Fingers are pointing at the Customs Department of embarking upon a political witch-hunt on behalf of the ruling New National Party (NNP) government of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell to go after a businessman who has expressed an interest in contesting a seat for the main opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC) in the upcoming general election.
The issue surrounds last week’s detention of a female staffer at the Grenada Ports Authority (GPA) by the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) for allegedly aiding and abetting the businessman to defraud the state of taxes over the years.
A source who is familiar with the issue told THE NEW TODAY it is strange that the issue which is more than five years old will resurface days after the local media carried reports that the businessman has decided to throw his support behind Congress for the election.
He said he is aware that the female port worker was questioned on several occasions on the manner in which she allowed the businessman to leave the port with goods through manual passes and not passes generated by the Asycuda system that is controlled by the Customs Department.
According to the source, the issue dates back to the days of former General Manager of GPA, Ambrose Phillip who was presented with a file from the Customs Department on alleged irregularities between one of his employees and the businessman who runs a chain of supermarkets.
He said the allegation is that the GPA staffer will often allow imported goods for the businessman from Trinidad & Tobago to leave the port on manual passes and not passes generated from the system used by Customs.
He disclosed that the port will often get uncustomed goods coming from Trinidad & Tobago and it is not unusual for someone to buy 1000 items but make a Customs declaration for only 500 items.
In addition, he said there are challenges to the system in the manner in which goods land on the port from Port-of-Spain Trinidad & Tobago as opposed to the well-structured and formatted manner as goods coming from extra-regional countries.
He said that with the introduction of the ASYCUDA system, it now makes it much easier for the Customs Department to pick up irregularities as opposed to the manual system that was the order of the day in past years.
He stressed that the Customs Department is now in a better position “to flag people” who have been trying to cheat and defraud the system.
The source told THE NEW TODAY that as far as he knew there were “valid reasons” given by the female employee for giving out the manual passes to facilitate the goods belonging to the businessman to exit the port compound.
In addition, he said that despite the granting of these manual passes by the GPA employee, the exit gate on the port is the place where the final check of all imported goods has to be done and Customs have the right to station personnel there alongside the police to check on the goods leaving the premises.
The source said that the Customs Department has to shoulder some of the blame for goods passing through the gate with “these manual passes without being thoroughly double-checked” due to the fact that there is a protocol in place for giving manual passes from the Port Authority and not through the Asycuda system.
He stated that some officials in Customs are assuming that based on these alleged irregularities with the passes that fraud was being committed.
He pointed out that if this was a matter for concern then the Comptroller of Customs had the power to go into the business place and conduct a post-audit to check on the stock of goods on hand, as well as to check the sales from taxes paid to the Inland Revenue, and to look at the goods on hand on the shelves.
He said if this was done then the Customs will be in a good position to determine what duties were paid and not paid by the businessman.
According to the source, this kind of operation could have been done by the customs Department a long time ago and it now raises the question of whether there is not some ulterior and sinister motive to try and get at the businessman since he expressed an interest in frontline politics
“To do that now again in a time like this, I think it is something else that provokes that kind of action and I might be correct about it,” he remarked.
He said he suspects that the issue has resurfaced in light of the intention of the businessman to contest a seat for Congress against the ruling New National Party (NNP) of Prime Minister Mitchell.
The source also indicated that the GPA employee now the subject of the FIU probe was moved years ago to work in another area on the port due to the allegations surrounding the issuing of the manual passes for the businessman to move his goods from off the port.
“I don’t know if she might have committed anything (wrong) in recent times,” he said.
Insisting that no system is too tight not to be breached, the insider on the port said that the authorities are apparently trying to use the situation to suggest that the female GPA employee committed an offense along with the businessman.
He also alluded to the fact that the issue could raise questions concerning the statute of limitation for matters involving both the Customs Department and the Port Authority.