EIGHT 'ghosts', with the aid of two workers from the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation, gorged off the public purse to the tune of $22.5 million between 2011 and last year.
In what police are saying is the biggest case of money laundering in this country's history, the two corporation employees and eight 'ghosts' were all arrested at their homes in Petit Valley, Valsayn and St Augustine districts during the early hours yesterday.
All ten remain in custody at several police stations from La Horquetta in the east to Carenage in the west. According to senior police sources, at about 3.30 am, officers of the Anti-Corruption Investigations Bureau (ACIB) led by Snr Supt William Nurse and including Supt Ucef Alexander, legal officer Sgt Bryon Daniel and others executed arrest warrants at several houses and took the ten, including a woman, into custody.
The suspects' homes were also searched for cash, cheques and other documents pertinent to the investigations. Items were removed in several cardboard boxes and taken to the ACIB head office in Port of Spain.
The skulduggery was so simple, sources said, that it apparently flew under the radar of senior officials at the corporation for several years, traversing two governments between 2011 and last year. The two corporation employees worked in the accounts department.
One of the suspects is said to be among several responsible for feeding information into the computerised payroll system. It was this person, aided by the second corporation employee, who filed the names of the "ghosts" (people not employed or connected with the corporation).
Payment figures were inflated to the point where, according to sources, each of the eight "ghosts" were paid four times a fortnight amounting to $32,000, for six years. Police believe that in return for facilitating the bogus payments, the two corporation workers got monetary kickbacks from the "ghosts".
According to sources, the theft was only discovered last December when the corporation's then chief executive officer (CEO) Kofi Chapman commissioned an internal audit which showed up payments to the tune of $22.5 million to eight people not employed with the corporation.
Chapman immediately called in the police and officers from the ACIB quietly began investigations. Chapman was subsequently removed from the corporation to the Ministry of Finance. It could not be ascertained if this transfer had anything to do with the audit.
Sources said even as the ACIB was building its case, the two corporation employees continued their work on the job, unaware that a net was being drawn around them. Once investigators completed their work, they sought and received advice from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions which led to the raids and arrests yesterday.
Police sources said that several computer hard-drives, scanners and documents have been seized from the corporation's administrative section. The suspects are between the ages of 24 and 40.
Sources said that the ten are to be formally charged this weekend with a total of 1,200 charges all relating to money laundering and all laid under the Proceeds of Crime Act, Sect 45 (1) (B). They are expected to appear in the Port of Spain magistrates’ court next week.
Contacted for comment yesterday, corporation chairman Anthony Roberts confirmed being aware of the investigation but was unaware that arrests were made. He thanked Newsday for the information and declined further comment.
CEO Ann Hosein said she was not aware the police had detained anyone and would prefer not to comment on the matter. Calls to Local Government Minister Kazim Hosein via his cellphone were not answered.