By Caribbean News Now contributor
KINGSTOWN, St Vincent -- A controversial Bill to amend the existing Passport Act was tabled last week in the St Vincent and the Grenadines House of Assembly for debate on Monday, prompting allegations that the government is seeking to rush the legislation through parliament in an attempt to exonerate corrupt or otherwise illegal acts.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves
The Bill appears to have its genesis in an audit carried out last year by the Office of Audit for SVG of the New York consulate accounts for the period of August 2011 to August 2013.
The audit was conducted to assess the extent of compliance with finance regulations and other rules governing public sector expenditure and came after a scandal that resulted in the recall of deputy consul general in New York, Edson Augustus, over alleged visa and/or passport related matters, and a side business that he was running that promised to obtain US permanent residency (“Green Card”) status for Vincentians, many of whom were believed to be living illegally in the US.
Earlier this year, the SVG government revoked, with immediate effect, Augustus’s appointment as deputy consul general in New York.
A statement issued by the ministry of foreign affairs on February 5, 2014, acknowledged that Augustus was "involved in activities outside the scope of his duties and inimical to the interest of the consulate general and the government and people of St Vincent and the Grenadines."
Augustus has not been charged with having committed any criminal act(s).
Meanwhile, the audit found many discrepancies, including that the official receipt books for passport payments had been abandoned and private receipt books used. The Audit Office said that was illegal and there was no way that receipts or the continuity of numbered books could be audited or kept track of.
The report said that, because of disorganization and lack of "important" supporting documents, the scope of the audit was "limited". The report went on to say, "As such, significant errors and irregularities may not have been detected."
Significant findings of the audit, however, pointed to "several shortcomings highlighted in the previous audit report" not being addressed; quarterly finance allocations remitted to the consulate not transmitted on a timely basis; no monthly expenditure summary to reflect the expenditure incurred for the period under review; and no bank reconciliation statements prepared for the operating and passport accounts for the same period.
Further, Selmon Walters, SVG’s consul general in New York, failed to implement or cause to be implemented recommendations coming out of the previous audit report, prescribed by finance regulations, for a "significant length of time" during the period under review; and the consulate "continues to collect passport fees without the requisite authority."
The Office of Audit said that, in 2013, there were no records of certain remittances in the consulate’s cash book, for monies received for passports. They reported said that the records were examined for the period October 12, 2011, to September 17, 2013, and that "there was no bank reconciliation statement prepared for the passport account." It said that, while transactions dated October 11 and 12, 2013, were transferred from the existing cash book to a new one, "the balance carried forward did not reflect the adjusted audited cash book balance.”
"It was observed that the unauthorized receipt books were in use for over 10 months since the receipt books were still in use at the time of the audit in September 2013," the report said.
The auditors warned that the use of receipt books other than that prescribed by the Finance Regulation 2009 "makes the collection process vulnerable to fraudulent activities since there is no monitoring of the quantity and sequencing of receipt books to ensure that all revenue collected is accounted for in the correct amounts."
The report also pointed out that the New York consulate has, for a number of years, been collecting fees of US$165 and US$275 for replacement passports, instead of the regulated fee of US$150, and that "no authority was seen for the collection of these fees."
In an apparent attempt to exonerate any wrongdoing at the New York consulate, the Bill tabled last week provides that:
6. (1) Every passport issued for a period of more than five years prior to commencement of this Act and the regulations made under the principal Act is declared to have been validly issued
(2) The fees set out in the schedule to this Act which were levied, charged and collected by the Passport Officer prior to the commencement of this Act and the regulations made under the principal Act are declared to have been validly levied, charged and collected.
(3) All actions by the Passport Officer in relation to the issuing of a passport and the charging and collecting of fees which were validated by subsections (1) and (2) respectively are validated and declared to have been lawful and the Passport Officer and every person acting on behalf of the Passport Officer are freed, acquitted, discharged and indemnified as well against the Queen's Most Gracious Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors as against all other persons from all proceedings of any kind in respect of or consequent on any such actions.
(4) All money received by the Passport Officer in payment of the fees validated under sub-section (2) is declared to have been lawfully paid to and received by the Passport Officer and the Passport Officer and every person acting on behalf of the Passport Officer are freed, acquitted, discharged and indemnified as well against the Queen's most Gracious Majesty, Her Heirs and Successors as against all other persons from all proceedings of any kind in respect of or consequent on the receipt of such money.
Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace
Opposition leader Arnhim Eustace described the amendments as "ridiculous", saying they are "very unjust" and could result in certain individuals not being penalized for their wrongdoings.
He said it is very obvious to everyone that the Bill is designed to prevent diplomats from being charged for things that they may have done in the process of issuing passports at the New York consulate.
According to Eustace, he will repeal the Act if his New Democratic Party (NDP) comes to power, in the belief that the government has designed the Bill to protect wrongdoers.
One local observer, commenting on condition of anonymity, said, “The Act will make wrong right, black white, inside outside, bad good, and therefore no one will pay for robbing the state, if that’s what they did. If they didn’t rob the state and no one did anything wrong, why amend the Act in such a way under such terms?
“Whilst governments are expected and encouraged to pass laws to stop and deter corruption, it appears that the Unity Labour Party government of St Vincent and the Grenadines, led by PM Ralph Gonsalves, looks to pass laws to support corruption.”
According to local sources, this is not the first time that the current government has been known to change laws, in order to save party and government members from being prosecuted.
On an earlier occasion, a Bill was rushed through parliament to authorise retrospectively the collection of a departure tax from residents travelling by ferry from Kingstown to any of the smaller islands. It had been alleged that such a tax was an illegal act. To save losing a court case on the issue, the law was hurriedly changed immediately before the matter was due to be heard in court and therefore no prosecution took place.
Also, after the 2010 elections, when election laws were allegedly broken, the government again sought to change the law retrospectively, so the alleged perpetrators could not be prosecuted. Among the accused were some of the very top government members.
This is also not the first time, unusual incidents have occurred in relation to passports issued by SVG.
In December 2001, a Vincentian with Canadian citizenship, the holder of a Canadian passport and also a standard SVG passport, was issued an SVG diplomatic passport at Kingstown. He was neither employed by the government of SVG nor was he a registered diplomat of the state. In 2004, he was stopped at London Heathrow airport whilst travelling on the diplomatic passport, and found to be carrying a kilo of cocaine.
Later, in St Vincent, hundreds if not thousands of unissued new passports were burnt at the government print department in a large fire that residents said “lit up the sky”, instead of being mutilated or otherwise rendered unusable. The actual number of such passports destroyed or if any remained intact is not known.
On September 11, 2012, the Canadian government revoked visa-free entry by Vincentians into Canada, due to what Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) described as unreliability in the authenticity of travel documents, in particular that individuals could change their names and acquire new passports without their previous name being shown in the new passport. Concerns about human trafficking and fraudulent travel documents prompted the Canadian government to impose new visitor visa requirements on Vincentians.