The Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) was established under the administration of Mr Donald Ramotar as part of Anti-Money Launder-ing Law requirements. In order that it could be endowed with police powers, it was incorporated into the Guyana Police Force.
As we reported on Friday, the GPF’s Audit Department, which in February of this year was instructed by Commissioner Leslie James to conduct an investigation into its functioning between 2016 and 2019, has now found evidence of major fraud. The unit had not been audited prior to this since its founding in 2014.
What the audit found is a major embarrassment to the government. A popular assumption has always been that the coalition’s success in the election of 2015 was at least in part due to the aura of corruption which had swirled around the previous PPP/C administrations. The promise was, therefore, of cleaner, more accountable government. And here we have one of the major institutions designed to deliver that, itself embroiled in what is a significant scandal involving corruption.
There will be a further embarrassment, albeit of an infinitely less momentous kind, and that is the fact that its most high-profile investigations had centred on PPP ministers and their associates, especially the matter of those who had acquired land in the Pradoville II housing reserve. What-ever the rights and wrongs of that case, it does not compare to the type of the misconduct of which the unit now allegedly stands condemned. From a purely political point of view, it is a gift to the opposition.
It is not as if the unit has been immune prior to this point of allegations of irregularities, the most egregious case occurring in December 2015, when a car driven by a GDF officer with his wife as a passenger, crashed into a canter on Carifesta Avenue killing the driver and themselves. The GDF car was on a SOCU operation chasing a vehicle supposedly carrying relatives of NICIL head Winston Brassington, who was under investigation.
In fact, the occupants were not relatives of the latter at all, but of Charles Ramson Jr, who was not under scrutiny. President Granger refused to mount an inquiry, never mind that it was not within the remit of the unit to mount surveillance or chase suspect vehicles at high speed, or that the wrong people had been identified, or that no adequate explanation could be given as to why the army was undertaking police work.
But what has emerged now is of a different order. The investigation itself had been precipitated after former SOCU adviser Dr Sam Sittlington had expressed his concerns about the mismanagement of the unit, particularly in relation to the use of its operational funds, as well as the arrangements for the storage of seized cash. It might be noted that Dr Sittlington himself was dismissed by the UK government for setting up a local branch of his Ireland-based security firm.
As we had reported, Dr Sittlington had told Stabroek News that tensions had arisen between himself and SOCU head Sydney James, when he had raised his questions about expenditure. He also made reference to the unavailability of printers, ink, paper and toiletries, and the fact that there was no internet and investigators were not given phone credit. While he managed to obtain a printer, there was no ink until the British High Commission allocated funds so some could be purchased.
Before one even moves to the graver allegations, this alone would surely be mortifying for any serious manager; how can anyone possibly run an office without even ink, paper or a printer, never mind access to the internet and mobile phone credit given that this is an investigating agency? Such failures are nothing short of extraordinary, and raise questions at the most basic level about the experience of those directing the organisation.
But of course the corruption findings on which we reported go far beyond issues of office management or lack of it. As we detailed, among the many things the audit discovered was that several staff members received millions of dollars, supposedly for intelligence gathering, but there was no corroborating evidence. In addition, the sums paid to staff were not far removed from what was paid to informants. Not too surprisingly in the circumstances, receipts could not be provided, and money was utilised for unspecified purposes.
There were, of course, fabrications of listed expenditure, records of purchases from business houses which had sent quotations but had received no orders, irregular arrangements with others, unsigned entries in the records and an allegation of the forgery of a signature. Then there was the case cited of more than half a million dollars being paid out to each of three ranks in one month in 2016, where the receipts had been backdated to make the disbursements appear legitimate.
We also reported that SOCU officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had also told this newspaper that in violation of anti-money laundering laws, seized cash was being kept at the unit and in some cases, at the GPF’s Finance Department. We were told that the money ought to be in an interest-bearing account, and that while the staff had frequently raised concerns about this, nothing had been done.
SOCU is an agency which received $52 million from the Ministry of Public Security for the period under investigation, and it is a moot point exactly how much of this went astray. Whatever the sum, the public can only marvel that this was allowed to go on for so long, and that it was only when Dr Sittlington raised the matter of the management of the unit’s operational funds, among other things, that an investigation was launched. It says nothing for the punctilious discharge of their responsibilities on the part of the GPF or the Ministry of Public Security. As things stand, the understanding of this newspaper is that no one has been asked to repay any of the monies which were wrongfully redirected.
The audit has recommended a fraud investigation of some of the discrepancies, and immediate transfers. A fraud investigation is without question an absolute necessity, and it should be mounted with some urgency. It is quite clear that given the extent of the malversation which went on, criminal charges should follow such an investigation.
Furthermore, in light of the nature of the corruption, transfers are hardly an adequate response. Where there are prima facie cases of fraud – and some which the investigation has uncovered appear to be quite blatant – then there should be suspensions at a minimum, and if it is possible given that a breach of departmental rules would be involved in addition to the laws of the land – dismissal. The point is that there should be no attempt by the government to gloss over what has happened as it did in the Carifesta Avenue case, or do nothing on the excuse we are in the penumbra of an election. And despite this administration’s partiality for the GDF, from where the SOCU Head, Mr James was recruited, it has to demonstrate that the members of every agency in this country must be bound by the law.
Finally, this is a demonstration, if any were needed, that every public agency in this country needs regular monitoring and auditing. Corruption will not be dealt with as a consequence of promises by politicians, some of whom are themselves in default on the corruption front; it can only be tackled if we have strong, autonomous institutions, insulated from political interference, and given statutory powers to regularly audit and/or monitor national and local government organs.