By Charlesworth C. M. Tabor, Attorney-at-Law
Over the last few weeks our beloved country has been bombarded with the news of the laceny of over $3 million from the Customs Department, the admission by the Prime Minister that his signature was forged in the said larceny, and the subsequent shooting of Customs officer, Cornell Benjamin, who was conducting an investigation into the larceny.
This outrageous larceny of the funds of the people of Antigua and Barbuda was first reported to the nation by the Prime Minister himself. The Prime Minister being the settlor and overseer of our fair State, made it abundantly clear that all he is interested in is the return of the money. He showed no concern for the fact that a most heinous criminal offence was involved, that is to say, the forgery of his own signature. No, all he is concerned about is the return of the money and then the matter can be quietly swept under the rug. One should note here, that the Prime Minister was way out of line to make that call since, whether a matter proceeds to prosecution is not for him to determine. We are still a country of laws, and where the Rule of Law prevails.
My main concern, though, in this sordid and sad state of affairs; is the wrong and misguided view of both the Commissioner of Police and the Comptroller of Customs. On Observer AM, on the 18 December, 2019, the Commissioner of Police, Atlee Rodney, made the startling statement that the Police are only concerned about the shooting, and I daresay, the attempted murder of Mr. Cornell Benjamin. They are not concerned with the crimes of larceny at the Customs Department and the forgery of the signature of the Prime Minister. Those serious crimes should be left to the Customs Department. The Police Act Chapter 330 of the Laws of Antigua and Barbuda gives the Police the mandate for the provision and detection of crime in Antigua and Barbuda. The Police are therefore failing to undertake in earnest the duty imposed upon it by statute to detect and solve crimes on the island.
Now, with respect to Raju Boddu, the Comptroller of Customs, his only concern like the Prime Minister, is for the recovery of the funds. As he noted on 15 November, 2019 in Pointe Express, “We are putting everything in proper legal perspective so that, when we launch the claim for recovery, there are no legal pains to contend with.”
My dear readers the Comptroller of Customs like the Commissioner of Police clearly does not understand his role with respect to the crimes committed. The Customs (Control and Management) (Amendment) Act, 2013 gives authority to the Comptroller of Customs to investigate and punish minor infractions as they relate to the Customs Department. In that regard, section 137 of the Act gives the Comptroller the power to impose administrative penalties for such minor infractions. However, if the infractions committed are serious criminal offences which attract a sentence of imprisonment, the matter is outside of the purview of the Comptroller of Customs and must be handled by the Police.
To reiterate, the offences that we are concerned with in this sordid Customs affair are larceny and the forgery of the Prime Minister’s signature. With respect to larceny, section 20 of the Larceny Act, Chapter 241 of the Laws of Antigua and Barbuda indicate that a person found guilty of this offence can be imprisoned with hard labour for a term not exceeding seven (7) years. With respect to forgery, the Forgery Act Chapter 181 of the Laws of Antigua and Barbuda provide for a punishment of imprisonment which ranges from two (2) years to life imprisonment depending on the type of forgery.
The point should be abundantly clear now, that while the Comptroller of Customs can investigate and punish minor offences committed at the Customs Department, he cannot investigate and punish serious offences that carry a punishment on conviction of imprisonment. In the circumstances, therefore, the crimes of larceny and forgery committed at the Customs Department are outside the purview of the Comptroller of Customs. These crimes are for the Police to investigate and bring charges against the perpetrator.
It is apparent, therefore, that both the Commissioner of Police and the Comptroller of Customs are failing in a most serious, unprofessional and egregeous manner in discharging the duties that their high office demand. In failing to investigate the crimes of larceny and forgery at the Customs Department, the Commissioner of Police is WRONG. In his mistaken and misguided view that he has the power to investigate and punish serious crimes committed at the Customs Department, the Comptroller of Customs is WRONG.
In the circumstances, I hope reason and logic will prevail and that both the Commissioner of Police and the Comptroller of Customs will abide by the law as they are required to do. The Rule of Law must be honoured.