The Nigerian Communications Commission on Tuesday said appropriate sanctions had been slammed on the officials enmeshed in a N122 million fraud “as set out in the NCC Staff Handbook.”
The commission’s statement was in response to a PREMIUM TIMES’ exclusive report on Monday detailing how two officials, Yakubu Gontor, head of the finance department, and Philip Eretan, former head of the internal audit department, in 2019 received N122 million fraudulently as allowances for trips they never made.
Mr Gontor, according to sources, received a total of N54 million as allowances for official trips he never made, while Mr Eretan collected N68 million.
In its response to the report, the NCC did not state the nature of the sanctions given to the officials who were indicted by an investigative committee set up by the board of the agency.
The NCC in reaction to the fraud report said the officials have been punished but refused to disclose the punishment meted on them.
“Our attention has been drawn to a publication in an on-line newspaper, Premium Times, entitled “Exclusive: Top NCC Officials Enmeshed in N122 Million Fraud,” read the statement by Ikechukwu Adinde, the NCC spokesperson.
“For the avoidance of doubt, we would like to state for the records that the internal control mechanisms of the Commission identified some suspicious transactions on the part of some members of staff and top officials of the Commission in late 2019.
“The Commission investigated all the cases in accordance with the extant Public Service Rules and the NCC staff regulations as contained in the Staff Handbook.
“Those who were found culpable have had appropriate sanctions meted out to them as set out in the NCC Staff Handbook. Other relevant government agencies are also looking into the matter.”
When the financial irregularities were noticed, the board of the NCC, led then by a former senator, Olabiyi Durojaiye, set up an investigative committee to probe the matter.
The committee was headed then by Millionaire Abowei, a professor and member of the board of the commission, and its recommended that apart from refunding the illegally received monies, the two officials should be made to face a disciplinary panel with appropriate sanctions meted out to them.
Following an abrupt removal of Mr Durojaiye from office which caused a delay in the activities of the committee, Adeolu Akande, a professor of political science, who took over from him also showed interest in the matter.
He set up another five-member investigative committee chaired by Mr Abowei. Other members of the committee included Ubale Maska, an engineer; Adeleke Adewolu, a lawyer; Salmon AbdulAzeez, an engineer, and the Commission’s secretary, Felix Adeoye. Mr Adeoye served as the committee’s secretary.
The committee started its probe in May 2020 and submitted its report which indicted Messrs Gontor and Eretan on June 24, 2020.
Although the amount fraudulently claimed by these officials is being deducted in instalments from their emoluments, many workers at the agency, who are privy to the development are wondering why the management of NCC has continued to shield the accused officials from prosecution.
Messrs Gontor and Eretan frequented the Kaduna zonal office of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) following a petition by a yet-to-be-identified group in early 2020. When contacted, the new head of the zone, Sanusi Abdullahi, said he “was only transferred to the zone in July 2020, and that he could not trace the files of the matter.”
Another group, Lygel Youths and Leadership Initiatives (LYLI) has, however, filed an ex-parte motion at the Federal High Court in Abuja, against both the NCC and the EFCC with suit number, FHC/ABJ/CS/395/2021/.
The group is seeking an order for leave of the court to apply for an order of mandamus “directing and or compelling the first defendant/respondent to reopen the investigation albeit discontinued or conducting a fresh investigation concerning the allegation of fraud against the former head of the second defendant’s department of audit and its incumbent head of the finance department.”
The director of the legal and compliance unit of the group, Lekan Oladapo, said they proceeded to court following refusal by the NCC to accede to its request on the details of the corruption allegations against its staffers.
After it issued the statement on Tuesday, PREMIUM TIMES contacted Mr Adinde for details of the nature of the sanctions meted out to the indicted officials.
The NCC spokesperson simply responded that “I have given you a response with that and I think that should suffice,” he said before dropping the call.
Findings by our reporter have revealed that the Commission was being economical with the truth. Apart from recovering the fraudulently claimed sums, there is no evidence that the culprits were punished for the wrongdoing.
Though Mr Eretan was redeployed from the audit department to licensing and authorisation department, Mr Gontor has continued in office as the head of the agency’s finance department.
Sources, including staffers of the two affected departments, expressed their disappointment that the officials were being shielded by the agency.
What public service rules, NCC staff handbook say
Although the NCC claimed that it sanctioned the officials according to the extant Public Service Rules and the NCC staff regulations as contained in the Staff Handbook, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed otherwise.
