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Source: mothership.sg

Allegations regarding absence of signatures and documentation on certain invoices scrutinised by PRPTC

The court's attention was shifted to the allegations brought upon by the Pasir Ris-Punggol Town Council (PRPTC) surrounding several invoices as the controversial trial involving three Workers' Party (WP) Members of Parliament (MPs) entered its fifth day on Thursday (11 Oct).

In a cross-examination between Senior Counsel Chelva Retnam Rajah -- who represents the three WP MPs, namely former secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, current secretary-general Pritam Singh, and chairperson Sylvia Lim -- and PRPTC's witness PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)'s partner Goh Thien Phong, certain invoices issued by the town council were scrutinised for having no signatures from the head of department.

The absence of signatures on the invoices was alleged by PRPTC to be a breach of the Town Councils Financial Rules (TCFR), and thus were included as a part of the "improper payments" that the WP MPs, along with two other AHTC town councillors, were accused of making.

During his cross-examination of Mr Goh, SC Rajah questioned the finding in PwC's report -- that 56 invoices totalling $674,388.70 were not properly certified or authorised by the head of dept and had thus breached the TCFR -- saying that "it is apparent that your allegation is based on the signatory on the invoices only."

SC Rajah then highlighted that "the head of department has signed on another document certifying that the invoice is satisfactory," and probed Mr Goh on why that was still unacceptable.

Mr Goh replied that "the head of department "must sign on the invoice which then leads to payment, and that "just signing on one document," which is a separate document from the invoices, "does not satisfy the TCFR."

SC Rajah then asked Mr Goh to point out which specific rule within the TCFR that was breached according to PwC, to which Mr Goh responded with Rule 56 s.s. 4c, which stipulates that "it is the responsibility of the head of department to satisfy himself that … the prices charged are either according to contracts or approved scales, or fair and reasonable according to current local rates."

SC Rajah dissected Mr Goh's claim, asking: "If the head of department has satisfied himself, but does not sign the invoice, and signs the payment voucher - in your view, it is still a breach?"

Mr Goh responded in the affirmative, saying that "there is a procedure in the town council which must be followed," and that signing the payment voucher "does not necessarily [...] mean that he [the head of department] is satisfied with the work done, and that he is certifying the invoice."

Citing the affidavit of current general manager and secretary of AHTC Vincent Koh Weng Kong who said that it was "incorrect" to fixate on the payment vouchers, SC Rajah argued that The Voucher Journal Report (VJR) were all signed by the head of department, and that "there are several layers of checks and supporting documentation by non-conflicted persons, before payments are approved and paid for."

Mr Goh however, insisted that the head of department did not sign on the invoice itself, and that there must be "a consistent procedure by the town council that everybody has to follow."

SC Rajah debated Mr Goh's claim, stating that "TCFR s.54 does not say that 'what must be signed' – it puts onerous duties and responsibilities – so, how can not signing the invoice be a breach?

Mr Goh stood by his original statement, saying: "I need to have a signature on the invoice ... Otherwise, there is no way for me to tell that he has satisfied himself to the requirements of the TCFR s.54.

"There is no evidence. The VJR is for a different purpose. There is no accountability," he charged, adding that "it doesn't mean that when one person signs on one of them [documents], it can substitute another."

"Missing" supporting documents were also subjected to scrutiny

According to findings detailed in the PwC report, 12 invoices without supporting documents amounting to more than S$171,110 were also singled out as "improper payments."

Noting that the original 22 invoices listed by PwC were amended to 12 during the handover to PRPTC in 2015, SC Rajah argued that it is evident from the email correspondence "between the old and new town councils that 6 of the 12 are on 'monthly service reports' [...] that all these [documents] have been subsequently received [...] and thus, they are not 'missing'."

Mr Goh disputed SC Rajah's claim, saying that the documents were not supplied to PwC, adding that "it is very strange that the payment voucher was with the old town council, whilst the supporting documents were with the new town council," which were not known to PwC at the time.

SC Rajah questioned this, highlighting that AHTC had been given a court order to hand over the documents to PRPTC and PwC in late 2015, following the People's Action Party (PAP) having "won back" the Punggol East seat in the 2015 General Election.

An e-mail was also sent by PRPTC's general manager Kwok Wei Kin around the same time to then-AHTC deputy general manager Mr Vincent Koh, in which Mr Kwok thanked Mr Koh and his team for handing over the documents.

SC Rajah then highlighted that that as PwC started auditing on 1 Nov 2016, the documents should have been in PRPTC's possession by then. 

"So, it is not possible that so many documents were 'missing' as you [had] alleged in your report, when they were already not with AHTC, but with PRPTC ... All the 'missing' documents that you have listed are not relevant," argued SC Rajah.

Mr Goh, while initially agreeing with SC Rajah, rebutted that "at that time when we were doing our work and asked for them, they were missing."

The allegedly "missing" supporting documents included those related to "the payment of 6 invoices to [contractor] Propell Integrated to show that the work was satisfactorily done."

Propell Integrated performed works that entailed setting up polling stations for GE 2015 as required by the Housing Development Board (HDB) and the Elections Department.

SC Rajah pointed out that costs for such works were "reimbursed by HDB," and that "HDB verified this before AHTC paid for the costs," noting that "HDB and the Elections Department officers came down to do an inspection that the work was done."

When probed by SC Rajah if he was aware of the reimbursement and the checks made by HDB, Mr Goh said: "No ... I only realised this after the subject lawsuit started."

However, he reiterated PwC's findings, stating that "what goes on between the HDB and AHTC" were only instructions, and that it "is not evidence of work done."

"HDB may have someone who was satisfied after their inspection, but there was still no evidence that the work was done when payment was made," added Mr Goh.

SC Rajah further questioned Mr Goh: "So, despite the fact the the polling stations served well during the elections – you still maintain that there was no evidence that the work was done satisfactorily when the payments were made?"

Mr Goh responded that there was no concrete visual evidence, such as photographs, supporting AHPETC's payment to the contractor.