Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Customs/ Fidelity probe ordered by the President must not be derailed

The Customs/ Fidelity probe ordered by the President must not be derailed
Stabroek News Business. Friday 18 July 2008

There is a distinct and disturbing air of dissonance to the unfolding saga of the Customs/ Fidelity Affair. The twists and turns in the labyrinthine drama may have already had the effect of losing a public eagerly awaiting the outcome of the investigation into the fraud claims, which investigation is surely a matter of profound national interest and one which was publicly promised by the President himself.

Here, it is worth reminding that what the President promised was an investigation that transcends the Fidelity Affair and delves into the deeper “goings on” inside the Customs and Trade Administration. Taken together, the public pronouncements made by the President and the GRA Commissioner General have left no doubt that there is indeed much that warrants investigation inside the Customs Department.

Fidelity aside, there are two reasons why such an enquiry is important. First, there is the need to address what has long been an unshakeable public conviction that the operations of the Customs Department are replete with corrupt transactions that defraud the public treasury of billions of dollars and from which those functionaries involved in the corrupt practices profit. This much was made clear by the President himself some months ago during a press conference in the wake of the alleged Fidelity fraud revelation.

Secondly and consequently, a fair and transparent investigation into these scams and rackets that fingers and punishes the masterminds will place the government in a far better position than it is at this time to make a believable public declaration regarding its commitment to fighting corruption.

The problem is that given all the various recent revelations associated with the alleged Fidelity/Customs fraud, there now appears to be a good deal of uncertainty about the status of the enquiry promised by the President, which enquiry, we were told towards the end of May, was almost completed. Since then we have learnt that there are other issues pertaining to Fidelity that may warrant – presumably another – investigation. More recently, Fidelity convened a press conference during which it proclaimed its innocence.

The day after the Fidelity briefing Mr. Sattaur publicly accused the company of having attempted to defraud the GRA of sums in excess of $300m!

The point about all these claims and counter-claims reposes not in their truth or lack thereof but in their relevance to what we can only assume is the still ongoing enquiry ordered by the President. What exactly is the status of that enquiry and will these new revelations by Fidelity and Mr. Sattaur impact on the proceedings and on the timing and outcome of the enquiry.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of overwhelming public cynicism about the enquiry and its likely outcomes. Few people, if any, seriously believe that the enquiry will precipitate the collapse of the culture of corrupt customs transactions and if the President may perhaps feel discomfited by the public cynicism no one can justifiably deny that it derives from previous experiences of corruption-related probes associated with transactions that have been ‘rigged’ to evade the payment of customs duties.

It is here that President Jagdeo is challenged to ensure that the enquiry which he ordered personally is completed and that its outcomes deliver on his promise that the investigation will “dig deep” and that the masterminds will be exposed and made to answer. Nothing short of this will do. What certainly will not do is any long and pregnant pause in the probe itself that gradually descends into a permanent deafening silence on the issue. It is up to President Jagdeo – on whose directive the probe was ordered - to ensure that this does not happen.

The question also arises as to whether the broader enquiry into the operations of the Customs Department ordered by the President ought not to proceed separately from the Fidelity enquiry since, presumably, the former is likely to be far more complex and presumably more protracted.

It would certainly do little good if the imperative of bringing the Fidelity enquiry to an expeditious end serves to truncate and, consequently, compromise the broader Customs enquiry.

Finally, it has to be said that by giving a clear and profound public commitment to an enquiry President Jagdeo has placed his own credibility on the line. This newspaper has consistently insisted that the enquiry ordered by the President be allowed to proceed despite calls from other quarters for an independent enquiry.

We believe, therefore, that is up to the President to ensure that nothing is allowed to derail the completion of the enquiry and the placing of its full findings in the public domain.

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