Haiti Senate report claims graft in use of Venezuela funds

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A Haitian Senate report has called for charges to be brought against two former prime ministers and several ministers for alleged embezzlement, abuse of authority and forgery stemming from the use of funds in a Venezuelan oil loan program.

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The executive summary of the report, dated Wednesday, said heads of ministries granted multimillion-dollar projects to firms while bypassing the public bidding process and signed contracts that were not under their authority. The full report has not been released.

The Senate report will add to concerns about billions of dollars of aid promised to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Much of the money went to directly to aid organizations, with results on the ground mostly unimpressive. Aid flows have slowed as memories of the devastation fade.

Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program, by contrast, funneled money directly to the Haitian government’s coffers. The program, which Haiti joined in 2006, allowed Caribbean nations to pay low prices for oil from Venezuela, part of which would be financed upfront, with the balance put in a fund to finance social and economic projects.

That money, too, has dried up, however, as Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven reserves of oil, contends with domestic political problems and low oil prices.

The report caps a parliamentary investigation led by a senator from the southern town of Jacmel into whether funds from Venezuela’s PetroCaribe program were misspent under previous governments led by presidents Rene Preval, under whom the program began, and Michel Martelly, who left office earlier this year.

The report calls for judicial investigations into Jean-Max Bellerive, prime minister under Preval; Laurent Lamothe, prime minister under Martelly; former ministers of finance, public works, planning, agriculture and health; the Office of the Monetization of Aid and Development Programs; and members of committee under the Ministry of Planning.

It also asks for certain companies granted funds under the program to return the money and called for investigations into overbilling and violations of contracts.

“The liberties taken by the successive administrations with the law, the maneuvers or strategies used to skirt the law, the lightness with which some dossiers were treated, the overbilling and other derivatives, the lack of ethics demonstrated that the interrogations and the suspicions of public opinion were well-founded,” the summary reads.

Through his spokesman, former Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said he was innocent.

A spokeswoman for the Venezuelan embassy declined to comment, saying this was an internal matter concerning the Haitian government.

A draft of the report has been distributed to senators for approval. If it is approved in a vote, it will be sent to an administrative court, the anti-corruption office and two financial authorities, Youri Latortue, the senator who led the investigation, said on radio station Magik 9 on Friday.

The Haitian Senate has not met regularly for months.

Haiti used about $2.1 billion in funds from the program for its investment budget between 2008 and March 2016, the executive summary said.

Haiti, along with Venezuela and Guinea-Bissau, were tied for 158th place in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, out of a possible 167 slots.

Reporting by Makini Brice; additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman