Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Customs probe: What the nation expects

The Customs probe: What the nation expects
Stabroek News Business. Friday 20 June 2008

Towards the end of May we learnt that the conclusion of the multi-million dollar Customs-Fidelity Polar Beer scam was a matter of days away. The first thing that should be said about the enquiry is that its findings are a matter of considerable public interest and that these should be made available to the nation in their entirety. Stories about corrupt goings-on inside the Customs Department have been bandied about for years and it is clear from the pronouncements made by both the President and the Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority that the department is still seen as being closely associated with what, in the language of the streets, is known as “runnings.”
Given the rather elaborate paradigms set out for the investigation by President Bharrat Jagdeo shortly after the Fidelity scam was first brought to public attention, the recent disclosure that the probe was almost at an end was somewhat surprising. The President, it will be recalled, had been detailed and deliberate in his outline of the areas that the investigation would embrace. He had said that the probe would include, among other things, asset investigations and that it would also take account of any complicity in the scam by Fidelity. Significantly, the President also said that the probe would go beyond the substantive Fidelity matter extending into wider issues associated with the probity of Customs transactions. Shortly after the investigation had gotten underway the President also said that expert external help was being sought to support the probe.
Given the various issues which the President said would be included in the investigation, it is reasonable to expect that the probe would have taken a great deal longer. Finding overseas experts, investigating assets and probing the Customs procedures and practices within the Guyana Revenue Authority certainly appear to be time-consuming pursuits and if indeed the investigation was able to accomplish all these things in a matter of weeks then its alacrity is worthy of public commendation.
In the weeks between the start of the probe and the recent disclosure that it was nearing an end we learnt that some GRA officers – the names of those officers are known – have been sent on leave; that a few Customs Officers and other low level officials have been dismissed from their posts and, more recently, that some officers attached to CANU had been subjected to polygraph tests and that those who had failed the tests – including the acting head of the Unit - would be dismissed.
Since it has now been disclosed that the probe is nearing an end, one can only assume that the investigators have covered all of the areas outlined in the President’s ‘terms of reference’ and that something will be said about the promised external help which the President had said will be recruited in the exercise, except it may subsequently have been determined that such help was not necessary after all.
This newspaper – in the face of public disagreement with the position that it took - has argued strenuously and repeatedly that the official probe within the ‘terms of reference’ set out by President Jagdeo should be allowed to proceed. We had also been emphatic in our view that the outcomes of the probe must match the President’s stated expectations.
Crucially – and if the President’s stated expectations are to be met - one expects that the wider Customs investigation would address the effectiveness or lack thereof of those control mechanisms and procedures within the GRA that are expected to protect the state against practices like the Fidelity fraud and how, those systems are compromised and circumvented in ways that allow hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue to be diverted.
If the commitments given to the nation by the President in the matter of the Customs probe are to be met, therefore, the outcomes of the probe must address all of the issues alluded to by the President. First, there must be full disclosure of the outcomes of the probe including who the guilty parties are, (and this applies both to Customs and to Fidelity) what mechanisms were used to perpetrate the fraud, what action will be taken against those persons who have been fingered in the fraud and what corrective mechanisms are being put in place to prevent any recurrences.
Secondly, the ‘deeper’ probe must address those weaknesses within the GRA that have spawned the institutionalized rackets - to which the President himself alluded - with a view to determining who or what is responsible for those weaknesses and what measures are being taken to correct them.
One thing is clear. The purpose of the investigation would have been completely compromised and the President’s stated expectations left unmet if the report seeks to have us believe that protracted multi-million dollar rip-offs can actually be masterminded by a few extraordinarily clever clerks, cashiers and customs officers who can continually evade detection by both their better-placed supervisors and by the elaborate IT-driven accounting mechanisms available to the GRA. In other words a few sacrificial lambs won’t do since that would leave the President with the embarrassing task of accounting for his own unmet expectations and would deepen the already considerable public concerns about his administration’s commitment to fighting corruption.

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