Sep 27, 2017 News
Investigators probing what happened to billions of dollars in the rice-for-oil deal with Venezuela, under the previous Government, have run into a major stumbling block.
And it has nothing to do with an un-cooperating suspect. Rather, the hurdle is with a commercial bank- reportedly the Guyana Bank For Trade and Industry (GBTI).
The Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), an arm of the police which deals with financial crimes, asked the bank for information on the accounts of a number of former officials of the Guyana Rice Development Board (GRDB).
Information was also reportedly being sought for details of transfers involving the bank accounts of a prominent rice miller on the Essequibo Coast, Region Two.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred to the miller.
However, the bank refused so SOCU went to court.
According to officials close to the case, the matter in the High Court began over a month ago.
GBTI’s legal team initially objected to what SOCU was asking for. There were a number of back and forth submissions. In the end the High Court ordered GBTI to provide to SOCU the documents requested. In short the court granted a ‘Production Order’.
Such an order is a written command, issued by a judge, requiring whomever it is served upon to do whatever the order says, under penalty of being held in contempt of court.
GBTI has seven days to comply with the order—provide the information being sought by SOCU.
In the meantime, Kaieteur News was told, investigators are preparing for the eventuality of GBTI, one of the biggest private banks in the country, not complying.
The preparations may include, among other things, an application for a search warrant. There could be the arrest of the directors.
Earlier this year, during a post-Cabinet press conference hosted by Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, it was disclosed that in all the cases of the forensic audits ordered, there were issues that necessitated further investigations into “financial irregularities”.
With regards to the GRDB report, Trotman noted that over a three to four-year period, more than US$500M from the PetroCaribe proceeds (Venezuela rice-for-oil deal) would have passed through the accounts of the entity.
Among some of the “anomalies” found were loans without proper paperwork or promissory notes.
There were other instances of persons in the agency using GRDB’s money to trade in foreign currency.
The losses for the Government would have been significant, especially if the money was traded for less than it should have been.
The Auditor General and the forensic audit reports have all pointed to severe deficiencies in the manner the monies of the state have been handled by the entities.
Following its win at the May 2015 general elections, the Coalition Government, led by President David Granger, had ordered several forensic audits to be carried out on state agencies, like GRDB, the Central Housing and Planning Authority, the New Guyana Marketing Corporation, the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority and a number of other entities.
A number of the reports found worrying spending and record keeping and they were handed over to the police for further investigations.
With regards to the GRDB probe, six officials, including former General Manager, Jagnarine Singh, and his deputy as well as former board members of that body, have all been charged.
Two of the board members, Nigel Dharamlall and Dharamkumar Seeraj are both parliamentarians with the Opposition.
In mid-2000, former President of Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez, in fostering closer ties with the region, agreed to trade oil in return for goods.
Guyana signed a number of agreements, which were renewed regularly under an oil-for-rice deal.
It is coming out not that the entire rice shipments may have been crooked from the start.
Not only were deals being cut by GRDB to pay exorbitant fees for renting ships and other charges, but there were other fees and questions over which farmers and millers were being allowed to participate in the deal.
Under the arrangements, Government would collect the oil through the Guyana Oil Company and Guyana Energy Agency and pay the equivalent to GRDB, which in turn pays farmers and millers.
SOCU investigators would have been looking into reports that not all the rice that was recorded as delivered to Venezuela was actually delivered.
However, there are records of a few favorite companies being paid as if they had fulfilled their contracts.
Earlier this year, Essequibo miller, Wazeer Hussein, and the former GRDB chief were pulled in for questioning by SOCU as it continued the probe into the spending of GRDB.
Hussein is a prominent rice miller who has taken over the Kayman Sankar mills on the Essequibo Coast and in Berbice. He is said to be one of the largest purchasers from rice farmers in Region Two.
Singh headed GRDB until the Coalition Government took office in May 2015.
In early February, SOCU descended upon the GRDB, Kingston office, to secure documents.
SOCU’s inquiries led them to the Ministry of Agriculture, Regent Street where a vehicle, PNN 5632, was reportedly seized. It was unclear what exactly SOCU had seized from the GRDB head office.
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