Amidst recent allegations that a senior official of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) may not have followed procedures in the importation of a Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV), the Opposition is calling for an immediate investigation.
Opposition parliamentarian, Juan Edghill, is also calling for GRA’s Commissioner-General, Godfrey Statia, and Customs chief, Lancelot Wills, to be sent on immediate administrative leave to facilitate the probe.
“There should be no sacred cows when it comes to justice,” Edghill said. He is a former Junior Minister of Finance under the previous administration. He is also a member of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a body that has oversight on GRA.
Wills allegedly imported a Toyota Harrier SUV., which was registered in January. It was reportedly 2362cc (engine size). The “cc” or engine size is what GRA used to calculate the applicable taxes.
Wills reportedly only paid over $180,000, instead of an estimated $1.8M in taxes had he been granted a duty free concession. Without the concession, taxes and duties on a Toyota Harrier similar to what Wills brought in would have attracted over $6M.
However, there are questions over the transaction. Wills, as Customs head, was rejected for a duty free concession last year November by the Department of Public Service.
The department’s Permanent Secretary, Reginald Brotherson, this week explained that rejection was because the vehicle was more than eight years old and it was also over the 2000cc (cubic capacity) engine size that Wills would have been eligible for.
Under the laws, only Parliamentarians, judges and remigrants are allowed duty free concessions for vehicles over 2000cc.
The Customs chief reportedly got the blessings of GRA for the duty free concession. GRA insisted Wednesday that it has some flexibility to grant permission for staffers. However, this argument by GRA is being hotly contested with a number of letter writers and other critics saying that the 2003 amended laws took the powers out of the hands of the Ministry of Finance and made it law under which circumstance duty free concessions for vehicles are to be granted.
The amended laws came after widespread abuse and multi-million dollar fraud scheme was uncovered.
Under the amended laws, GRA is only supposed to ensure that all persons recommended for a concession and not required to pay the full tax, meet the requirements as laid out. GRA does not have the authority to grant any duty free concessions.
GRA, in defending Wills and the decision to allow the vehicle to be registered, on Wednesday said that the marginally higher “CC” permission- was granted based on his responsibilities and job specifications which entails “all terrain” use, and which requires nightly and daily commute and monitoring of customs activities.
But Edghill is clear that something is amiss with the transaction.
He said that everyone must abide by the law. There cannot be one for Customs and another for public servants. GRA staffers are considered part of the public service. A number of them are part of the Guyana Public Service Union.
The parliamentarian pointed out that Wills, as the Customs head, should have known of the eight-year restriction on cars, SUVs and vans, implemented last year by the government.
Edghill said based on the sequence of events as reported, it can be surmised that the vehicle was shipped in with the presumption that the Department of Public Service would have granted the waiver.
In the absence of that, it can be deduced that the vehicle was brought in with the knowledge that GRA had “some internal mechanisms” to allow Wills to bypass the department’s written permission.
“It would raise questions if there were similar transactions of older vehicles being imported. Therefore, there was an expectation that there should be an expected reciprocal treatment.”
According to Edghill, if the Customs chief did not receive permission for the department, it would have been automatic that he pay the normal duties as any normal citizens would.
”There are questions. Why did he not pay the charges? Who signed off on a meager payment of taxes for just $180,000 as reported? Was it the Commissioner-General or someone acting on his behalf?”
Edghill said that GRA must tell the public what section of the laws would have been applied when it took it upon itself to grant the Customs chief the permission.
“In the absence of such information, there is a conclusion that there is rampant corruption at GRA. That it is facilitated by high officials at GRA and…selected Guyanese are in collusion with GRA office,” Edghill stressed. “Certainly this cannot be the transparency and accountability promised by the government.”
According to the Parliamentarian, it was only Monday during a sitting of PAC, where it was discovered the two vehicles went missing from a warehouse that was jointly monitored by GRA and an importer. The vehicles reappeared after the auditor went back two weeks later to check.
“There then are questions over the procurement of pharmaceuticals and medicines by Government. GRA is worse, because the checks and balances have been compromised to facilitate selected individuals. A full investigation is required and just like how people are sent home when being investigated, both the CG and the Customs head have to be sent on administrative leave.”
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