Backed by the supremacy of the laws and armed with the authority to enforce, some agencies of the state wield extraordinary powers. They can reveal the dictatorial tendency of government.
This is according to columnist, Rawle Lucas, who runs the weekly Lucas Stock index.
“Such gargantuan powers are more ominous and politically threatening when the immunity of an intolerant or obdurate President is inserted into the process of tax law.”
According to Lucas, one agency with such powers in Guyana is the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) whose most potent weapon is its powers of compulsion.
He added that the GRA has responsibility for tax laws of Guyana with the goal of collecting taxes for use by government.
Lucas in his analysis said that Commissioner General of the GRA, Khurshid Sattaur, cannot do his job of assessing tax or determining tax liability without the requisite information and the law “gives him the authority to demand that information from tax payers if it is not provided voluntarily.
According to Lucas, the law puts the power of Commissioner General on full display, including the ability to “make taxpayers do things that might even turn out to be unnecessary.”
He said that one example of “this frightening reality” is seen in the law which states, “The Commissioner-General may by notice in writing require any person to furnish him within a specified time any particulars in writing he requires for any purpose relating to the administration or enforcement of this Act, whether or not the person has been previously assessed or additionally assessed, with respect to the income, assets and liabilities of such person or of his wife.”
According to Lucas, it would appear, therefore, that it does not matter how often the GRA has assessed a taxpayer, it can keep coming after that taxpayer.
“Even if such behaviour amounts to harassment, it looks as if it could continue for as long as the GRA wishes it to.”
He noted, too, that the grim reality is that things could become rougher if the taxpayer appears to be resisting the request of the Commissioner-General.
He drew reference to Article 64 which states, “The Commissioner General or any officer duly authorized in writing in that behalf by him may enter any premises used for industrial, business or trade purposes at all reasonable times for the purpose of obtaining any information required for the application of this Act.”
The Act further states that, “Any person who refuses to permit the Commissioner General or such an officer after production of his authority, to enter any such’ premises or obstructs the Commissioner General or such an officer in the discharge of his functions under the preceding subsection shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine of fifteen thousand dollars or to imprisonment for six months.”
He said, “The GRA can turn up the heat and invade the premises of any taxpayer to get the information that it wants and force compliance. No matter how one resists and protests, the GRA can act aggressively and apologize afterwards if it needs to and so wishes.”
According to Lucas, this means that the Commissioner-General does not need the authority of any one to go after the tax information of any taxpayer and to launch an investigation into the business dealings of any person or enterprise.
“That authority is already contained in the law that created his position and the authority that goes with it.”
He noted, too, that some Customs officials have the exact authority of the police and the GRA could enforce compliance if the matter involves the Customs Act.
“That is a very powerful level of authority which is backed up by the threat of imprisonment and even restriction of freedom to travel.”
According to Lucas, until an appeals process decides otherwise, the GRA can make a taxpayer do needless things and keep such person’s life in suspense.
He posited that the powers of the GRA were not intended to torment taxpayers, and if used vindictively will not produce welfare benefits or economic efficiency.
“The risk of this type of behaviour and loss of economic benefits heighten when a government feels that it has a right to remain in power indefinitely…Members of a government begin to see state resources as their own and not those of the people.”
He noted that in such a situation state institutions are not used efficiently and become tools of entrenchment and repression rather than agents of economic change as public officials seek to remain in control of the state’s resources.
In such circumstances fiduciary responsibilities like upholding the secrecy obligations could recede into the background.
“The GRA ought not to be a tool for revenge or maladministration by the state…Some lawmakers might only now be awakening to the reality that by endowing the GRA with extreme powers, they might be enabling the maladministration of the executive.”
Sattaur and the GRA have in recent weeks, been the centre of a brewing controversy over the leakage of the tax information of several local media houses to former President Bharrat Jagdeo.
Only recently, A Partnership For National Unity’s General Secretary, Joseph Harmon, came public with the fact that Sattaur has also used his office to threaten him.
Harmon during an explosive interview with this publication recently said that “the Commissioner General has said publicly that he knows how much money I work for and that if anything were to happen to his children that he will file an action against me and I have the capacity to pay that money.”
“This is a personal experience of mine where the Commissioner General has written in the newspapers. He has written to say that he knows exactly what my assets are and that if anything were to happen to his children that he knows I have the capacity to do it. What is he doing? Isn’t he exposing me? Isn’t he saying to the rest of the world that this man like he got some money somewhere?”
Harmon was adamant that Sattaur is not fit to hold the office of Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority.
He said what Sattaur did to him inherently is a threat and while he is not personally moved by it other Opposition Members ought to feel at risk.
“They have to feel at risk because this is a man who has no problems in releasing information on your personal financial standing.”
Sattaur has already effectively silenced popular columnist and social activist, Freddie Kissoon. In a recent boast in an email sent to Attorney General Anil Nandlall, he wrote, “It is instructive to note that the reason why Freddie is now averse to writing trash concerning me is because a multi-million-dollar assessment hangs over his head like the sword of demacles (sic).”
Sattaur was also instructive in seeking to silence a prominent local businessman who was critical of the former President Bharrat Jagdeo, by launching a full scale audit into his operations.
Included in the leaked email sent by Sattaur to Nandlall, he also spoke of an impending audit of the Kaieteur News even as Editor-in-Chief, Adam Harris, laments officials inquiring of his bank information.
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