Moment of truth for the money-laundering bill

In a matter of days, the National Assembly will again be faced with the Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism (Amendment) Bill and taking a final vote on it. In the months that have elapsed since the bill first surfaced, the country has learnt a lot about why Guyana faces a risk of blacklisting, the exact nature of which and depth of impact is still undefined. It has been widely reported and accepted that the government dawdled for years on the requirements set out by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF) to comply with best practices and now having been downgraded to minority status in the 10th Parliament it faces a series of formal steps which, if not completed, could have a negative impact on a variety of inter-bank and money transfer transactions.

This state of affairs has in the last few days triggered plaintive cries from private sector bodies including the Guyana Association of Bankers (GAB) for all stakeholders to act immediately in preventing any blacklisting of the country. The GAB said the transactions likely to be affected by the absence of the amended law include bank to bank relationships, access to foreign exchange in a timely manner and the jeopardizing of letters of credit.

The GAB in its release said it remained “concerned with the potential consequences of being blacklisted should Guyana fail to adequately demonstrate progress in implementation of recommendations of the CFATF” including the amendment of the bill prior to the review of Guyana in November. The GAB called on all stakeholders to take urgent action to implement the CFATF recommendations. Of all the groups concerned, the GAB should have been the most keenly aware of the lost years in terms of implementing the CFATF requirements yet there is no record of appeals for urgent action aside from the most recent one. This gulf in activism on the matter has called into question the credibility and sincerity of these calls from the GAB and others.

All of that, however, is water under the bridge. The time has arrived for the bill to be delivered and this will define where all parties stand on this matter.

In the absence of opposition MPs, but at a quorate meeting, the select committee appointed to assess this bill last week concluded its work. It follows that since the opposition was not present for the conclusion of the committee’s work, when the bill is taken to parliament for its third reading it will face a barrage of amendments from APNU and perhaps the AFC. This will then provide an immediate test of the reasonableness of PPP/C. Would it be amenable to changes that seek to upgrade and professionalize the Financial Intelligence Unit which has remained inscrutable for all of its years of existence?  Surely the government could not oppose moves to improve the professionalism, transparency and accountability of that body.

In all the years that anti-money laundering legislation has been on the books in varying incarnations, there has always been a FIU – inaccessible to the public – and most worryingly not a single prosecution of any major drug trafficker/launderer accompanied by confiscation of assets. In fact, the principal legislation which is now being amended was tabled in 2007 to cater for the confiscation of ill-gotten gains and passed only in 2009. During that period it was always within the ability of the government to accelerate the passage and full activation of the Act. Its failure to achieve this between 2007-2011 calls into question its seriousness about this law.

Despite public evidence of drug trafficking, interceptions of shipments and high-profile prosecutions abroad, Georgetown could present no prosecutions under this Act and the government’s credibility on this matter was openly called into question amid the explosive allegations that were made by now convicted drug trafficker Mr Roger Khan. The upshot of all of this is that because of the huge deficit attributable to the government as it relates to law-making versus law accountability, it will likely be faced with a series of amendments to ensure an appropriate candidate for the FIU, ring fencing of the unit from political interference and mechanisms to assure the public that a real effort will be made to pursue those engaged in laundering dirty money.

Another important point that the government will have to consider is the interlocking legislation needed to reduce the loopholes through which laundering and the financing of terrorism can occur. The public procurement system is a prime example of an arena where persons who have no business tendering for contracts and those who are mere fronts for criminals can attempt to launder money. The absence of the constitutionally prescribed Public Procurement Commission (PPC) has led to great unease and doubts about the government’s sincerity in having this body established. A functioning PPC which enjoys the confidence of two thirds of the National Assembly can go a very far way in assuring the public and overseas partners that the government is serious about accountability and confronting laundering in all of its dimensions. The government which has dilly-dallied on the PPC should take immediate steps on its own to speed the process of the vetting of candidates for the PPC at the level of the Public Accounts Committee.

Similarly, the integrity commission is another pivotal tile in the mosaic of financial rectitude and its full reconstituting is long overdue. Legitimate questions continue to be raised about wealth accumulation by some in public life and the absence of inquiry in this area reinforces the notion in the public that accountability is meant only to be applied to the perceived opponents of the government and the poor and powerless. Twenty-one years of PPP/C governance has reduced the system of accountability to shards. Were the government to make positive moves on this front it would again be a positive sign that it is serious about financial architecture that is as sound as possible. The other key area is ensuring that tax evasion is reined in otherwise it provides ready capital for laundering in various manners.

For all of the invective that has flowed around the debate on the bill, the moment of truth is about to arrive and the government will soon be faced with another bill which it has been pressing the opposition to pass. Will it assent to it?



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