Tax evasion deal seen as raising credibility questions for Glenn Lall

A secret settlement of tax evasion charges this month between the revenue authority and Kaieteur News boss Glenn Lall will raise questions about the latter’s credibility considering his crusading stance in exposing government corruption and the targeting of government officials and former president Bharrat Jagdeo for questionable conduct.

Observers say that considering his newspaper’s frequent reportage on what it deemed to be corrupt acts by government officials and their efforts to evade the rule of law, Lall’s silence on his own settlement of tax evasion charges pertaining to two luxury Lexus vehicles will colour his public utterances as hypocritical.

Further, observers have noted that a settlement of any sort would suggest that Lall and his co-defendants, his wife Bhena Lall and friends, Narootandeo and Gharbassi Brijnanan have accepted a degree of culpability which Lall himself should explain given his and his newspaper’s stance on probity in public life. It has been further pointed out that the settlement is only one of a series of steps that Lall and Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) Commissioner-General Khurshid Sattaur have taken to defuse a feud which blew up between the two last year July when KN reported on Sattaur’s relatives being employed at the revenue authority.

Glenn Lall
Glenn Lall

Despite several attempts by Stabroek News to elicit details of the settlement of the Lexus vehicles case, Lall and Sattaur have remained silent on the matter.

Lall’s feud with Sattaur may be of even greater public interest as Sattaur himself in October last year had signalled that Kaieteur News was to undergo a comprehensive audit. Since then, Sattaur has said nothing further on the audit and given the sequence of events since July last year questions remain as to whether there was an attempt to stymie the audit and whether this has succeeded.

 Tussle

What started out as an attack on Sattaur by Kaieteur News in July last year over the employment of his family members quickly escalated into a bitter back and forth tussle which resulted in charges being laid and then withdrawn against Lall and this has left behind a trail of unanswered questions and concerns as to what was the true motive of all the parties involved.

KN reported that Sattaur had employed within the GRA two of his sons, a daughter, a nephew and a niece. They were all said to be the holders of managerial positions. It is unclear if at this point Sattaur had already embarked on plans to audit KN. If this was so it might suggest that there was a deliberate attempt to create a controversy between GRA and KN. If the proposed audit was only conceived of after the reportage about Sattaur’s family, it would point in the direction of other motives.

Khurshid Sattaur
Khurshid Sattaur

The newspaper went as far as to publish the allowance free salaries that Sattaur’s two sons reportedly receive on a monthly basis. Even as KN continued to milk this story in articles and columns, Sattaur reprimanded the newspaper for exposing his children’s personal details in the crime infested public domain and spoke of an apparent deviation from his organization’s ethics of confidentiality. He did not deny that he had five relatives working at the GRA and he asserted that no one was given any special or peculiar treatment, not in terms of position, salary or status. He insisted that they all were qualified for the positions they held and had gone through a competitive interview process before they were chosen and hired. The observers note that if Lall’s newspaper was prepared to expose this type of information then he should similarly be prepared to provide information on the terms of his settlement with GRA.

Sattaur later reported that he was threatened during a telephone conversation with Lall on August 29, 2014. This telephone conversation pertained to the two Lexuses which were on the verge of being seized. Police investigated the matter and forwarded the file to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) who months later recommended that Lall be charged with threatening language.

The case was called for the first time on November 24, 2014 at the Sparen-daam Magistrate’s Court. It was then dismissed after the Magistrate informed that Sattaur had withdrawn his complaint. Prior to its dismissal, Lall had pleaded not guilty to the charge. By this time however, Lall was caught up in another controversy with Attorney General Anil Nandlall which would see Lall filing a complaint over threatening language that Nandlall had used in a

Anil Nandlall
Anil Nandlall

phone conversation with KN reporter Leonard Gildarie.

Sattaur, who was not present at the November 24 proceedings, in a press release issued later in the day maintained that Lall had threatened him but said the delay by the DPP in laying charges and the negative attention the case had drawn to the GRA were the reasons why he decided against pursuing the complaint.

