Gov’t passes State Assets Recovery Bill amidst calls for withdrawal

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The State Assets Recovery Bill 2017 was last evening (Thursday, April 13, 2017) passed in the National Assembly, with only the Government side present in the house.

As Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams stood to commence the debate on the Bill which paves the way for the establishment of the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA), the Peoples’ Progressive Party (PPP) Parliamentarians began shouting “Apologise!”, “Apologise!” referring to the Minister’s recent behaviour towards a Judge in Court.

This forced the Minister to raise his voice to be heard. However, Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Barton Scotland made it clear that he will not have a shouting match in the house.

It must be noted that Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, Opposition Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira, Member, Irfaan Ali and a few others were granted leave from Thursday’s sitting.

In response, Williams said “is because” the bill will impact the regulatory landscape of Guyana and strengthen Guyana’s ability to fight corruption.

He outlined that the passage of the SARA Bill 2017 is only the fulfilment of an obligation of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) which Guyana signed on to in 2008. Since the convention was signed under the PPP administration, now Opposition in Parliament, the Minister implied that that side of the house never intended to weed out corruption.

First, to speak from the Opposition chairs, Member of Parliament (MP), Priya Manickchand began her debate with “this bill is worth to be thrown into the garbage.” She noted that one of the major concerns of her party is that SARA will be used for “political intimidation.” She outlined that the current makeup of the State Assets Recovery Unit (SARU) which will now be converted into SARA consists of persons who are “politically inclined” and implied that they will only be going after one group of persons; those being PPP supporters or persons of Indian origin.

However, heckling from the Government’s benches alluded to the Pradoville 2 probe in which several Opposition members including Manickchand is involved, as a reason for the Opposition’s reluctance to have the bill passed. Pradoville 2 is a gated community located in Sparendaam on the East Coast of Demerara, and it is alleged that the beneficiaries, members and associates of the previous government, grossly underpaid for the lots.

Manickchand told the National Assembly that the drafting of the Bill lacks sufficient consultations, alluding to concerns raised by the Private Sector Commission in the past. However, this was debunked by Minister of State, Joseph Harmon who spoke next.

The Opposition MP concluded her debate by calling for the Bill to be sent to a Special Select Committee to be further scrutinised.

Harmon pointed out that the legislation will not only affect the current opposition but the government itself. He added that SARU was established following a failure and delay to return state assets.

The Minister also expressed the belief that corruption in Guyana is most widespread outside of Government, but admitted that “many of these crimes are committed in collusion of public officials.”

He was followed by PPP Parliamentarian, Harry Gill who responded to the many claims that corruption was rampant under the PPP ruling. He told the house that now that the Government is in office, they should be saving those monies which were lost due to corruption under the PPP.

Gill was followed by Minister of Telecommunications, Cathy Hughes who began her contribution by putting to rest claims that persons will now be forcefully locked away by SARA and that the agency will be going after one group of persons. “We on this side of the house make no (way) for the illegality of partisan race or anything similar,” she said.

She pointed out that what is critical to note is that the recovering of State Assets will be done through civil proceedings and not criminal proceedings, giving persons the opportunity to return that which belongs to the state.

Article 19 (2) of the Bill states that “A civil recovery investigation is an investigation into (a) whether any property, or any specified property, is State property obtained or derived, directly or indirectly, from unlawful conduct involving a public official or any other person; (b) whether specified property was acquired, in whole or in part, with or in connection with State property obtained or derived, directly or indirectly, from unlawful conduct involving a public official or any other person; (c) whether a benefit has been derived, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, with or in connection with a public official’s or any other person’s unlawful conduct in respect of State property; (d)      who holds the property; or (e) the extent or whereabouts of the property.”

She added that the Director of SARA would be held accountable to the highest standard and pointed to Section 13 of the Bill which states that “the Director and staff shall be subject to the Code of Conduct as prescribed in Schedule 2 of the Integrity Commission Act.”

Hughes outlined that Section 43 of the Act protects the purchaser. Section 43 of the SARA Bill 2017 states that where a person holds recoverable property and is able to satisfy the Court, on a balance of probabilities, that the property was obtained in good faith for value without notice that it was recoverable property, the property ceases to be recoverable.

Other Speakers on the Bill were Opposition MP, Dharamkumar Seeraj, Minister of Natural Resources, Raphael Trotman, Opposition MP, Odinga Lumumba, Minister within the Ministry of Housing, Dawn Hastings, and Opposition MP, Juan Edghill.

Minister Trotman and former Speaker of the National Assembly, while supporting the sentiments expressed by Hughes, used the opportunity to express concerns with the conduct of Parliamentarians. Trotman alluded to comments made by Manickchand earlier in the debate stating that Minister of Public Security, Khemraj Ramjattan has Swiss Bank Accounts and should declare same and comments made naming the Head of SARU, among others. Trotman noted that these and other comments made during “heckling” can see members being dragged before the Committee of Privileges.

Edghill who made the final contribution before the debate was ‘shut down’ by the Government, called out the Government for its lack of other legislation to fight corruption. He called for a bill to address Campaign Financing, alluding to comments made by current Government Ministers in the past that public investors should be rewarded.

He also called for bills to fight against corrupt contractors and to strengthen the audit office. The Opposition MP stated that corrupt contractors should also be placed in the Gazette so that they can be identifiable.

Following Edghill’s contribution, Minister Trotman asked that a motion be moved for the debate to be halted, since “it is Holy Thursday (April 13, 2017) and the hour is approaching 10 pm”. The motion was supported by the Government which has a majority in the House.

Other speakers on the List also included Former Attorney General, Anil Nandlall who had in the past raised several issues concerning the bill.

This saw Opposition Members walking out of the National Assembly.

The Government proceeded by amending approximately four of the 107 clauses of the Bill before concluding the day’s sitting.

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