Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Customs racket: No one is protected!

The Customs racket: No one is protected!
Stabroek Business, April 18, 2008

Last Tuesday President Bharrat Jagdeo made a clinical pronouncement on graft and corruption. In response to a question raised at his press conference about the recent Customs/Fidelity alleged fraud he read what appeared to be nothing short of a ‘riot act’ that is designed, it appears, to remove what is widely believed to be one of the oldest - and, for the businessmen and Customs officials who have benefited from the practice - most lucrative forms of corruption in Guyana.
And if the President is to be taken at his word the reported “shakedown” involving Fidelity, a local distribution company and Customs officials, could trigger a far wider investigation into what, by the President’s own admission, has been a sustained plundering of the public treasury arising out of collusion between customs functionaries and importers.

What exactly did the President say? He said, among other things, that he had learnt during a meeting with the Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority of “what seems to be a major ring operating in the Customs area;” that the ring extends “beyond the Fidelity issue;” and that “ some of the people who have been working in civil service jobs… have assets that are a hundred times, five hundred times their accumulated income.”
Intriguingly, President Jagdeo alluded to the “far reach” of some of the people who may be implicated in the Fidelity scam and anticipated that those people may well engage in “quite a lot of lobbying,” presumably to have themselves exonerated and perhaps even to seek to implicate others. “If anyone had any intention of coming to see me or lobby me,” the President declared, “tell them not to. I don’t want to hear any calls about who is innocent and who is guilty;”
And then the President said that he had heard that others, “including government officials” had been approached. The names of those officials, the President said, should be given to the investigating team. And to cap what is potentially a far-reaching pronouncement the President gave notice that “there is no one who is protected.”
There is a profound and multi-faceted significance to the President’s pronouncement. First, it amounts to an open admission of an extensive and highly organized racket underpinned by dimensions of graft and “shakedown” involving Customs officials and some businessmen. The Fidelity scam, the President said, “is not just one matter.” In his words “it’s a system” through which “large sums, rather than being paid into the Treasury, are diverted to a large number of people in exchange for free passage.”
The second significant thing about the President’s statement is that it warns off those who may have been implicated in the scam and who may seek to use their “far reach” to lobby him – and presumably any other government or party official who may have the clout to influence the process; and that, the President said, applies equally to “government officials” who may be fingered in the scam.
Thirdly, the President said, precisely because of “the far reach of some of the people” the Fidelity matter and others will not be subjected to an internal investigation, but rather, is being investigated by a Task Force involving the Ministry of Finance, the Auditor General’s Office and the Police. In this regard the President appears to be seeking to circumvent the eventuality of those with “far reach” attempting to influence - or perhaps go over the head of - an internal GRA investigation.
What the President’s statement has also done is to place a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the “investigating team.” In declaring that “we will dig deep” he appears to be anticipating outcomes to the investigation that go beyond the Fidelity matter. One is hard-pressed to recall any investigating team in a matter involving corruption ever before having been given such a public carte blanche by the President.
If the letter and what appears to be the spirit of the President’s pronouncement on the Fidelity matter is enforced by the investigating team we can anticipate – again according to the President – a careful examination of “assets”, among other things – a pronouncement that implies that those who have benefited ‘big time’ from the Fidelity scam and other scams will be targeted.
The hundred million dollar question, of course, is whether the investigation will take the course outlined in the sentiments expressed by the President or whether it will simply evaporate in a mist of tokenistic disciplinary measures and yet another “shakeup” in Customs administration that leaves the system open to still more scams and rackets. The President’s statement at last Tuesday’s press conference is, in a very real sense, a challenge to his own determination – and the determination of the institutions and individuals charged with investigating the Fidelity scam – to help rid his administration of the cloud of corruption that hovers over it.

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