The head of an Armenian parliamentary oversight body again alleged misuse of public funds on Thursday as he assessed the implementation of a government project to refurbish 74 schools across the country.
The project was launched in 2006 and was supposed to be completed last year. Its implementation has fallen behind schedule, however, with construction firms contracted by the Armenian government still working on at least 13 schools in and outside Yerevan. Their reconstruction worth 1.4 billion drams ($3.4 million) was due to be finished by the end of this year.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Urban Development Minister Narek Sargsian asked the government to extend this deadline further until 2016 or even 2017. Sargsian, who was appointed as minister in May, said that is necessary for ensuring the adequate quality of the ongoing repairs.
Ishkhan Zakarian, the head of the parliament’s Audit Chamber also present at the weekly meeting, said the delays highlight serious problems with the government’s and private contractors’ handing of the project. He said an inspection conducted by the chamber has found that none of the 74 schools was fully refurbished as of late 2013 despite the fact that 70 percent of budgetary funds set aside for the project had already been spent.
Zakarian claimed that some of the reconstruction work was so inadequate that it will have to be completely redone. In particular, he said, contractors have failed to enhance the seismic protection of schools against possible earthquakes.
“I believe that an expert assessment in 2016-2017 will recommend that many of [the new structures] be torn down or receive additional funding for their [seismic] reinforcement,” the official told Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and members of his cabinet. He warned that “the “efficiency of the use of budgetary funds will be called into question” unless the government improves the project implementation.
Abrahamian voiced serious concern at the Audit Chamber claims. Sargsian acknowledged that they are not unfounded. The minister said that a further delay requested by him is aimed at addressing the problem.
Thursday’s cabinet session marked Zakarian’s first major public appearance since a scandal sparked by an Audit Chamber report released in June 2013. The report alleged serious abuses in the administration of state procurements by various government agencies. Addressing the National Assembly at the time, Zakarian, speculated that as much as 70 percent of budgetary expenditure in Armenia may be misused or wasted in a similar fashion.
The government of then Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian strongly denied those allegations. President Serzh Sarkisian also blasted Zakarian. He at the same time instructed government officials to look into the allegations contained in the Audit Chamber report.