Opposition awaits word on Commission of Inquiry into Customs fraud

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His Excellency, Governor General Sir Rodney Williams has not yet given any commitment to the establishment of a committee to investigate an alleged $3 million Customs Department fraud.

The governor met with a group of opposition members to include United Progressive Party (UWP) Political Leader, Harold Lovell, Party Chair, Dame D. Gisele Isaac and Deputy Political Leader and Leader of the Opposition, Jamale Pringle.

The delegation representing the Governor General included His Excellency, Sir Rodney Williams, Sir Claire Roberts and Senator Gail Christian.

The meeting took place after the party leader wrote to the Governor General and a number of other officials requesting the setup of an Integrity Commission to investigate the Customs matter.

According to Lovell, they have made this request in accordance with the Commissions of Inquiry Act.

Among the issues he wants investigated are the allegations of “a criminal network that is currently at work,” the shooting of Customs Officer Cornell Benjamin, and “the serious allegations made by the prime minister in relation to the deep-seated and wide-spread corruption at the Customs Department.”

Lovell said one must consider “The fact that his [prime minister Gaston Browne] signature had been forged contrary to the Forgery Act and most importantly that on top of that, three days after the announcement of the fraud one of the chief investigators, an attempt was made on his life at his home”.

He stated that a Commission is paramount in order to maintain public confidence in the Customs and Excise Department, explaining that “Unlike a regular police investigation, a Commission of Inquiry has the power to subpoena witnesses, to subpoena documents. A commissioner has the powers of a high court Judge; they can commit for contempt. So, it has more force and more power, and therefore we felt the gravity of this situation required that we ought to get to the bottom of it in the most efficient way possible, which we feel is through a Commission of Inquiry.”

“When all of these things are taken together, it points to a very grave situation in Antigua and Barbuda,” he told OBSERVER.

Meanwhile, Lovell says that he expects that “in due course” the Governor General will send his response concerning the establishment of the requested Inquiry.

He also took the opportunity to reiterate his disappointment with the Prime Minister and the Minister of Public Safety, Steadroy Benjamin for not issuing a statement on the shooting of Benjamin.

“I think they are trying to trivialise it,” he said, adding, “We have to make sure that public servants feel safe while carrying out their duties, and do not feel intimidated or terrorized; so I’m really surprised that the government would take this view,”

Lovell also questioned whether the government was trying to protect “persons unknown.”

According to the party political leader, “Something as important as this, I think it is very sad that neither he, nor the minister of National Security, have said a single word and the only thing that we’ve heard has come from the Chief of Staff [Lionel Hurst]and the government’s main spokesperson; and the only thing that he has had to say is that they would not want to have any name-and-shame, that once whoever it is, or the persons pays back the money, that’s good enough for them.”

Lovell concluded that it would seem that the government has already made up its mind “that this matter will be swept under the carpet,” judging from Hurst’s utterances.

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