LEDU under Stormont accounts watchdog spotlight

Several senior civil servants from the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment have been taken to task by the Stormont Public Accounts Committee.

DETI Permanent Secretary Bruce Robinson; Alan Neville, Acting Chief Executive of DETI arm LEDU and Wilfie Hamilton, Principal Finance Officer from DETI were called by the Public Account Committee to explain why two employees from LEDU were able to commit frauds totalling more than £219,000.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) questioned the senior civil servants on Wednesday January 30 about failings in the way the incidents were handled by the trade department.

A spokesperson for the PAC said their function was to bring public sector officials to account for decisions made. The spokesman added, in effect the PAC "carries real weight and today these civil servants were called to account in a very public way for their actions."

The first fraud involved an employee, named Atwell of the Local Enterprise Development Unit, (LEDU), who diverted £118,000 of taxpayers' money into her personal bank account. This money, to date, has not been recovered.

The fraud was discovered following checks by another member of staff in December 1996.

At the time, LEDU held an investigation into how the fraud occurred and what procedures should be put in place in order to avoid a similar occurrence. However, subsequently a staff member, Gribben, who spotted the initial fraud, perpetrated frauds totalling £40,000 - and attempted frauds totalling another £60,000 between 1998 and 2000. However, the PAC learned on Wednesday that the amount of £40,000 has since been recovered by the Ulster Bank.

Although LEDU introduced new control procedures following the first incident, a report by the public spending watchdog, the Northern Ireland Audit Office, was highly critical of LEDU's procedures.

It said many of the weaknesses highlighted by the first case were present in the second and that LEDU failed to implement guidance given by the department's own auditors.

The PAC will make their report in about 6-8 weeks time and the DETI will have eight weeks to produce their memorandum of reply. (AMcE)

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