The Commissioner General’s missive on corruption

Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) Khurshid Sattaur can take no credit for frankness in his letter published in last Monday’s issue of the Stabroek News in which he appears to concede that some of his own officers are guilty of corrupt practices for which they are generously rewarded. That has been known for many years. Nor is there any significant measure of ingenuity in the argument that those corrupt practices are driven by some elements in the private sector. That too has long been an open secret.

He says that elements of the private sector have been only too willing to pay handsome sums for the favours granted by corrupt GRA officials.

The issue of the relationship between the business community and the Customs and Trade Administration and, for that matter, the Guyana Revenue Authority as a whole, is what might legitimately be described as ‘old hat.’ It has been put to individual business owners and to the various business support organizations (BSO) time and again and even if there is never the remotest hint of public concession that there is corrupt collusion between GRA officials and private sector operatives, businessmen, indeed some who say that they have been part of corrupt transactions, are prepared to discuss their involvement openly, but off the record. “It’s what you do to stay in the game,” one businessman told Stabroek Business recently, adding that his remark should be taken to mean that there are certain distinct “business advantages” (not paying VAT or paying reduced VAT is one of them, he says) to be had from getting into bed with some GRA officials. “In our rat race business environment you need every advantage you can get,” the businessman added.

Arising out of our conversation with this particular businessman and some others, this newspaper secured the distinct impression that in the minds of the GRA officials and the businesses on the other side of the fence their transactions have nothing to do with corruption. It is simply a hand-wash-hand, sub-culture that has long been part of the wider business culture and that it is a facility that is there for people who want to get ahead in business—make greater profits, that is—to take advantage of.

What Mr Sattaur may or may not know is that critics of the kind of letter published under his pen on Monday have become ultra-cynical about his posture on this whole issue of corruption. This applies as much to functionaries inside the GRA as it does to people in the business community. They have all made the point there is an awareness of corruption involving Revenue Authority officials and business persons at the highest levels of government; that influential people with political connections benefit from favours and that attempts to curb or reduce it have been feeble and ineffective. It may well be true as well that the business community is not prepared to put its hand up publicly, but that does not gainsay the fact that there is a gaping door that is open to corruption inside the GRA and that over the years no one has appeared overly anxious to close it.

After the pronouncements by Mr Sattaur we thought it best to seek comments from the various private sector bodies knowing only too well that it might put some of them in a tight spot. The truth is that, for the most part the BSO’s have been largely silent on this matter. There is a huge dose of hypocrisy here, since we recall one BSO saying some years ago that it would use issues such as how businesses handle the payment of their taxes as a barometer with which to determine their qualification for membership. We, of course, have no way of knowing whether they are keeping that promise.

There is at least one respect in which Mr Sattaur has placed the private sector in a ‘spot of bother.’ He writes: “…Not enough captains of industry and commerce who represent a larger section of the business community are prepared to condemn this scourge (corruption) choosing instead to remain silent at the expense of all blame being leveled at the door of the public sector, including the highly controversial Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International.

In the matter of the silence of the “captains of industry” this newspaper’s experience supports Mr Sattaur’s view though we hasten to add that the public sector’s considerable reputation for corruption is probably not undeserved. Moreover, we believe Mr Sattaur may yet admit in his quiet moments that the views expressed by TI on corruption are not nearly as “highly controversial” as he asserts.

The real issue here is when, if ever, we will simply stop fudging the issue, openly concede and come to terms with the reality and begin the remedial journey. But that, of course, is quite a different matter. Indeed, it is one on which it would be good to hear from the Commissioner General in the particular respect of the GRA.

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