State Assets Recovery Bill passed after lengthy debate -Instrumental in efforts to root out corruption- AG

GINA, Guyana, Friday, April 14, 2017

Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams yesterday noted that the State Assets Recovery Bill was government’s reaffirmation to stamping out corruption.

He asserted that there would no “safe haven for corrupt persons” as it was the government’s vision to build institutions based on justice and integrity.

The National Assembly’s business began with the second reading of Bill number 2 of 2017 by AG Williams, who said, “This bill would impact the regulatory landscape of Guyana.” He noted that Guyana was a signatory to the United Nations Convention on this issue and gives effect to the non-conviction-based asset recovery recommendations contained in the UN Convention against Corruption (2003), formally ratified by the Government of Guyana in April 2008.

Minister Williams explained, “The Bill therefore introduces legislation to combat unlawful conduct and corrupt practices in relation to property and other assets owned by the State, or in which the State has an interest.

The legislation, divided into seven parts, deals with the establishment of SARA, the establishment of the Recovery of State Assets Fund, civil recovery and preservation of state property obtained through unlawful conduct and orders to assist investigation and international co-operation and several other issues.

“Corruption is ethically and morally wrong…it affects the integrity of financial institutions…and gradually removes trust in the government,”AG Williams noted as he continued his presentation. He added that under the previous government, Guyana ranked only higher than Haiti, in terms of its Human Development Index which speaks to corruption, poverty rates and other challenges. This has now improved, the Minister added.

He reminded that there were several notable instances of scams, such as the Gold Scams, Dolphin Scam, Stone Import Scam, Missing Law Books’ Scam, Cane Grove Conservatory Scam and the Polar Beer Scam. To say that corruption was rampant under the previous government would therefore be an understatement, he challenged.

The need to combat corruption has resulted in government embarking on a vigorous campaign to ensure that there is no safe place for corrupt persons to hide, the AG reiterated.

As a result of government’s efforts to strengthen the AML/CFT regime, the Whistle Blower Bill and the Witness Protection Bill, will soon be introduced and the results of audits released, the AG noted. He further added that the current bill will, “send a strong message that corruption at any level will not be tolerated by this Government. Those who plunder stolen assets must not be allowed to profit from them,” the AG stressed.

Opposing the Bill, MP Priya Manickchand said that a government that is genuinely serious about corruption would have supported the previous attempts made to have all (in the National Assembly) declare their assets. She added that previous ratings given to Guyana in terms of the Human Index and Corruption figures must be taken in the context of the previous circumstances. She also called for consultations so that government could be guided properly as to what should be in the Bill. She cited a previous quote by the current AG, whilst in Opposition, “We cannot have legislation which is supposed to dramatically transform the lives of Guyanese people without consultation.” She called for the Bill to be withdrawn or a least sent to Special Select Committee for further perusal. The problem she added is that the Bill, “Will live, it will live to come back.”

Rising in defence of the Bill, Minister of State Joseph Harmon said he was unable to understand why there was a claim that there were no consultations, “when some of the issues raised originated out of the same consultations.”

He recalled that President David Granger has committed government to standards of probity and excellence in office.

He added that the Bill will bring Guyana into the standard ratified but not acted upon, by the previous Administration. He reminded that upon taking office appeals were made for those responsible, to return what was not theirs. The range and magnitude of misuse of state assets was soon realised, he noted hence the need to enact anti-corruption policies and measures such as the State Asset Recovery Unit (SARU). One could only imagine what could have occurred if the stolen assets were put to use in the country’s development, the Minister noted.

He dismissed charges that the Bill would enable “witch hunts” and explained that several clauses address these concerns. The Bill will replace SARU and have in its place a Unit that reports solely to Parliament, with directors and deputy directors being appointed by a Bi-Partisan Committee. The Agency’s Budget will also be approved by the National Assembly along with a code of conduct and practice for the unit’s staffers, Minister Harmon explained.

