Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) Khurshid Sattaur says polygraph testing is critical in the revenue body to change public perception and root out corrupt officers.
But he insists that the testing must extend into the business community where “people bribing all the time to avoid taxes”.
Polygraph testing is to be introduced at the GRA shortly, with an initial focus on the employees embroiled in the corruption scandal involving Fidelity Investments. Sattaur said that the idea of the testing staff might seem a bit radical, in the sense that, there is a negative generalization about the entire staff. However, he stressed that integrity is a core element of the work and the testing is merely to strengthen this.
In an interview with Stabroek News on Wednesday, Sattaur was very critical of some local businessman and “social commentators”, declaring that the fraudulent activities at the GRA are not the sole work of officers there but the combined action of corrupt staff and “those out there corrupting them… the corrupters.
“Let us polygraph them [corrupt businessmen] too because this is not a one-way act. I know persons out there who are willing to pay their taxes and others who would do anything to escape paying their taxes, and it is those persons who we need to rein in.”
Sattaur is of the opinion that he need not defend polygraph testing at GRA because he sees it as serving an important purpose. He said that the tests will ensure that the integrity of officers is at the highest level, in addition to addressing the whole issue of public perception and GRA. He added that the tests also offer a high level of transparency and accountability in the system.
But he was quick to point out that GRA has been monitored capably by the Auditor General’s office. He stated that the Auditor General continues to tightly scrutinize the operations of the revenue body, and that the office has made progress in detecting weaknesses in the system as well as cleaning up corruption.
The Commissioner General acknowledged that there are officers in the system who deviate from the rules, but he vehemently declared that such persons have no place at the revenue body.
“I am not here to make any officer rich…if people feel that that is the case then they ought to disabuse their minds of it. I am here to stamp out corruption and that is what we have doing all the time,” he added.
As far as public perception of GRA goes, Sattaur said he is not happy with this particular area. He said the image of the revenue body has been injured by scandals and “untruths”, but he insists that the polygraph testing will change this “as it did with CANU”.
Sattaur said that GRA’s image has taken some severe blows and lamented the negative picture being projected overseas. He said there was no other country, at least that he is aware of, that has had to do polygraph testing on its revenue collection officers, adding that it looks bad on Guyana.
Sattaur briefly commented that the Internal Audit at GRA is currently perusing the Auditor General-led report into allegations of collusion between customs officers and Fidelity to defraud the country of hundreds of millions in revenue. He said that no team was set up to investigate the findings of the report since, according to him, the system already makes provision for that to be done.
He said Internal Audit would need to carry out a comprehensive study, but would not elaborate on this. He added though that a decision would then be made on the employees who are currently interdicted from duty.
The report has concluded that fake documents were submitted to Customs by Fidelity Investments Inc and charges were recommended against a top Fidelity official, a broker and 14 customs employees from various departments who were complicit in the fraud.
It also concluded that it was Polar beer that had been brought into the country and not soft drinks as had been claimed by some customs employees. Furthermore, while a price of US$2.15 per case had been listed by Fidelity, an investigative team that travelled to Venezuela found that Fidelity had been sold the beer at US$4.40 per case.
The Auditor General-led report has since gone to the Chambers of the Director of Public Prosecution, but there has not yet been any indication whether any charges, as recommended in the report, would be filed against the employees found criminally liable by the task force.
Total Revenue Integrated Processing System (TRIPS)
Sattaur hailed TRIPS as an indispensable aspect of revenue collection saying that it has resulted in significant improvements in the system, particularly revenue collection since its initiation some three years ago. He said TRIPS was reformatted after an initial run, adding that it is working fine now.
He said TRIPS handles a tremendous amount of transactions on a daily basis, far more than any other system ever had in the past, and according to him GRA basically had to put TRIPS to work overnight. Sattaur stated that there were a few hiccups, but the system has since adapted and is now versatile.
The Commissioner General said that he is disturbed by comments that TRIPS is not functioning effectively. He said the progress and changes speak for themselves. He said too, that GRA is taking TRIPS to another level. However, he noted that while TRIPS is a computerized system, its standard operating procedure requires human input.
On the issue of TRIPS being easily manipulated as stated in the Auditor General-led report into corruption at customs, Sattaur charged that it is a credit to TRIPS that the task investigating the corruption scandal was able to detect that TRIPS had been manipulated. He said that if the system was not functioning at all no such detection could have been made.
The use of TRIPS started in 2006 and transactions conducted at any department within the GRA are now placed into this consolidated central bio-data system. GRA has repeatedly trumpeted TRIPS’s success saying that it offers more transparency in the revenue collection system, and that it has brought several tax dodgers into the GRA net resulting in the recovery of millions of dollars in lost revenues.