Chapter Three of the Public Service Rules deals with the discipline of erring public servants and section 3 of the chapter explicitly talks about misconduct.
The rule defined misconduct as a “specific act of wrongdoing or an improper behaviour which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and proved. It can also lead to termination or retirement.”
Also, Section Four of the chapter categorises falsification of records; suppression of records; bankruptcy/serious financial embarrassment; bribery; corruption; embezzlement; misappropriation; and advance fee fraud (Criminal Code 419) as “serious acts of misconduct.”
Explaining what should be done when an official is accused of any of the above, the rule says “it is considered necessary in the public interest that he/she should forthwith be prohibited from carrying out his/her duties. Pending investigation into the misconduct, the Federal Civil Service Commission or the Permanent Secretary/Head of Extra-Ministerial Office (if within his/her delegated powers) shall forthwith suspend him/her from the exercise of the powers and functions of his/her office and from the enjoyment of his/her emolument.”
This was, however, not the case with Messrs Gontor and Eretan as they were never suspended.
The rule further states that if found guilty, the ultimate penalty for serious misconduct is dismissal.
“An officer who is dismissed forfeits all claims to retiring benefits, leave or transport grant etc subject to the provisions of the Pension Reform Act 2004. When an officer is dismissed, no notice or emolument in lieu shall be given to him/her and his/her dismissal shall take effect from the date on which he/she is notified thereof.”
Also, Chapter 15 of the NCC staff handbook speaks on disciplinary procedures for acts of misconduct in the agency.
It explained that theft; forgery; fraud; receiving or giving bribes, cultism and drug-related offences are criminal in nature and should be handled by state agencies like the police, and other anti-graft agencies.
While the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) deals with corruption in the public sector, especially bribery, gratification, graft, and abuse or misuse of office, the EFCC investigates people in all sectors and it’s empowered to investigate and prosecute money laundering and other financial crimes.
PREMIUM TIMES is aware that beyond the deduction of the monies said to have been illegally taken by Mr Gontor and Mr Eretan from their emoluments, the agency has the responsibility of handling them over to police for proper prosecution but no such action has been taken.
Officials risk jail term
The misconduct by the NCC officials, described by lawyers as “obtaining of money under false pretence” is felony and the officials are liable to imprisonment to a term of three years.
“Any person who by any false pretence or by means of any other fraud obtains credit for himself or any other person is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years,” the law says.
Also, section 19 of the ICPC establishment act says “Any public officer who uses his office or position to gratify or confer any corrupt or unfair advantage upon himself or any relation or associate of the public officer or any other public officer shall be guilty of an offence and shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment for five (5) years without option of fine.”
‘Strip NCC of integrity award’
In 2020, the Umar Danbatta-led management of the NCC won the Ethics Compliance and Integrity Scorecards (ECIS) award of the ICPC.
LYLI in a statement by Mr Oladapo asked the ICPC to strip the NCC of its integrity award.
“It is crystal clear that NCC is condoning, albeit aiding corruption of its heads of Finance and Audit departments,” the statement said.
“There are sufficient pieces of evidence based on its letter of February 2nd admitting that the corruption allegation against some staff in the Audit and Finance Department is under investigation by the EFCC and also confirmed the truth of the graft under its nose as reported by Premium Times on 29th March 2021.
“Therefore, it is sad and ironic to hear that same NCC received the Integrity Honour, as a corruption-free agency from the ICPC while it cannot absolve itself from the travelling allowance fraud perpetrated by its staffers.”
The group said the NCC treated “corruption with kids glove” by unapologetically remarking that it is an administrative matter that it has dealt with by deducting the stolen fund from the pockets of the officials.
“To us, this is the art of treachery and hypocrisy of the NCC holding the award of integrity on one hand and aiding and abetting corruption on the other hand! It is a dagger blow assault on the collective intelligence of Nigerians and a complete negation of Buhari led administration fight against corruption.
“Nevertheless, stemming from the moral and legal tripod, NCC cannot continue to be a model and standard of integrity. It is an entity that is housed in a block built with glass and hurling stones. It is, for this reason, we urge the ICPC to strip NCC of this award for it is absolutely undeserving at these critical times while the administration is making spirited efforts to nip corruption in the bud.
“Furthermore, it is imperative for ICPC as a statutory organ clothed with power to investigate and prosecute corruption in public places to act statutorily as mandated by the law to investigate and prosecute the culprits as soon as possible. A stitch in time saves nine,” the group said.
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