More than a week after being seized by the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) with 200,000 gallons of undeclared fuel aboard, the MT Jubilee remains in custody while the owners work with customs authorities to pay the $36 million in outstanding taxes, according to Commissioner-General, Godfrey Statia.
Based on information from Statia, the fuel was brought here by Lynwil International Trading (Guyana) Inc. For the time being, no criminal charges are being considered in this matter, although the captain of the vessel will be made to pay a fine.
When contacted, Statia explained that “[the] owners are making payment arrangements…It was imported through a Lynwil licence …Lynwil has a licence issued by the GEA [Guyana Energy Agency].”
The GEA has said that the vessel is in the custody of the GRA and that the entity was awaiting advice from the authority before deciding its next move.
Noting that there is a difference between undeclared and smuggled fuel, both of which are illegal, Statia told this newspaper that in the case of the former, the undeclared goods may not result from smuggling, “it may have come in through legal means but was either under or not declared for one reason or another.”
Sunday Stabroek was informed by a source with knowledge of the illegal fuel trade that smuggling would have occurred if the boat and its contents were not registered with the boat house. It would appear that this is what happened in this particular case. A customs official is currently being investigated for attempting to make a corrective entry after the GRA seized the vessel.
During a press conference last Tuesday, Statia had said that since the interception, GRA picked up some faults in its operations and later discovered that efforts were made to conceal them. He did not elaborate on what those faults were.
“Emanating from that we have found that there are some shortcomings on our end especially at the boathouse and we are trying to fix that particular end of it. We found that persons were trying to put the entry in after the boat was boarded… days after the fuel was not marked,” he said.
In addition to looking at the maritime records to see the frequency with which this boat would have been coming into Port Georgetown, he had informed that checks are being made with the Demerara Harbour Bridge to see the “frequency with which these boats have been passing through the Harbour Bridge and based on the information we garnered from Maritime and from the Demerara Harbour Bridge we would then be in a position to determine whether this was actually a hiccup in the system or the person was trying to smuggle the [fuel].”
Asked if the authority has concluded its investigation into the movement of the vessel, he responded in the negative.
Information seen by the Sunday Stabroek shows that the MT Jubilee has journeyed mostly between Port Georgetown and Linden. It travelled between Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago on March 25th this year.
This newspaper asked Statia whether the captain of the vessel is likely to be charged. He responded in the negative. “He will be made to pay a fine,” he said, while noting it is yet to be decided if the fine will be the same $20 million sum as was the case in a similar matter which occurred last year.
The opposition PPP in a statement on Thursday said that the manner in which the seizure is being handled is unacceptable and pointed to ties between the principals of the vessel and the government.
The party said that the mooted fine seems to be the only sanction which will be imposed on this vessel and its owners.
“We are aware that the law provides that in such a circumstance, the boat is liable for forfeiture, the owners are liable to a fine of treble the value of the amount of tax evaded, as well as being liable for criminal charges. This is the regime of treatment to which the ordinary Guyanese is normally subject in similar circumstances. It begs the question, why this particular vessel attracts special treatment.
“Our information is that this case is being handled differently because the vessel is owned by several persons who are deeply connected to the Coalition Government,” the party said, while suggesting that the Ministry of the Presidency has given directions in the case and that the GEA is being sidelined. “The GEA would normally institute several criminal charges in such situation,” the PPP charged.
The PPP called on the Office of the Auditor General to launch an investigation.
Meanwhile, Minister of State Joseph Harmon on Friday told a post-cabinet press briefing that he is unaware of any senior government official being linked to the seized vessel. ”I cannot confirm, nor can I deny…I am not aware of that,” he said in response to a question.
He subsequently lauded the efforts being made by the GRA and GEA to curb fuel smuggling activities in Guyana.
He said that fuel smuggling is a matter actively engaging the attention of both entities. “As you are aware there are some processes that had been put in place with respect to the marking of fuel so that the fuel …on these vessels that are for use in Guyana is properly marked,” he said.
He told reporters that the country’s coastlines and borders are very wide and large and therefore it is “difficult for you to be able to police every square inch of it so from time to time vessels will actually come into the country with contraband items. It is important, however, that once they come to port that we are able to board and inspect and to once it is determined that these items are contraband that the revenue authority does what it has to do and the Guyana Police Force also does what it has to do.”
Harmon opined that the two agencies are “doing a good job so far, in so far as identifying these matters where they occur and to deal with the perpetrators.”
Statia had acknowledged that fuel smuggling is a problem and he highlighted the authority’s efforts to curb this practice.
“We know for sure that smuggling is alive and well and we are trying to thwart that but it is a question of resources and it is a question of trying to fit all of those persons that have been granted import licences,” he noted, while pointing out that the number of fuel importers has grown tremendously over the years.
The GEA has since disclosed that more than 9,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel have been seized for this year alone. Seven discoveries of illegal fuel have been recorded so far for 2018 and these have led to two convictions while three matters remain ongoing.