Sunday, 13 June 2021

DEMOLITIONS : BRIBERY SCANDAL LAID BARE


The ongoing council-led blitz to rid cities of illegal structures and undesignated trading sites could have inadvertently unearthed a major scam by council employees.

A group of informal traders in Mbare recently raised the red flag by doggedly resisting officials who sought to arrest them and confiscate their wares.

They insisted their operations were above board and produced “valid” licences and receipts as proof of payment made to Harare City Council.

“I don’t know what they want us to do. We have done all that is required by them for us to be operating here, yet they continue to harass us,” fumed one of the vendors.

This is not an isolated incident. Trevor, a 35-year-old entrepreneur specialising in tyre repair and replacement services in Chitungwiza, got the shock of his life after his “most treasured” compressor and related paraphernalia were seized by council officials.

But his business was also “registered” and “licensed”. Tendai Mazana equally feels hard done. She has been a vendor for three years and pays at least US$1 to council daily.

However, the very same council employees who collect the rates reportedly chase them away from their “designated” sites.

Municipal officials recently impounded her vending trolley and efforts to recover it have come to naught.

“I was told at the council offices that they have no records of any of the payments I have made over the years. They are regarding me as an illegal operator. I have not been able to recover my vending trolley,” she said.

Sad tales of informal traders who were sold bottled smoke by corrupt municipal officials who promised to regularise their operations are countless.

It is believed that the cunning officials are prejudicing local authorities substantial amounts of potential revenue through duping unsuspecting traders.

A corrupt network of cashiers, rate collectors, internal auditors and patrol officers has reportedly been siphoning funds from council coffers by creating fraudulent payment systems and duplicate receipt books.

They also distribute forged licence certificates. The fake receipts are difficult to distinguish from originals as they also carry a receipt number and the respective council’s letterhead.

The Sunday Mail Society gathered that unscrupulous printers were charging between US$7 and US$15 per copy for duplicate receipt books. “We have received several reports regarding the issue.

“Our investigations team is puzzled with the matter and they are on the ground investigating,” said Harare City Council spokesperson Michael Chideme.

In 2013, the City of Harare switched from an auto-credit system to a more stringent system that restricted employees to using journal vouchers after discovering a huge scam through which significant amounts were being stolen.  

“We have dealt with similar cases in the past, but, sadly, the issues keep recurring. So, this time we are trying to use a different approach in handling the matter,” said Chideme.

 

A Chitungwiza Municipality insider said the syndicates involve a complex network of employees working in different departments.

“Check closely, in some areas vendors pay council rates almost every day yet they are at times chased away from the vending sites.

“Do you think council is that disorganised?” said the source, who elected to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Onias (surname withheld), who owned a printing business whose services were sometimes outsourced by Chitungwiza employees who needed counterfeit receipting documents, has since decided to abandon this risky line of work.

“I used to work closely with Chitungwiza council employees. They would give me their logos and I would use my expertise to create fake receipt books.

“Although original receipts had security features, I had found ways to make my product appear genuine. As an IT expert, I feel they need to do more in improving the security features,” he said.

The local authority has since switched to a smart and secure electronic payment system that is considered fool-proof and designed to eliminate leakages.

“The exercise, which was rolled out recently, is now being used in markets for informal traders and all council clinics. In fact, all our clinics are now using e-receipts transactions,” Chitungwiza Municipality spokesperson Lovemore Meya said.

“That said, we are carrying out investigations and those who will be linked to acts of stealing from the council will be heavily dealt with by the law, because this is a serious criminal offence.”

But the criminals seem determined. Some of the fraudsters are allegedly cancelling computer-generated receipts and replacing them with fake hard copies.

Often-times, they conveniently blame poor network connectivity. Pilfering staffers have been a thorn in the flesh for local authorities for some time.

Marondera suspended four employees after being fleeced of thousands of dollars in a financial scam involving fake receipt books in 2017.In the same year, some Harare City Council employees were also nabbed for manipulating loopholes in the council billing system to swindle residents of large sums of money in a scandal that also involved the use of counterfeit receipts.

Some of the culprits also allegedly manipulated the system to auto-debit some consumers and credit the amount into some indebted ratepayers for bribes. This later came to light when some residents complained of suspiciously high bills.

Masvingo had similar challenges in 2019. Sunday Mail

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