 Spotlight

He reasoned that because of the spotlight placed on the GRA, the staff were “beginning to feel the fatigue from the excessive public attention that was unwarrantedly given to the current court imbroglio….”.

A day after the reported threats, GRA officials had taken possession of the two luxury vehicles imported by the overseas-based Guyanese Narootandeo and Gharbassi Brijnanan under the remigrant scheme. The Brijnanans were described by Lall as his close friends. One of the vehicles was seized on Saffon Street where KN is located and the other on Camp Street in front of the Bhena’s shoe store which is operated by Lall’s wife. KN insisted that the seizure was designed to embarrass Kaieteur News for exposing widespread corruption while the GRA contended that their investigations revealed that Lall and his wife were using the vehicles which were imported for them by the couple so that they would not have the pay the over $100m duty it attracted.

Prior to the vehicles being seized there was a showdown between GRA officials and the remigrant couple’s son Navin Sankar who is also an employee of the GRA. Nothing has been heard about any disciplinary action being taken against him for his conduct and the latest word received by this newspaper is that he is still on the job.

GRA then disclosed that the seizing of the vehicles was part of a wider investigation which involved the abuse of the duty-free concessions under the remigrant scheme. An unsuccessful court action was then filed to secure the release of the vehicles.

As the investigation by GRA into the acquisitions continued, the row began to gain momentum.

In its September 21, 2014 edition, KN reported that it was in possession of confidential documentation which revealed that GRA Commissioner-General Sattaur provided former President Jagdeo with detailed tax information of a number of independent media houses in Guyana. The details were contained in purported email exchanges between the two and Nandlall.

The following day, the newspaper published the purported email with the tax information which it said was evidence to show the there was a plot afoot to target the newspaper. Later that week, Sattaur filed a $500 million lawsuit against the Kaieteur News for damages due to libel contained in its ‘Dem Boys Seh’ columns and news reports about the targeting of the paper.

Lall would then publicly announce that he had filed a case against Sattaur with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana and the international accounting body, ACCA over the alleged release of confidential tax information by Sattaur. This case was recently withdrawn by Lall after the plea deal over the Lexuses.

Sattaur contended that after he initiated an investigation into the importation of two vehicles by the Brijnanans that resulted in their seizure, Lall, Harris and the newspaper began a campaign to “defame, malign, degrade and humiliate” him in the performance of his duties as Commissioner-General and in his personal life. He asked for the injunction out of fear that the newspaper would continue to be used to defame him.

The alleged defamatory words were contained in editions published between August 31 and September 23 last. Sattaur was granted an interim injunction retraining the newspaper from further writing, printing, publishing or circulating any of the alleged defamatory words.

On October 3, Sattaur said in a press release that he was concerned by alleged accessing by Kaieteur News of confidential information (email exchanges) and would call in the police to investigate.

He also disclosed that there had been attempts to illegally access one of the GRA’s email accounts.

In was in this release that he spoke of the planned audit of the newspaper. He indicated that “a comprehensive audit of Kaieteur News Holding Company was warranted” and said that the initial analysis was prompted by the recent discovery of incidents relating to the evasion of taxes by the company on imported ink and irregular and unlawful evasion of import duties on vehicles imported by re-migrants but used by Lall and his wife. Nothing else has been heard about this audit.

Later in the month, it was reported that the ongoing probe into the remigrant scheme and any possible abuse of the duty-free concessions from 2010 to 2014 zeroed in on Attorney General Nandlall, and also listed Lot 55 Chandra Nagar Street, Prashad Nagar as his primary address.

This was after it was revealed that Nandlall’s remigrant uncle had used the AG’s Prashad Nagar property as his primary address. Nandlall had insisted that he was not in any way linked to the vehicle as he had never driven it or seen it neither was it ever parked at his home. KN then reported on an encounter with Nandlall’s uncle over the duty-free concession for his car which would later become part of the explosive conversation between Lall and Gildarie.

