Saturday, April 26, 2008

Corruption probe: Customs officers fired, cashiers “sick out”

Corruption probe: Customs officers fired, cashiers “sick out”
Kaieteur News, 26 April 2008

Two Customs officers in the Internal Affairs arm of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) were dismissed late yesterday even as a number of cashiers at the Main Street office went on a “sick-out”.
The two officers, who were on contract and had less than four years of service, were among a team that inspected containers of Kong Inc., which is at centre of the Polar Beer controversy that sparked a President-ordered investigation in various sections of the civil service.
Seventeen staff members of the Guyana Revenue Authority, two of them seniors, and some of them who have been working for as long as 20 years, have been sent on “annual leave until they hear from the Commissioner General” as a multi-agency task force went to work.
Yesterday, almost 40 of the GRA staff members gathered at the Guyana Public Service Union building on New Garden Street to plan their next move.
According to some of them, they were told by the Auditor General, who is part of the investigating multi-agency task force, that they were next.
Speaking with Kaieteur News yesterday, the two sacked Customs officers, who asked not to be named, said that they were part of separate teams that inspected containers of soft drinks last year at a city wharf.
Investigators believe that the containers had Polar Beers but were passed off as soft drinks to deprive the state of millions in revenues.
“I saw soft drink when I inspected. Further, other officers were with us inspecting and nothing has happened to them.”
And to compound the issue, the importer paid Value Added Tax on the imported soft drink and the money has not been returned. The GRA has actually accepted that the imported goods were soft drinks.
Last week, the two officers were among others that were reporting to the Police CID headquarters. They were placed on $50,000 bail each and asked to report for questioning.
One of them said that the Auditor General, who is a member of the multi-sectoral team, actually told the man that he would be sacked and at 16:00 hours he received a letter confirming his dismissal.
This week several of Customs officers continued to be interviewed by the task force which included the police, Ministry of Finance, and the Office of the Auditor General.
According to the two sacked officers, during the interview yesterday, they were allegedly asked to admit that the containers had beer in them.
“We refused because this was not so. At around 16:00 hrs, we received letters dismissing us. This is indeed shocking since no one from Fidelity or Kong seem to be in any trouble. They are still open and running their business as usual.”
According to the letters of dismissal issued to the two staffers, they were let go for contravening the GRA Schedule of Disciplinary Measures and being guilty of “inefficiency and incompetence” and “failure to obey known rules and the code of conduct…”
The two were also asked to hand in their IDs and properties of GRA.
According to GPSU Principal Industrial Relations Officer, Pamela Wendt, the meeting with the aggrieved Customs officers yesterday was to decide a way forward.
Already, the union has written GRA Commissioner General, Khurshid Sattaur, asking for a meeting but there has been no reply, the official said.
Seventeen Customs officers have been sent on annual leave since the start of the probe and some have been barred from leaving the country.
Some of them were locked up immediately after attending the interview. In one case the lock-up sparked a protest outside the East La Penitence Police Station and the subsequent release of the detained officers.
They have since been advised to seek legal advice because their constitutional rights have been violated.
Kaieteur News has learnt that the officers' names have been added to the so-called “black-list” operated by Immigration at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA) and flags any “undesirables” from leaving or entering Guyana.
And on Thursday, one cashier was sent a letter informing her that she was to report to the multi-sectoral task force “at the office of Mr Clyde Roopchand” in the Ministry of Finance. That letter was signed by GRA Commissioner General, Khurshid Sattaur.
Once there she was grilled and soon after she received a letter dated yesterday but delivered a day earlier, sending her on vacation leave until authorised by the Commissioner General.
Yesterday, she got a third letter countermanding the letter sending her on leave and ordering her to return to work immediately.
That letter came in the wake of a sick out by the cashiers at the GRA. None was at work yesterday.
President Bharrat Jagdeo, about a week ago, had ordered a full blown probe into possible corruption involving civil servants and their assets after a possible scam was revealed involving the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) and Fidelity Investments, the importer of Polar Beer from Venezuela.
President Bharrat Jagdeo, during a press conference earlier this week made startling revelations, painting a picture of elaborate schemes by civil servants, including Customs officers and businessmen, to defraud Government of millions of dollars.
According to the President, the investigations will go beyond the Fidelity Investments fiasco.
When announcing the probe, President Jagdeo said that the probe came in the wake of reports that a number of people involved in revenue collection had, over time, secured millions of dollars from large businesses operating in Guyana.
Initial reports were that those involved collected some $150 million from Fidelity Investments in the wake of the recent seizure of a quantity of Polar Beer.

GRA had seized the Polar Beer because it had evidence to support its contention that Fidelity Investments had set out to defraud the government of some $350 million in revenue.

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