– Deputy Director says budget cuts to department hampered investigations
By Kiana Wilburg
Three years ago, the coalition administration created the State Asset Recovery Unit (SARU) to recover stolen state assets. Under the guidance of economist, Professor Clive Thomas, the unit dived into a number of investigations. But without legal powers, SARU was confined to a straitjacket. There wasn’t much it could do on the hundreds of reports it received about corruption.
It wasn’t until 2017 that the National Assembly passed legislation for SARU which then became the State Asset Recovery Agency (SARA).
With that accomplishment, many critics of SARA expected that with the accusations and reports of corruption it often spoke of, SARA Directors would have at least two cases ready for the courts in 2018. But it appears that retrieving stolen assets is easier said than done.
SARA’s Deputy Director, Aubrey Heath-Retemyer explained that the entity is facing several challenges. One debilitating factor he pointed to was the budget cuts in 2018. He noted that the entity’s budget proposal for 2018 was slashed by more than 30 percent. It only got about $200M. The SARA Director noted that the budget cuts affected the extent to which investigations could have been carried out. He said that plans to use international companies which are versed in asset recovery had to be placed on the back burner since the funds were not available.
“The government needs to be prepared to invest significant quantities of cash upfront because of the extent of the searching and investigation that would be required to locate state assets. When people steal these assets, they don’t have them lying round. They change form and even jurisdictions and in that sense, government should make a conscious effort to try and understand the budgeting needed to track these assets funds.”
The Deputy Director also addressed criticisms that SARA is moving at a snail’s pace, especially as it relates to bringing cases before the court.
“Our job is not to just take cases to court. Since we have been established we have done a lot of things. We have worked through a number of other agencies to get things done. We worked with the various regions and that work allowed us to slow down theft and leakages. If we don’t do that kind of work then there will continue to be corruption…”
Heath-Retemyer also called for there to be an appreciation of the time it takes to carry out investigations. He stressed that it often involves going after 20 to 30 pieces of evidence to build a case. Heath-Retemyer noted, too, that Guyana being a paper society also makes the job of compiling evidence even more tedious.
“Guyana is a paper society and we have a lot of minutes and so forth that we might want. But when you go for these things, you are thrown in a room with lots of boxes. Then you have to get about 10 people to filter through that. These things are time consuming and when you get all these things and prepare a report on the case, you have to get another set of eyes to look at it.”
Further to this, the Deputy Director said that SARA is working with a few international partners. He said that this is necessary since some of the cases involve certain pieces of information which are beyond these shores. He said that there are no signed contracts with these partners. Heath-Retemyer noted however that there is an agreement between SARA and the Caribbean Institute of Forensic Accounting.
“The Caribbean Institute of Forensic Accounting is helping us with a number of things that we may not have the technical competence of doing. There are others that we are courting and discussing agreements with because some cases would be brought in Guyana and others outside, depending on where the evidence is found.”
The Deputy Director said that SARA hopes to rest several cases at the same time. “We are pretty close to doing that albeit we have said that lots of times. We are the first agency doing this kind of work and we want to do it properly. We want to ensure that when we take them before the court, they are properly done and ready.”
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