the office of the Finance minister instead of going through the principal secretary. The committee said the modus operandi was “unceremonious”.
The committee added that it was unusual that a unit within a ministry was managing its own finances independently when there was a principal secretary who is the chief accounting officer of the ministry.
The director’s functions similar to those of the principal secretary and it is clear that her post is a duplication of duties, the committee said.
Ms Khabale conceded that the powers of the director of FIU were almost identical to those of the principal secretary but said their functions were different.
“The functions of the FIU is to investigate suspicious transactions,” Ms Khabale said.
“That process is called analysis and it determines if a reported case calls for an investigation or can be dismissed.
“After the investigation, the FIU then passes all the information and the intelligence to the law agencies such as the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) or the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) for prosecution.”
She said she was permitted by the law to provide timeous activity reports the straight to minister of finance.
“We (FIU) report our activities straight to the minister of finance. We are not accountable to anyone but that office. It is only the minister who then submits our reports to parliament for scrutinisation. That line of reporting is provided for by the law,” Ms Khabele said.
In January this year, the then Finance minister Moeketsi Majoro said he would appoint “a third party” to investigate fraud and other allegations that have been raised against senior officials of the FIU.
Dr Majoro, who is now the prime minister, also promised that action would be taken against the officials should the allegations of financial impropriety turn out to be true.
He said this in a January interview with the Lesotho Times in the wake of revelations that they were investigating senior FIU officers including Ms Khabele, for fraud.
Then principal secretary in the Finance ministry, Motena Tšolo, said she engaged the police to investigate the FIU upon realising that the laws governing the institution barred her from auditing its books. Ms Tšolo did not say which laws barred her from auditing the FIU.
Mr Sekata said the PAC’s curiosity was prompted by allegations that have been levelled against the FIU for “its dubious operations”.
He also demanded that Ms Khabele provides her letter of appointment to the PAC so that the committee could determine the basis of her employment.
“We are interested to find out more about the FIU and your appointment. You are therefore, requested to provide the PAC with your letter of appointment and all other documents on your operations on a date that will be communicated to you at a later stage.
“The PAC’s curiosity has been awakened by media reports on fraud allegations that have been levelled against the office of the FIU,” Mr Sekata said.
Police spokesperson, Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli this week told the Lesotho Times that investigations against Ms Khabale and her co-workers were still ongoing.
In July this year, Ms Khabele and two other FIU officers, Itumeleng Monyau and Thikhoane Molapo, appeared before Maseru Magistrate Senekal Qobolo on charges of perjury. This after they were asked to provide their payslips but instead approached the courts to interdict the investigations. The courts however, dismissed the interdict.
Magistrate Qobolo released the trio on free bail and their trial has been penned in for 28 and 29 October 2020.