The opposition yesterday called on the government to conduct a thorough investigation into the operations of alleged money smuggler Khamraj Lall who Puerto Rican authorities say failed to declare over US$620,000 that was stashed in his private jet.
The call came amid increasing questions about the use of Lall’s plane by President Donald Ramotar.
“It is not enough to just have a report we need a Commission of Inquiry (COI) so that we will be able to see if there has been breaches and where …,” Leader of the Opposition David Granger told Stabroek News.
While both of Lall’s jets are registered in the United States they are based here in a private hangar at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA), Timehri.
Security sources say the arrest of Lall in Puerto Rico on November 22 with the huge amount of cash would be deeply embarrassing to the government here and would raise a host of security questions. Sources say the administration was likely to do an immediate review of the permission for Lall to have a private hangar at Timehri and it was likely that it would be revoked.
The source say the million-dollar question is what would have happened to the US$620,000 if the plane had landed at Timehri as intended by Lall after transiting the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico where federal agents intercepted the flight. Money-sniffing dogs would have been required here to detect the money.
The Alliance for Change (AFC) also yesterday called for a probe into the operations of the company and went further as it urged that an internal audit of CJIA’s operations be undertaken.
AFC Parliamentarian Cathy Hughes, said that before the incident her party had received reports of irregularities at CJIA.
Employees of CJIA had said that the agency was “very friendly” with Lall and has even used his resort to host functions free of cost contributing to him allegedly being under less scrutiny than other private jet operators.
This was disputed by Manager of CJIA Ramesh Ghir who told this newspaper yesterday that it was only twice that the resort was used and that it was rented to facilitate a fun day for staff of the corporation. He said that the airport has records to show that the facility was rented for $50,000 for each occasion.
Sources close to the CJIA told this newspaper that the agency was currently investigating and will await concrete information before a decision on the way forward is made in dealing with Lall. The source said that it is only then that the fate of Lall’s hangar and business continuation at the airport will be determined.
Granger said that a COI would detail the operations of Lall’s business here before the Puerto Rico haul and areas of lapses and breaches could be identified.
However, he pointed out that even now several issues have been highlighted that need remedial action. “In the first instance we know that the aircraft was headed for Guyana and it is an indication that our own money laundering legislation has been ineffective. No one knows if there were other flights with other monies on them,” he said.
“Then from the point of the CJIA we see other things that the enforcement at CJIA seems to have been very lax. The plane was given the go ahead to come and go as it please,” he added.
Granger said it seems the plane might have been given certain privileges, security and otherwise, because of its affiliation to the Head of State.
“It was not a secret operation. It indicates that the aircraft was used for the head of state and when that happens it might not have conformed to the normal security procedures and checks as other private jets,” he stated.
President Ramotar has used the service for travel to neighbouring Brazil but Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon, up to yesterday, had not replied to this newspaper’s queries on if the flights were paid for or free.
Questions have been raised about the propriety of the President’s charter since the trip would have been illegal given that Lall’s service is registered as a Private Jet Club and not for charter.
“It implicates the President and I think that GCAA (Guyana Civil Aviation Authority) has failed him in notifying him beforehand that this plane could only be used for private flights…only people who are part of the club can use the plane. This itself is another issue,” one source explained.
The source said that it is now an embarrassment for the president who may have chartered the aircraft without knowledge of civil aviation legalities.
There still has been no word from GCAA on if an investigation has been launched to determine if there have been any infractions on the part of Lall’s company.
However Stabroek News understands that United States’ Federal Aviation Administration is said to also be investigating to determine whether its regulations have been breached. It was pointed out that US authorities will visit Guyana and conduct a “most thorough investigation.”
Reference was made to when several Guyanese were jailed for offences arising from a conspiracy to commit continuous, willful violations of regulatory requirements for the operation of their commercial luxury jet charter company, Platinum Jet.
They were only found guilty of the violation of the US FAA’s regulations after their craft had crashed and investigations were being undertaken.
Lall will make his next court appearance on Monday December 1st to answer charges of falsely filling federal reports and smuggling more than US$600,000.
If found guilty of currency smuggling or conspiracy to commit such an offence, Lall can be jailed for up to five years. In addition, the court in imposing sentence under paragraph (1), shall order that he forfeits to the US any property, real or personal, involved in the offence and any property traceable to such property.
Chairman of the CJIA board Ramesh Dookhoo told Stabroek News on Wednesday he was not on the CJIA board when approval for the hangar was granted and as such did not know the specifics. Dookhoo said that he has requested some information and will share same with this newspaper.
Ghir said on Wednesday that no red flags had been raised on Lall’s proposal as it seemed sound and complemented plans CJIA has. “He made a good case and it was approved by Cabinet…In his case he stated that he wanted to operate an air ambulance service stationed in Guyana and we don’t have one here so that among other things was taken into consideration,” he said.
Ghir explained that Lall’s private hangar would have been one of over five others at CJIA and said that for persons to own one at CJIA they would have to meet necessary requirements.
However, he stressed that as with all aircraft entering or leaving Guyana, security requirements have to be met and Lall’s craft would have been subjected to these at all times. “I can tell you all procedures are carried out in and out of this country by CANU, police, immigration GCAA and so forth,” he said.
Dookhoo said that since the story broke it has been of great concern to the CJIA board and speaks to the issue of all agencies operating at CJIA to be more vigilant.
“It is of great concern to the board. If you are coming to Guyana with that kind of money we would want to find out what else you are doing in Guyana. We have to approach with a lot more scrutiny, and when I say we I mean CANU, police, immigration, everybody,” he stated.
The charge against Lall reads that he knowingly concealed more than US$10, 000 in currency; to wit over US$600,000 and other monetary instruments in a plastic trash bag covered with a blanket under an exit seat of the plane and in an article of luggage, and attempted to transport and transfer such currency and monetary instruments from San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place within the US, to Guyana.
According to court documents seen by this newspaper, on November 22 at 6pm, Lall and two other persons arrived at Luis Munoz International Airport, San Juan on a private aircraft. He was the co-pilot of the aircraft and the other persons were the pilot and Lall’s father. When approached by customs officials the occupants informed that they had stopped for refuelling purposes and would be departing immediately for Guyana. However, it was explained that an outbound inspection of the aircraft would be performed.
The trio was told of the currency reporting requirements and Lall and his father declared US$5,000 and the pilot declared US$60. However, while searching the aircraft with the assistance of a sniffer dog officials found that there were some discrepancies regarding the maintenance with the aircraft, in violation of aviation regulations and the aircraft was grounded. Lall then informed that he would have flown in his mechanic to take care of the mechanical issues and the following day he informed officials that the problems had been rectified and the aircraft could be re-inspected.
Before the search continued, Lall varied his declaration. He declared US$7,000, his father US$5,000 and the pilot US$60. However, as officials continued the search, a sniffer dog alerted them to the presence of money and a further inspection revealed a bundle of currency, wrapped in plastic bags and a blanket under the exit row seat. Approached, Lall immediately claimed ownership of the money and said that it was approximately US$150,000 which constituted proceeds from his business. He said that he had forgotten he had the money in the plane and gave such reason for not declaring it. Officials continued to search the aircraft and later discovered a black suitcase inside a compartment next to the engines which contained several black garbage bags containing bundles of currency totalling US$470,000. Lall again accepted responsibility and ownership for the money and informed that his pilot and his father had nothing to with the monies and that all belonged to him.
He was then arrested and charged.