MASERU – Tlholo Moshoeshoe-Litjobo, wife of Alliance of Democrats (AD) MP Thuso Litjobo, was yesterday named in a pay-for-no-work scandal after she reportedly drew over M3 million in inflated claims from government for her catering business. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday heard how Moshoeshoe-Litjobo’s company Harona Catering was paid M3.6 million by the Ministry of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing.
This after she had allegedly exaggerated the number of days and meals she had served to a government-run college. The scam has also landed the Ministry of Small Business into trouble with the PAC which has demanded answers on why its mandarins defied the Attorney General’s advice not to honour the claim. The AG told ministry officials to wait until a tender battle between Harona Catering and Eatmore, which had been raging in court, had been settled.
The AG’s advice was endorsed by the High Court later. Appearing before the PAC yesterday, Small Businesses minister Chalane Phori testified that he had not scrutinised the Harona Catering file when ministry legal advisors brought it to him for approval, believing they had already done so.
Harona Catering and Eatmore Catering are locked in a bitter court fight over the right to dish for Lesotho Co-operative College students. According to PAC chairperson Selibe Mochoboroane, Eatmore was hired by the Ministry of Trade to cook for the college during the 2014 to 2015 academic year but the contract was terminated when a new government came into office in 2015.
Instead, Harona Catering got the deal. He noted that Eatmore then took the matter to court claiming that Harona was ill-equipped to perform the job. Problems between the two companies, however, escalated when they both continued catering for the college until 30 December 2015 when the High Court ordered that while their case was ongoing, the companies should each cater for three months, for which they were both paid.
Mochoboroane said that despite the High Court order, the ministry paid Harona Catering M3.6 million without double checking the accuracy of the bill. He said Harona had charged the ministry more money than it deserved. “The company made a claim for the whole year and charged meals for 31 days every month for 100 students even though the number of students deteriorated to 50 during its service time and even charged for the three months it has already been paid for,” Mochoboroane said.
He noted the payment was more than the company was owed and wondered how the minister and cabinet had approved the payment without picking up discrepancies in the claim. Mochoboroane said it was fraudulent to charge for meals for 31 days every month although it was a known fact that some months only have 30 days and February has only 28. He said Harona even charged for holidays and weekends when students were away from campus.
Meanwhile, Eatmore – Harona’s rival – had not been paid or compensated in any way apart from the money it was paid for the three months prescribed by the High Court. The college’s academic year ended prematurely in June 2015. Nyapane Kaya, a member of the PAC, noted the ministry of small businesses officials had revealed to the PAC that the agreement with the companies was that government would pay a flat rate per meal. He demanded to know how the minister and cabinet approved the payment despite the claim’s apparent flaws and why the ministry had defied the court order and disregarded the AG’s advice.
He also demanded to know why Phori had approved the calculations without verifying their accuracy. The PAC noted that it had summoned the two catering companies and ministry officials to testify but the session had collapsed into a farce when government officials started bickering with the companies’ representatives over rates.
He said Ministry of Small Business officials told the PAC that the ministry was not obliged to pay the companies as there was no formal contract between the two and the ministry. Phori said he had assigned ministry officials to deal with the payment dispute and did not double check the accuracy of their calculations. He said his officials made him believe that Harona deserved to be paid therefore he took their report to cabinet which approved it.
Phori had brought with him a report which endorsed the payment although his officials had presented a different dossier detailing the discrepancy. Phori admitted the payment was irregular, adding Harona had actually claimed M5 million but the amount was whittled down to M3.6 million. “It is very unfortunate that the numbers are incorrect because I assigned my officials and trusted them with the job,” he said.
He added he had not been aware that the dispute between the two companies was still pending before the courts when he authorised the payment. Phori further revealed that he was unaware of his officials’ submissions to PAC. “Reports should have come to me so that I could come to PAC fully prepared and aware of the things happening in my ministry. I am also surprised why they did not give me the report and why they are contradicting themselves,” he said.
“It is obvious that the ministry is divided and, as for now, there are two legal representatives in the ministry that work discretely,” he added. Contacted for comment yesterday, Moshoeshoe-Litjobo told this paper that she could only discuss the matter next week. However, when she was made aware that the story was due for publication today, she threatened to sue “should my name and my company’s name appear in the paper”.
“I am not ready to comment today. I am aware that Public Eye publishes tomorrow (today), but I cannot talk today. I can only speak to you next week because I have a lot to say,” Moshoeshoe-Litjobo said. “However, should you publish a story where my name and that of my company are mentioned, I will sue you (ha lebitso la ka le la company eaka li ka hlaha storing sa hau, u tsebe ke morena le lekhotla).”