More than two years after charges were filed against 13 Customs Officers and two brokers, one of Guyana’s biggest corruption cases, infanously referred to as the ‘Polar Beer scam’, came to an end yesterday after the matter was discharged by a magistrate.
It was a case which saw the former Customs Officers and brokers being slapped with 200-plus charges; a Special Prosecutor being appointed and a government-ordered probe that led investigators on a trail to Venezuela.
They were accused of conspiring with Fidelity Investments/Kong Incorporated in 2007, then importers of Polar Beer from Venezuela, to evade taxes to the tune of $60M. The Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) had said that the companies had deliberately evaded taxes and duties on imported Polar Beer to the tune of $300M.
It was alleged that the beer was shipped to Guyana from Venezuela but Customs entries were manipulated to indicate that they were soft drinks.
Local investigators had travelled to Venezuela where it was reported that invoices were also changed to reflect a lower price for the beer than what was actually paid to the suppliers for that shipment.
The main witness, a police detective who went to Venezuela, is reportedly bed-ridden after a car accident and was key to the continuance of the cases. However, Special Prosecutor Bernard Dos Santos told Magistrate Fazil Azeez last week that he was not in a position to offer any new evidence.
Yesterday, the Magistrate discharged all the matters for want for prosecution and insufficient evidence. Dos Santos, a former Attorney General, was reportedly at Berbice yesterday handling other matters at the time.
However, the former Customs Officers and brokers could still be charged if prosecutors are convinced that they can proceed with a new trial.
The Customs Officers who had charges ranging from conspiracy to forgery filed against them were Michelle Matthias-Smartt, Sadesh Pitamber, Rhonda Gladd, Ausya Greenidge, Anthony Girdhari, Satesh Basdeo, Roopnarine Ramkishun, Simone Herod, Jasoda Mohamed, Karen Bobb-Semple, Vickei Sooknanan, Ann Noel and Rabindra Ramsuran. The two Customs brokers are Rajendra Rajcoomar and Samantha Sam.
According to the former Customs Officers who were gathered in front of the Magistrates’ Court, Middle Street, they will now be talking to their lawyers about the way forward. They had all been dismissed by GRA.
In April 2009, Director of Public Prosecutions, Shalimar Ali-Hack, had written Chief Magistrate (ag), Melissa Robertson-Ogle discontinuing prosecution for 11 charges filed against Fidelity Investment’s boss, Joshua Safeek, and Kong Inc.
GRA had accused the three of tendering false documents for over 190,000 cases of Polar Beer, evading duties in excess of $300M.
A probe ordered by President Bharrat Jagdeo had recommended charges against the companies and Safeek also.
Rajcoomar alone was slapped with 50 counts of forgery and conspiracy to defraud. He was charged jointly with Samantha Sam and the Customs officers. He was also charged separately with 13 counts of forgery of tax invoices and the forgery of Customs Declaration forms. The charges alleged that between June 22, 2007 and October 19, 2007, Rajcoomar, with the intent to defraud, forged tax invoices and Customs Declaration Forms which purported to show that it was for assorted drinks when it was for beer.
Rajcoomar and Samantha Sam were jointly charged with eight counts of forgery. It was alleged that both defendants between September 14, 2007 and December 17, 2007, with the intent to defraud, forged Customs Declaration Forms and Tax Invoices purporting to show that they were for assorted drinks.
Another 13 counts of forgery alleged that Samantha Sam and Rabindra Rajcoomar between October 29, 2007 and November 26, 2007 forged Tax Invoices and Customs Declaration Forms purporting to show that it was for assorted drinks.
Former Customs Officer, Michele Matthias was jointly charged with Samantha Sam on 17 counts of forgery.
Task Force report
A Task Force report released in January 2009 on the matter, ordered by President Bharrat Jagdeo, has cited loopholes at GRA in 2007 that caused government to lose millions in revenue.
The report had recommended that GRA take the necessary disciplinary action against 15 of its senior staffers for various offences.
The Task Force also recommended that the Customs Officers be charged criminally for the relevant offences they committed.
The report had also focused on other staffers of GRA. As it related to acting Director, Valuation and Classification, Paul Prescod; Level II Customs Officer John Tularam; Entry Processing Unit Supervisor Nityanand Narootandeo; and VAT and Excise Tax Deputy Commissioner Rohan Beekhoo, it was recommended that the GRA reinstate them, but with warning letters to be more vigilant in the execution of their duties.
Royan Sattaur, a level II Clerk, and acting Director, Enforcement Section, Ramnarine Makardajh, were all recommended to be fully reinstated in their jobs.
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