On October 13, 2014, Lall and his wife were arraigned on tax evasion charges, all of which they denied. The Brijnanans were subsequently charged and they too had denied the allegations that were put to them by GRA prosecutor Sandil Kissoon.

Lall had told Stabroek News prior to his court appearance that the court matter was “nothing to fight about” and that the charges were “trumped up.” He made it clear that the Brijnanans were his friends and he was the only “family” they had in Guyana.

He was adamant that the prosecution was a political action and the latest attempt to “muzzle and close” Kaieteur News down because of the stand that the newspaper has taken against government corruption. He at no point suggested that he was in a mood to settle the case.

 Spiral

Things then began to spiral out of control. A hair-raising telephone conversation between Nandlall and Gildarie surfaced on October 25. On October 27 last, a teary-eyed Lall in the company of his attorney lodged a complaint at Eve Leary in which he accusing the AG of threatening him and suggesting that the newspaper’s employees would be targeted by gunmen. Lall had told reporters that he feared for the safety of himself and his workers based on what the AG said in the conversation.

A copy of the 19-minute conversation was also handed over to the police.

Nandlall has never disputed that he was the person speaking to Gildarie, but stressed that it was a private conversation with a longtime friend which was manipulated and taken out of context. The government also stood by him and chose to focus on how the recording was obtained as opposed to the content. Included in the conversation was a statement by Nandlall to the effect that Lall’s wife Bhena had been in negotiation with President Donald Ramotar over the tax evasion charges pertaining to the Lexuses. It was suggested that a deal was in the offing but that Lall had not kept up his end of it.

On December 22, after a few weeks of perusal, the DPP said in a statement that she had advised that no charges be laid against Nandlall for the alleged threatening remarks he made against the Kaieteur News owner and staff as the police file sent to her contained no such evidence. By this time also, Sattaur had withdrawn his threatening charge case against Lall. It was suggested that the charge against Lall should automatically lead to one against the AG and this was one of the factors that resulted in the withdrawal of the GRA charge against Lall. Of all the persons ensnared in the controversy, Nandlall has come out the worst over the language he used in his phone conversation with Gildarie and his demeaning reference to women. He was also called upon by his professional body, the Guyana Bar Association to resign and now faces the prospect of no conferral of Senior Counsel status.

The quartet continued to attend court in relation to the tax evasion matter and in a surprise move on February 4, GRA prosecutor Kissoon attempted to have the charges withdrawn, saying that a resolution had been reached between the GRA and the four defendants. This was two days before the scheduled hearing. However, Magistrate Judy Latchman stated that after considering the application and the level of publicity which the matters had attracted, it was in the public’s interest for it to be called and dealt with on the original court date.

When the case was called on February 6, 2015 following Kissoon’s application the charges were withdrawn and silence has since ensued.

The details of the “compensation” package accepted by the GRA to drop case are shrouded in secrecy. Sattaur had refused to release details since according to him it is “very private information” and that the law provides for this route to be taken while Lall’s camp has been silent.

It is unclear if in exchange for dropping the charges GRA had to be paid a portion of the $100 million import duty for the vehicles or Lall had to drop the two misconduct complaints he made against Sattaur to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guy-ana (ICAG) and its UK-based parent body, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

Lall had accused Sattaur, who is a member of the ICAG, of abusing his office and breaching secrecy regulations by leaking confidential information on a taxpayer.

Lall had charged that Sattaur went beyond his boundaries to give out this personal information to Jagdeo, who is a private citizen.

Observers say the sequence of events since July last year suggests that serious matters between the tax authority and persons like Lall could be easily put aside after the striking of private deals or by the use of some coercive element. Ultimately, the observers say, the onus is on Lall to explain his actions and he has not done this so far.

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