The exit interview with Sam Sittlington, the owner of an Irish “fraud investigation” company brought in by the British High Commission to “train” members of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU) to executing its remit, raised new questions about that remit, even as the confusion around its funding was highlighted during the Budget Debate.
SOCU was signalled in 2013 to give teeth to the Anti-Money Laundering/Countering the Financing of Terrorism Bill then under consideration in the National Assembly. In mid-November, Cabinet Secretary, Dr Roger Luncheon delineated its remit quite succinctly: “SOCU is intended to be Guyana’s response to its treaty obligations to investigate suspicious financial transactions that are suggestive of money laundering. SOCU’s creation is in response to non-parliamentary recommendations from Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF).”
Luncheon explained that the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) – the body statutorily charged with monitoring the financial sector – would compile information on suspicious financial transactions and make it available to the SOCU. “SOCU, armed with the information, will then conduct investigations to establish whether these transactions are indeed money laundering transactions or financing terrorism transactions.” SOCU was constituted as a unit of the Guyana Police Force and when an officer of the Guyana Defence Force, Sydney James, was appointed its head, he was made into an Assistant Police Commissioner.
Within weeks of its launch, SOCU arrested a Bulgarian native at CJIA with US$45,000 he was suspected of “laundering” and the government explained such seizures at ports of entry and exit were permitted. It was assumed the FIU had informed SOCU of the suspected money laundering but the latter’s actual role in executing the seizure highlighted the public’s lack of knowledge of the precise parameters of the unit’s authorised activities. Citizens therefore were flummoxed as to what grounds SOCU conducted the surveillance operation on former NICIL CEO Winston Brassington’s home, which ended tragically in three deaths. This was the paradigmatic “mission creep”.
However when the APNU/AFC government finally passed the AML/CTF Bill in 2015 upon accession to office, Attorney General Basil Williams informed the National Assembly that SOCU was now authorised to “seize and detain cash in excess of $10 million anywhere in Guyana.” This was a most significant further mission creep of SOCU in light of Sittlington’s observation on Guyana’s definition of “currency”: “I think it is the widest definition I have seen, and it would encompass ‘prepaid’ credit cards as well as gold, precious stones and jewellery,” Sittlington emphasised that Guyana’s “cash seizure” powers exceeds those of the United Kingdom, arguable the best in Europe.
This search and seizure of what is the equivalent of just US$50,000 will have a chilling effect on business in an economy where cash is still the preferred medium of exchange for many rural businesses. Even more insidiously was defining jewellery as currency in a society where the former are passed on as heirlooms especially at the marriage of Indian couples. At this time any neighbour with a grouse can “sic” SOCU on the objects of their angst.
While Williams claimed “cogent evidence” are presumably presented by SOCU and FIU before seizures are effectuated, in the latest case last week where SOCU raided a number of properties of a businessman and seized cash, computers and records they have still not indicated what entity passed on the “cogency” of their evidence.
Sittlington also referred to the confusion over the funding of SOCU, which he said should be “sorted out”. As PPP/C MP Gail Teixeira pointed out during the Budget debate, SOCU had been funded by Office of the President as a matter of expediency to make it operational and this should have ended by now.
Evidently alluding to the truism that “he who feeds the dog can also “sic” it,” Sittlington noted: “A number of ministries have a say in the functioning of SOCU and this creates confusion and instability.”
Not to mention, “mission creep”.