DEAR Public Protector – You are quite right to be deeply concerned about ‘false billing’ – making the state pay for goods and services that were never supplied. And you’re right that the system of away-from-home accommodation for state employees needs a total overhaul.
In our little Free State dorp we’ve seen any number of illegal practices. And it’s not just here: people who do the books of accommodation establishments in other parts of South Africa tell me that some B&B owners, gradually drawn into corrupt deals, now find they can’t escape.
There are long-established practices for guest-management transactions, whether the person comes directly or through a travel agent, that ensure everything is above-board. But when guests don’t stay as private individuals – when someone else is paying the bill – it’s incredibly easy to ‘fix’ the system, and the problem is most acute when government employees are involved.
Smithfield, where I live, often hosts people on official short contracts. I first became aware of the problems that could arise from the story of my neighbour who had a few such guests staying with her. Meals had become an issue: she’s a good cook but the guests constantly moaned. She realised it might be a scam when they demanded she hand over the ‘food money’ she would otherwise spend on their meals. By then she’d had such a rough time that she was happy to deliver the cash so the problem would go away.
Next on the slippery slope are guests whose employer specifies a meal allowance: they will pay accommodation plus a certain amount for meals. Now some guests are routinely demanding this cash be handed over in full. It’s common, virtually standard, practice for such guests to buy bread and chips for meals and pocket the balance.
Other times guests whose employers stipulate a restaurant meal allowance to a certain amount, insist on bringing a friend along to meals. They ensure their combined bill is no less than the daily allowance.
A colleague in the Eastern Cape tells of a common practice there: the relevant department covers her accommodation rate plus a R200 ‘meal allowance’ that’s way out of line. A couple of cold drinks plus a three course meal cannot possibly come to more than R130, even at the best eatery in town. The guests then buy cigarettes, cold drinks, take-aways, hamburgers – I kid you not, even though they have just eaten a full meal – to the value of whatever remains so that the money is all used.
My worst experience concerned a group of young professionals who came to ‘get a quote’ for an upcoming tour of duty in the town. Half way through the negotiations it became clear that there was a subtext. They seemed to be suggesting that my rate was ‘too low’ – a novel problem.
Turned out they knew the highest amount payable for accommodation by their department. They had already obtained a quote from the most expensive places in town where the bill would be almost exactly the accommodation allowance. But they specifically wanted to stay at a place with a significant gap between the bill and the maximum allowed.
Don’t think they wanted to save tax payer’s money: their plan was to be billed for the utmost the department would pay and for the difference between my ‘genuine’ bill and the ‘false bill’ to be split between them and me.
One of the guys said he chose where his team stayed when they were away on a job. If we could do this deal and make it an on-going arrangement, he would make sure they always stayed with me in the future. At this crucial point he had to leave, but he said he’d be back for my answer.
So much money was involved that I expect he thought it a done deal. I would have loved to see his face when he read my SMS saying he should immediately stop his illegal deal-making or I would report him.
As he and his group were in town next week on their assignment I presume he found a place more amenable to his proposals. What irked me most was this, however: they were employees of the Department of Justice – accountants, no less, – in town to ensure that the books of the local department were in order.
Our message to you, Madam Public Protector is this: get cracking, find a way to stop these practices. We’ll all be in your debt.