Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Bells and the GRA probe

The Bells and the GRA probe
Stabroek News. Editorial. April 21, 2008

At a poorly attended consultation on governance and security recently at the Umana Yana for the poverty reduction strategy paper, the Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Luncheon spoke positively of the progress that had been achieved in governance and transparency.
He said that improved procedures have been formulated for accountability of agencies for their discretionary decisions within the Executive and under the Constitution. Provision was also in train to strengthen the “right of review and appeal to discretionary decisions of agencies and make them transparent”.
Quite frequently those lofty commitments and assertions by Dr Luncheon are found wanting. There are many examples. One that strikes close to this newspaper was the 17-month embargo on state advertising in Stabroek News. The boycott was implemented without any formal notification to this newspaper and when the matter was publicized there was no adequate or reasonable explanation of the cut-off. There was no mechanism for redress or review. There was no consideration of the multiplicity of suggestions and initiatives to end the impasse. Now, just as it began, the embargo has ended; without explanation. One is surely needed if transparency and good governance are guiding the decisions of the Executive and government agencies. The main purpose of these good governance planks is to convince each and every person affected by decisions by the state and its agencies that they were just and anchored within a transparent and fair framework.
The hurried purchase of two Bell helicopters to assist the joint services in arresting the alarming crime situation here is relevant. Why there was no functioning helicopter despite the fact that the country had seen numerous eruptions of bloody crime over the last six years in particular is another matter.
What now concerns many Guyanese is the basis for the decision-making and whether the government will live up to the standards that Dr Luncheon set at this consultation. It will no doubt be argued that the government had to act quickly and decided to single-source the helicopter. That is an undesirable practice and could lead to conditions where those in decision making positions act with the intention of later invoking an emergency. The same single-sourcing occurred when emergency power generation was suddenly needed last year and again recently.
There are many ways in public procurement to violate well-established procedures. Some are blatant like the contract-splitting that has harried public accounting for many years. There must have been options which would have allowed the government to institute an orderly tender process for the helicopters. Even if this is ruled out, the subsequent single-source decision must now be open to scrutiny so that members of the public can satisfy themselves that their government is acting judiciously and prudently.
Beginning with businessman, captain Gerry Gouveia, numerous questions have been raised about consultations with aviation experts, the price of the copters, their age, the choice of type and whether they will be able to perform the crime fighting functions envisaged by the state. The Guyana Defence Force has attempted to answer some of these questions but without putting them to rest.
When pressed, Dr Luncheon himself released the names of two persons who had been spoken to in relation to the purchases. One of them was Lex Barker and the other is a pilot, Michael Brassington. The latter has now dissociated himself from the project and has said that it has the makings of a “terrible deal”. Under those circumstances Dr Luncheon and his administration have much more explaining to do to convince the public that the right decision has been made and in the right manner.
Which government official initiated the search for the helicopters? What manner of search was conducted and who was consulted? Which officials were involved in the evaluations of any offers or proposals? Who made the final decision and can the expenditure of $300M on these particular two helicopters be justified? Were any fees or commissions paid outside of the purchase price? There is no need, at least not yet, for an inquiry. Those answers can be simply given by Dr Luncheon or those who are in the know.
Procurement is one area where the state has lapsed in ensuring that all of the checks and balances are in place. The obligation was on the state to ensure that the procurement commission and its tribunal were in place. This is only now being taken up again by the parliamentary parties, years after the first failed attempt.
There is no circumstance under which the state should be allowed to spend $300M just like that without adhering to best practice procurement guidelines. That it happened in this case is unacceptable. The situation can still be retrieved, however, if the public can be convinced by the government that good judgement was exercised and the helicopters are a good buy.
In the meanwhile, no time must be lost in setting up the procurement commission and tribunal and bringing all government procurement expenditure under its oversight.
As for the corruption shroud that now hangs over the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) and Fidelity Investment, there is already healthy public skepticism of the pronouncements and assurances by President Jagdeo. The public has been regaled before with similar denunciations of graft only to see the investigations fizzle into nothingness. The President railed against corruption when the duty-free scam ensnared the GRA several years ago. However, after a much-publicised investigation, the probe boiled down to charges against junior personnel of two ministries. A senior official who was either flagrantly reckless in his duties or complicit in the scam was later rewarded with a new position in the Finance Ministry and those members of the public who induced the corruption got off scot-free when they should have all ended up before the courts.
This new investigation has the markings and makings of a similar fiasco. The investigators have been handpicked by the President and include the Office of the Auditor General which no longer inspires the public as the watchdog of public finances. The scale of the alleged corruption at the GRA demands a more credible inquiry and inquirers. It also requires an investigation of the GRA and a determination of whether the linking of inland revenue and the customs and excise department has produced the desired results and lessened corruption and the conditions that allow it to thrive.

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