BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Ministers summoned over embezzlement following floods

A Civil Defence worker makes his way through a flooded tunnel leading to Beirut airport after heavy rainfall December 4, 2013. (REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Two caretaker ministers have been summoned for questioning by the financial prosecutor into allegations of embezzlement at the Public Works Ministry following flooding and road closures last week, a judicial source said Thursday.

Financial Prosecutor Judge Ali Ibrahim summoned caretaker Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi and caretaker Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi to separate hearings next week, the source said.

The prosecutor’s move came three days after Aridi and Safadi engaged in a war of words over the failure to perform maintenance on storm drainage networks across the country before winter, leaving Lebanese stranded for hours in flooded streets last week.

Heavy rains brought mud into the tunnel of the vital airport highway, blocking it in both directions and leaving motorists trapped for hours.

Aridi could not be reached for comment, but an official at Safadi’s office confirmed the summons.

“The financial prosecutor telephoned Minister Safadi today [Thursday] seeking a meeting with the minister next Thursday to inform him about the financial situation at the Public Works and Transport Ministry,” the official told The Daily Star.

Commenting on the summons, the Finance Ministry said in a statement: “Minister Mohammad Safadi would like to affirm that coordination between the Finance Ministry and the Financial Prosecution has always existed in full. The financial prosecutor has asked Minister Safadi to provide him with information pertaining to the Finance Ministry and nothing else.”

Ibrahim asked the relevant authorities earlier this week to provide him with the text of Aridi’s news conference and Safadi’s television interviews when the two ministers traded accusations of responsibility.

The transcripts were added to the probe Ibrahim launched in the wake of last week’s downpours and the subsequent floods, particularly in the tunnel connecting the capital to the airport.

The source said Aridi’s testimony would have to address allegations he made of fraud and embezzlement that were present at his ministry before and during his time as minister. Aridi would also have to name the parties involved in the allegations, the source added.

Safadi had served as the public works minister before taking up the finance portfolio.

Aridi told a news conference Monday Safadi had refused to approve the Public Works Ministry’s funds in order to pressure him into endorsing an illegal construction by the finance minister.

Safadi swiftly denied the allegations, saying the accusations were part of a “political campaign par excellence” against him in a bid to reduce his chances of becoming a prime minister.

Safadi said only some funds for the Public Works Ministry had been approved due to the limited prerogatives under a caretaker Cabinet.

The financial prosecutor also summoned officials at the two private companies, one of which was verified as the South for Reconstruction, to listen to their testimonies with regard to the flooding at the airport tunnel.

The questioning with the two companies’ officials, who are considered neither witnesses nor suspects in the case, will focus on whether the firms signed or renewed contracts with the Public Works Ministry in 2013 to clean out the storm drains.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2013, on page 1.

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