Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Customs bribery probe

Stabroek News news item, Tuesday 23 December 2008
Customs bribery probe
Stabroek News: December 23, 2008 in News

Report recommends Fidelity, CTA officials face charges
The task force initiated by the President to investigate bribery allegations
at the Customs and Trade Admin-istration (CTA) has reportedly made
recommendations for officials at Fidelity Invest-ment to face criminal
charges for their role in the reported multimillion dollar scam at Customs.
Close to 15 employees within the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) will also
face the courts - if the recommendations are taken onboard by the
administration - for colluding to defraud customs and "openly lying about
what they saw in the containers cleared from the wharfs," sources told
Stabroek News yesterday. The investigation wrapped up two weeks ago and the
report is now awaiting an official release from President Bharrat Jagdeo
after he reads it.
The examining routine of officers named in the Polar beer scandal has been
severely criticized in the task force report, sources said, referring to a
part of the report that underscored the importance of the Total Revenue
In-tegrated Processing System (TRIPS) being fully implemented at all levels
within the GRA, particularly at the wharfs. TRIPS advocates 100 per cent
examination of all containers that are cleared at the wharfs.
But more importantly, the report has found that the officers were openly
deceptive about the contents of the containers that they had examined and
cleared at the wharf for Fidelity as they insisted and even falsified
documents stating that soft drinks had been imported by Fidelity. Fidelity
had disputed this since the investigation first commenced stating that the
company had imported Polar beer and not soft drinks.
It is believed that at least one high-ranking official within the GRA, who
had been embroiled in the Polar beer scandal involving Fidelity, will face
disciplinary action as recommended by the task force, for incompetence; more
so failing to detect the corrupt practices of officers working in that
Sources said yesterday that no evidence was garnered throughout the entire
process to corroborate reports about high ranking officials being involved
in the scandal at Customs. The report is therefore expected to clear key
officials initially fingered in the fraud.
But sources have observed that that many junior staff named in the fraud,
who had initially pointed fingers at those in the upper echelons at customs,
later failed to give any solid information to corroborate their stories.
There was a suggestion that some persons "basically appear willing to stand
alone in the fraud" though no one has confessed to any wrongdoing.
Auditor General (ag) Deodat Sharma, who headed the task force investigation,
was brief yesterday when this newspaper spoke with him. He said that the
findings of the report would be made public in time, but confirmed that the
committee has made recommendations for disciplinary action to taken against
GRA staff, and also for criminal charges to be instituted in several cases.
It was all Sharma would say on the report.
Soft drinks
The issue of whether Fidelity imported soft drinks or Polar beer is a key
part of the report findings, according to sources. This had been part of the
investigation since the story first broke, owing to a statement given to
Customs officials by the broker attached to Fidelity. The broker had stated
and still maintains that he cleared containers with aerated drinks and not
Polar beer, and he had produced documents stating as much.
Those documents and the signatures attached have positively linked many of
the GRA staff, since the task force's investigations have revealed that soft
drinks were not imported into the country by Fidelity Investments; the team
had travelled to Venezuela to confirm this.
Sources told this newspaper that Fidelity officials have been unable to
provide a clear, coherent story to the task force as it relates to the
company's bookkeeping records on the containers that are the subject of the
investigation. The containers were cleared in January this year and the
documents that were reportedly produced by Fidelity have corroborated the
broker's soft drink story.
Stabroek News was reliably informed that Fidelity officials have since said
that the broker was handed money to clear the containers and that he handled
all the transactions for the company, and that officials had no idea what
had been taking place. Fidelity sought to distance itself from the falsified
documents, unconvincingly, according to sources.
Recommendations have also been made for the broker to face charges for his
role in the scandal. Sources say that though he has since been barred from
entering any GRA premises, the broker still transacts business for other
local businesses from the sidelines.
It is expected that a few changes would be made at GRA after the report
comes out, a source told Stabroek News. Already, persons within the
administration are curious as to the findings of the report and some have
been unofficially notified that they make be called as witnesses when the
case goes to court.
But recommendations have also been made for persons to be reinstated since
no evidence was found to support claims that they were involved. One such
person is said to be an office assistant, who was fingered but who
apparently had no ties to the fraud.
Sources said the scandal initially involved a series of accusations as
persons fingered others, but when the task force went in and started
investigating there was little or no evidence to tie some persons to the
The task force investigation had focused solely on the bribery allegations
at customs, but there are reports that the team may be asked to conduct a
wider probe into the recently acquired assets of some officials since this
came up as part of the recent investigation.

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