Opposition MP Harry Gill posited that the amounts claimed that figures of several billion dollars being lost via corruption, under the former government, were untrue. He stated that after inheriting a bankrupt country in the 1990s, the PPP/C left millions in US dollars in the treasury in contrast. He opined that the Bill has no safeguard ensuring for example that the director would not be a “political hatchet man.”

He further accused the government of attempting to deceive the nation as it failed to keep many pre-election promises.

Lending her voice in support of the Bill, Minister of Telecommunications Catherine Hughes reminded that the Bill was in keeping with UN standards. It will provide a mechanism for SARA to take to the courts any quest to recover suspected stolen property, and once successful, returned to the rightful owners. The fact that SARU will have to present a budget and annual plan to the National Assembly, also means that oversight and accountability rest with those Parliamentary members, Minister Hughes reminded.

There will also be multi-agency cooperation which includes the Guyana Police Force and Director of Public Prosecutions for example. Mention was also made of the recent move to seize 15 computers from the Enmore Neighbourhood Democratic Council, with Minister Hughes reminding that the items belonged to the state, “Hence corruption was corruption regardless of where it occurred.” She then urged that all Guyanese go online and research the Bill and not be misled.

MP Dharamkumar Seeraj said that while he supported the fight against corruption, the Bill needed further consultations to ensure that it was not used to target politically inclined persons and others not supportive of the government.

Supporting the Bill, Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman slammed several Opposition members for unparliamentary conduct, with claims of some being targeted for their perceived political stance. He recalled that despite ratifying the treaty on corruption in 2008, no real action was ever taken until now to implement it. “Were they mamaguying?…You had since 2008 to do so, why didn’t you do so?” He added that the Bill will bring about a transformation that will dramatically impact the lives of Guyanese, and government should be commended for enacting legislation that took nine years to do.

He said that Guyana will run amok if the right measures are not put in place especially when the windfall, expected from oil discovery is realised. He also reminded that it was the PPP/C that ratified the UN treaty that they now deem to be reprehensible.

Following was Opposition MP Odinga Lumumba. He stated that his objection was with the Bill’s implementation and who it was apparently aimed at. He opined that the government displayed total disdain for concerns such as those raised by the private sector. He opined that from a technical sense, the legislation may even be subjected to 2/3 vote for passage, if it wasn’t sent to a Special Select Committee. He noted that the powers granted to the SARA Director made him or her as powerful as the Head of State. He closed by asking that the Speaker use his powers to remove “this obese Bill from the floor.”

Minister within the Ministry of Communities, Dawn Hastings-Williams then added her voice in support.She noted that the previous government had all the time to do the consultations needed when it was first ratified in 2009. The Bill, she also reminded was not about witch-hunting and the allegations were all false. She quoted an article from Kaieteur News which proffered that “Jagdeo set up SARU and now SARU upset Jagdeo.

She further beseeched all MPs to support the Bill’s passage saying, “Guyana does not need to be exploited and looted but want to see real development.”

Opposing after the Minister was Opposition MP Juan Edghill. He raised the issue of campaign financing and called for this to be addressed. He also called for the Establishment of the Integrity Commission, for MPs to declare their assets, list those blacklisted contractors and strengthen the Audit Office. The powers granted to the SARA director were too serious not to have further debate and examination, he noted.

The debate was cut short after a proposal by Minister Trotman who posited that given the pending holiday and the lateness of the hour, the Bill should be put to a vote. This was agreed to by the Speaker Dr. Barton Scotland. The Bill was read for a second time, with an amendment for clause 2 changing the word “money” to “money and digital gold currency” proposed by AG Williams.

Several other amendments were also proposed and approved.

The Bill was then passed with all the amendments, after being read for the third time.

Earlier in the day, a Motion wad brought to the Speaker by Opposition Member Anil Nandlall under Standing Order 112, to adjourn the sitting, to allow for President David Granger to revoke the establishment of the Land Rights Commission. The Speaker however ruled that the motion was out of order, disallowing it.

The next parliamentary sitting is scheduled for May 8, 2017.

By: Paul McAdam