Saturday, May 3, 2008

The President and the Customs Officers

The President and the Customs Officers
Stabroek News. Business. Friday 2 May 2008

We remain wedded to our position that the undertakings given by the President in the Customs/Fidelity affair should serve as an assurance that the ensuing investigation will get to the heart of the matter and that the masterminds behind the scam will be exposed and punished.
On the other hand it comes as no surprise that last week’s dismissal of two Customs Officers and a cashier at Customs House for their alleged involvement in what has now come to be known as the Polar Beer fraud has provoked a measure of protest action by some of their colleagues. Their concern that the sacking of the three may portend a “show trial” at the end of which a few low-level “sacrificial lambs” will have to face the music while the masterminds behind the scam walk free is rooted in their understanding of what has been more-or-less the trend of similar previous investigations. In other words, despite the assurances given by the President they clearly believe that precedent justifies their skepticism.
Mind you, we make no assumptions about the guilt or innocence of the dismissed employees. We are simply seeking to put the response of their colleagues into perspective, to make the point that their stated motivation for their action is understandable.
Interestingly, what the actions of the protesting Customs Officers has done is to bring the views of the President – which have been well-documented in this newspaper over the past two weeks – into much sharper focus. By expressing their skepticism about the likely fairness and transparency of the investigation the Customs Officers – wittingly or otherwise – have challenged the enquiry to ensure strict adherence to the President’s ‘terms of reference.’
Persons closely associated with the GRA have said to this newspaper words to the effect that if you believe that something as significant as the Polar beer fraud can occur without the concurrence of “very senior people in the GRA setup,” you are likely to believe anything. President Jagdeo intimated pretty much the same thing when he referred to the “reach” of some of the people who may be involved in the matter, a remark that clearly does not refer to the assorted Customs Officers, cashiers and clerks employed by the GRA.
The investigation is, we understand, still far from complete and one assumes that when it arrives at the stage of what President Jagdeo described as “digging deep” others will be implicated……… like those functionaries, for example, who were responsible, both in a direct supervisory sense as well as in more senior managerial roles, for interfacing with agencies like Fidelity as well as the ‘foot soldiers’ – so to speak- who were dealing with the company on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, in referring to asset investigation as part of the Fidelity probe President Jagdeo would presumably have had in mind persons who may have benefited substantially from the scam – and, it would appear, from other scams - persons far more senior than the dismissed low-level functionaries.
And if we are to accept the President’s word that the investigation will indeed “dig deep,” the enquiry must also probe the culpability of those presumably senior functionaries at the GRA responsible for managing the regulatory mechanisms designed to prevent and/or detect occurrences like the Fidelity fraud. How effectively were they doing their jobs? Were the slippages that facilitated the fraud due simply to poor management or were they part of the wider plot to facilitate the ‘shakedown?’
A small but not unimportant point in all this is what appears to be the means by which the fraud was detected. As far as we have learnt, the ripoff was not unearthed through the GRA’s system of checks and balances. Someone, it appears, simply blew the whistle! Where then were the GRA’s monitoring systems during the relatively long period when this multi-million dollar ripoff was being perpetrated?
It has even been suggested to this newspaper that the fraud may have been faciliated by the extant arrangements that govern aspects of the administering of the GRA. We are told, for example, that the allocation of clusters of responsibilities within the GRA place certain functionaries in positions where they are responsible for both administering tax payments and receiving and acting on information regarding transgressions related to tax administration. The question surely arises as to whether these two sets of functions ought not to be separated..
A few weeks ago, in the wake of the sentencing of the former Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu to eighteen years in prison for corrupt practices the Communist Party of China issued a statement which declared in part that ‘whoever it is, no matter how high their positions are, anyone who violates party rules or national law will be severely punished.” We have said before that we believe that the President’s recent statement on the Polar beer issue, which reflects similar sentiments, ought to provide sufficient assurance that this time around the guilty, whomsoever they may be, will be punished. When we put this point-of-view to one of the protesting Customs officers, we were told that however well-intentioned those sentiments may be they remain, up to this time, no more than sentiments. The point about this - and about the protest by the Customs Officers - is that it points directly at a lack of confidence in a system of investigating corrupt practices, a system which, up until now, has fallen short of public expectations and which, the Customs Officers fear, could disappoint us again.
And while one can hardly be indifferent to the point that the Custom Officers have made we say again that the President’s undertakings must be given a chance to dispel their skepticism.

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