Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Fidelity/ Customs report at last?

The Fidelity/ Customs report at last?
Stabroek News. September 19, 2008 @ 5:01 am In Business, Editorial

Few recent corruption-related revelations – and there have been quite a few in recent years - have attracted the same level of public attention as the alleged Customs/Fidelity fraud. This may well have to do with huge sums of money said to have been involved or perhaps because a prominent private sector entity has been openly accused by the Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) of attempting to deny the public treasury hundreds of millions of dollars in duties.

What also helped the matter gain public attention was the decision by President Jagdeo to insert himself into the process through an aggressive public pronouncement about a full and transparent investigation (which he said would extend beyond the actual Fidelity matter) involving, among other things the investigation of assets including bank accounts and an undertaking that the guilty would pay, whatever their political connections. The President had also said that Fidelity too could expect to be in hot water if a case could be proven against them. Utterances of that kind are almost certain to secure a measure of public attention in circumstances where, in the past, corruption-related occurrences have not exactly attracted generous official comment.

A pronouncement of this nature was also likely to secure a measure of public attention given the widespread belief that the guilty invariably do not pay. The President, it seemed, went out of his way to assure the nation that this time around those persons caught in a web of corruption would pay. By creating reasonable expectation that action would be taken on this occasion the President actually added considerable currency to the investigation and to any report on its outcomes.
No one seriously doubts that relations between operatives within the Customs and Trade Adminis-tration and businesses are often characterized by ‘arrangements’ that have to do with the evasion of duties and taxes. In fact, both the President and the Commissioner General have alluded to “rackets” and “shakedowns” in the Customs process. And while “runnings” involving payment for favours may not necessarily be confined to Customs, it is at Customs, – because of the nature of its operations and the opportunities that exist for bribes and kickbacks - that fingers are mostly pointed at whenever claims of official corruption are made.

President Jagdeo understands this only too well and his pronouncement in the wake of the Fidelity revelations was intended to make the point that in the process of pursuing the Fidelity matter government would also be seeking to break the back of the wider problems associated with the corruption-related issues inside the Customs department. And while no one is likely to be persuaded that the scams and shenanigans can be swept away purely on the basis of a presidential undertaking, President Jagdeo can hardly be blamed for trying since he is aware that bringing an end to the problems at Customs will go some way to reducing allegations of corruption against his administration.

For all these reasons it is a decidedly good thing that, according to what we learnt recently from the Auditor General’s Office, the report on the investigation promised by the President on Fidelity and other Customs issues will be made public in a few weeks time. This is the second time in recent months that we have been told that the report is nearing completion and we must hope that the phrase in a few weeks time - the promised time frame for the release of the report – is not one of those creatively contrived expressions that actually allows the real time frame for publication of the report to run into several months.

One of the reasons why publication of this particular report is so important is that it will allow for a public judgment as to whether the issues that it addresses tally with the promises made by the President. Certainly, it would be interesting to learn what the findings of the Office of the Auditor General are on the practices within the Customs and Trade Administration and whether the fact that people are able to beat the system despite a regimen of IT and human safeguards does not bespeak a wider management problem. Put differently, to what extent was the Fidelity Affair actually facilitated by sheer managerial incompetence?

What the President said, therefore, has implications for much more than publication of a report.

Since both the President and the Commissioner General of the GRA have gone on record as conceding irregularities within operations of Customs and since the President has promised to “dig deep” on this issue, one expects that the report will also a provide a perspective on this issue. And of course it will be interesting to see whether the President’s promise of “no sanctuary” for those guilty parties will hold up or whether those involved in the scam will scurry for political protection.

This newspaper has repeatedly reminded – in at least three editorials – of the need to push ahead with the promised investigation, not because of any feigned sense of moral outrage but because the President had more-or-less placed his own credibility on the line by pointedly pronouncing on the issue. We believe – and we have said this previously – that given what both the President and the Commissioner General have said about the matter any attempt to evade an investigation or to “doctor” or “duck” any of its findings is bound to have the effect of deepening already existing healthy public cynicism about the commitment of the government to stamping out corruption in public institutions.

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