Senior officials in court for Sh5.6b maize scam

Agriculture PS Richard Lesiyampe (centre), former National Cereals and Produce Board MD Newton Terer (right) and chief accountant Cornel Ngelechey at Milimani Law Courts yesterday. Thousands of farmer were shortchanged even as cartel lined their pockets with billions. [David Njaaga, Standard]
The Agriculture permanent secretary and a former boss of the cereals board yesterday became the latest casualties of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s all-out war on corruption.

PS Richard Lesiyampe and former National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) managing director Newton Terer appeared in court to answer corruption charges relating to a Sh5.6 billion maize purchase saga that saw thousands of farmers short-changed even as cartels lined their pockets with billions of shillings.

The two were to be charged alongside 16 others, but only three officials were arraigned and jointly charged before Nairobi Milimani Magistrate Felix Kombo. They were accused of fraudulently acquiring public property worth Sh468 million through irregular purchase and supply of white maize to NCPB.

According to the State, the crime was committed between October 17 last year and June 1 this year in Nairobi and Uasin Gishu counties.

A recent internal audit of NCPB showed that out of Sh3.5 billion maize bought by the corporation, Sh376.8 million should not have been paid.

Even as the three were arraigned, seven people were arrested by Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) officials in Eldoret as the purge on suspects behind the maize scandal intensified.

According to the anti-graft body, those arrested were officials from the Ministry of Agriculture responsible for the Strategic Food Reserve (SFR), traders, vetting committee members and NCPB staff.

Besides Mr Lesiyampe, Mr Terer and Cornel Kiprotich (NCPB general manager finance), others who recorded statements at the EACC offices were Eric Tallam (records clerk), Peter Chirchir (agriculture officer), Virginia Wamaitha (weighbridge clerk), David Barng’etuny (assistant chief) and Paul Marus (trader/farmer).

Others arrested in Eldoret but not present at the EACC offices included Caroline Cherono (accounts clerk) and Renson Korir (NCPB Eldoret silo manager).

Officials from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations arrived at the EACC offices to fingerprint the suspects before they were transported to Nairobi, where they are expected to appear in court.

The EACC executive director in charge of North Rift, Jackson Mue, said 10 individuals had been arrested and six others were being pursued.

Mr Mue, who spoke on the telephone, said the suspects would be charged for irregular purchase of maize worth Sh11.3 billion.

Eldoret in Uasin Gishu County is the economic hub of the North Rift region, where maize farming is one of the main economic activities.

Genuine farmers

Further vetting of maize farmers is ongoing to ensure that genuine growers benefited from the Sh1.4 billion payment recently released by the Government through the Devolution ministry.

The State owes farmers who delivered produce to NCPB Sh3.5 billion.

At the Nairobi court, each of the three accused persons denied the charges levelled against them.

Lesiyampe faces an individual count of failing to follow the law while managing public funds. The prosecution argued that the PS failed to comply with the Public Finance Management Act while approving payment worth Sh5.6 billion for the purchase of the maize. Lesiyampe, said the prosecution, failed to consult the SFR oversight board before making his decision.

The PS was also charged with unlawfully spending the money without authorisation. According to the State, the PS purchased maize beyond the approved budget set by the cereals board.

Terer is alleged to have neglected his duty of managing NCPB resources. According to the prosecution, the former MD, who resigned as soon as the maize saga exploded earlier this year, failed to put in place mechanisms to ensure that the NCPB purchased maize from vetted and registered farmers’ groups.

Like the PS, Terer was also accused of failing to comply with the law by purchasing maize beyond the approved limit.

Mr Kiprotich faced two charges, including failure to comply with the law and neglect of official duty.

He allegedly failed to ensure that NCPB bought enough maize for the SFR, and he was also accused of not ensuring that the money allocated for the purchase of white maize was prudently used.

The prosecution, through Senior Assistant DPP Alexander Muteti, said they were not opposed to the release of the three suspects, adding that there were no compelling reason for the court to remand them.

Mr Muteti, however, asked the court to give them bond to ensure that they attended court.

The prosecution said it had sufficient evidence to lead to the conviction of the suspects, noting that it had 23 box files containing at least 124,000 copies of documents that it would rely on to prosecute the case.

Lawyer Paul Nyamodi, representing the defendants, asked the court to release the three on cash bail.

“Your honour, I am happy that the prosecution has made that concession. Your honour, we urge you to consider them to be released on cash bail and also on reasonable terms,” Mr Nyamodi told Mr Kombo.

The State intends to call Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri and National Treasury Permanent Secretary Kamau Thugge as its star witnesses.

Mr Kombo released each of the three men on Sh6 million bail and a surety of the same amount.

Cash bail

Alternatively, they were required to pay Sh3 million cash bail to secure their release. They were also required to deposit their passports with the court.

The PS was also ordered not to go to his office without authorisation.

The prosecution said detectives were still looking for Caroline Kipchoge, Benson Kibet, Erick Kipketer, Virginia Wamaitha, Joseph Kipruto, Willie Sang, Celestine Chepchirchir, Victoria Jebet, Paul Marus, Caroline Chepchumba, Stephen Maiyo, Peter Chirchir and David Barng'etuny.

The case will be mentioned on September 20.

[Additional reporting by Silah Koskei and Titus Too]

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Richard LesiyampeMaize ScandalNCPB