Tuesday, July 8, 2008

‘Huge’ Customs/Fidelity bribery probe still big mystery

‘Huge’ Customs/Fidelity bribery probe still big mystery
By Iana Seales
Stabroek News news item. Tuesday 8 July 2008

More than two months after a major investigation began into allegations of bribery at customs involving senior officials and a local company importing Polar beer the public is still in the dark about the progress and the results of the investigation.

What started out as an intensive probe expected to sink its teeth deep into a string of reported shady dealings at the Customs and Trade Administration (CTA) of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) has barely scratched the surface of the administration, according to reports.

Auditor General (ag) Deodat Sharma, who is heading the task force set up by President Bharrat Jagdeo in April to crack wide open the underhand activities of several customs officials, was unavailable when Stabroek News sought a comment on the bribery probe last week.

Commissioner General of the GRA, Khurshid Sattaur referred this newspaper to Sharma when he was contacted on Friday saying that the task force has all the facts and not him.

Since April 28, the employees sent on indefinite leave have been reporting to the police on a weekly basis; in some instances twice a week as instructed and while some have been questioned on very little, others have been asked about their bank accounts and fortunes among other things.

A customs broker who had worked for Fidelity Investments Limited, which is the company caught up in the Polar beer scandal, is among those being questioned over the past three months. It was back in April when a senior Fidelity official made bombshell revelations about an organised scheme to smuggle Polar beer into the country triggering the probe and resulting in several senior customs officials being sent on leave.
“I am at the point where I am tired of running to the police to clear my name and showing up when asked only to be told to come back. I am sick of it and I believe everyone is as well, it is just silly,” an employee recently said.

The employee was not exaggerating about the regular visits, which have reportedly frustrated the majority of persons sent on leave. The sequence is as follows though a few of the dates in a particular week might have been slightly different.

April 28: The employees were asked to make themselves available for questioning and some were grilled.
May 5: The employees return for questioning with several more interrogated on their alleged involvement in the scandal.

May 13: They make another appearance and are questioned.

May 20: A few more persons are questioned and they are sent away.

May 27: Several persons are questioned and a few houses are reportedly searched.

June 2: Some are questioned about their role in the Polar beer scam.

June 13: Another appearance but they are told to come back, no one is questioned.

June 17: They are told to come back.

June 19: They are told to come back.

June 26: They are told to return.

July 4: Told to return.

According to an employee, they are forced to kept running back and forth to no avail because no has said anything substantive to them for months. The employee said that from the first day they were informed that their names are on the blacklist at the airport, which means they cannot leave the country.

To date, five employees have been fired from the GRA and they too have been asked to appear before the police because they could be facing criminal charges. But though they have been threatened with such charges none has been hinted for any official of Fidelity Investment which is embroiled in the scandal.

Sources have since observed that Fidelity should be facing criminal charges for allegedly bribing customs officials. Back in April, Fidelity proposed a deal with the revenue body that led to the probe being initiated - they would reveal how 73,000 Polar beers were cleared from the wharf without duties being paid but only in exchange for the charges instituted against the company to be dropped.

Fidelity then broke the story fingering the GRA officials by spilling how they entrusted a customs broker who is currently in police custody with $142M to get the shipment from the wharf.

The man reportedly came up with a deal with customs to clear the Polar beers under the category of ‘assorted soft drinks’, which draws less tax than the Polar beers.

The sum of $32M was then paid to revenue body in taxes and another $70M was paid to a top customs official who allowed the shipment to leave the wharf and who is also alleged to have facilitated documents being falsified for Fidelity.

But within days of the deal being struck, someone reported to a GRA official that the beers had left the wharf without taxes being paid resulting in GRA moving to seal off the Fidelity bond at Broad Street.

Sources told Stabroek News that the customs broker at the centre of the probe had worked directly with a few customs officials and when the probe commenced, he produced documents showing that soft drinks had been cleared from the wharf and not Polar beer.

According to a source, the broker is holding firm to his story, which is that he cleared soft drinks and not Polar beer from the wharf for Fidelity but his story conflicts with what Fidelity has already stated.

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