The current select committee review of Bill No 18 of 2007 Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Bill 2007 took me back to the Hansard report of the debate on The Money Laundering (Prevention) Bill 1998 which was piloted by then Attorney General Charles Ramson when he famously announced how proud he was to be associated with a government that had “zero tolerance for corruption.”
On that occasion the government rejected pleas by the parliamentary opposition to refer the bill to a select committee and seemed to have paid little attention to the submission of the Guyana Association of Bankers (GAB) on the bill. To read Mr Ramson extolling the bill’s virtues, strengths and capacity to solve what had become a scourge that distorted every single measure of the economy was like celebrating the discovery of sliced bread. He said for example that the new law if given scope could exorcise the much wider range of illegal schemes which can be “disruptive of the conventional economic matrix.” He did not explain what constituted that matrix.
Ten years on a select committee of the National Assembly is meeting to bury that bill which has really never seen much light or action, although there is a Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) that was set up not within the Bank of Guyana as recommended by the GAB, but essentially as a one-man operation within the Ministry of Finance and which never published a single report on its activities.
The 1998 bill became law and is still on the statute books as The Money Laundering (Prevention) Act 2000, but for the near-life of the act (an SN editorial to mark the third anniversary of its enactment described it as a “bear in hibernation”) it has been more words than action.
The list of persons who pronounced on the act at various stages included then Finance Minister Sasenarine Kowlessar who after the act’s assent announced that no decision had been made as to who would supervise the act; President Jagdeo, who one year after the act was passed said no funds had been budgeted for its implementation; then Director of Budget Dr Ashni Singh who pronounced that “money-laundering could have significant influence on currencies, market prices and financial stability”; Home Affairs Minister Gajraj who in discussing money-laundering spoke of non-working millionaires and the “Siamese twins of the narcotics scourge”; his successor Ms Gail Texeira who called on consumers to boycott drug lords’ businesses and Commissioner General Kurshid Sattaur who announced that GRA’s software would pinpoint money launderers.
But perhaps the most striking non-action was the establishment in 2001 of a special task force under Dr Roger Luncheon to oversee the implementation of the act – that too never got anywhere. Significantly, never a word from the Director of the FIU.
History favours pessimists
History is not therefore on the side of the optimists. Between then and now money laundering has earned itself – helped by the inaction of the politicians and technocrats – to become one of the most significant segments in the economy although the Bank of Guyana hardly thinks it worthy of comment in its just released report for 2007. The non-bank cambios, almost all controlled by individuals, have become lawful vehicles for the pursuit of unlawful activities. Someone needs to explain why we would not allow insurance companies and commercial banks to operate as sole traders but would do so for the non-bank cambios, with little reporting obligations and no audit requirements.
To argue that we need the cambios because of the fear of driving foreign currency transactions underground is to admit that there is something wrong with the market and the regime for foreign exchange, including the exchange rate. As currently operated the cambios have legal cover to transact transactions, a number of which involve laundering.
A more ambitious task
What is different this time? The 2000 act had the modest objective of “the prevention of money laundering and for matters connected therewith,” and had a total of twenty-nine (29) sections. The new bill is far more comprehensive and now extends to the prevention of the financing of terrorism, a consequence of the attack of September 11, 2001, that allowed US President Bush to reorganise the priorities of all regulators in a one-size-fits-all solution. The bill now extends to “politically exposed persons,” and I hope that the lawyer/politicians now reviewing the bill will cover all the bases and not leave any technical loopholes to be exploited by their political parties, particularly at elections time.
The bill, an immensely complex piece of legislation covering some one hundred and fifteen (115) sections, will require several pieces of supplementary legislation to support it and confers both powers and duties, some of which are mandatory and others discretionary. Even if only some of these were to be carried out with minimum efficiency, it would require a significant bureaucracy and budget which the government may be unwilling or unable to finance, and external financing may be required for its viability. In fact we will probably hear, as we did with its predecessor, that there is no money to operationalise it.
The bill optimistically assumes that a politically appointed director supported by an attorney-at-law and an accountant with personnel trained in financial investigation or other employees (s. 9) will be able to administer this legislation that would include both domestic and cross-border transactions. The same structure and person could not enforce the 2000 act, and never prepared a report or analysis to indicate the favourable features and its weaknesses, so it must therefore be wishful thinking to believe that a similarly structured FIU could administer a more complex piece of legislation.
I believe it would be helpful if various options across similar jurisdictions with similar legislation were explored. Data suggest that while FIUs appear to be the most common form in the Caribbean, these are not uniformly staffed and that there is no single, uniform structure. As drafted, there is no parliamentary oversight and the minister is not required to table the annual report of the FIU in the National Assembly. In Barbados the FIU comes under the Anti-Money Laundering Authority that has wide professional membership including the Commissioner of Police, the Comptroller of Customs, the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, the Supervisor of Insurance, the Registrar of Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property and representatives of the Governor of the Central Bank and the Solicitor General.
Despite some serious lapses that have eroded public confidence, the bill presupposes adequate regulatory mechanisms, the existence of a capacity and independence within the police force and Office of Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate and prosecute suspected wrongdoers, and a court that is attuned to the many forms of money-laundering. Will the court under the new law allow a major public company to refuse to divulge to its regulator the identity of the individuals behind major blocks of trustee-held shares?
Ministerial authority for the legislation is split between the Ministers for Legal Affairs and Finance. Yet the Ministry of Legal Affairs has taken a secondary role at the select committee level, and one wonders whether this will be another example of one thinking the other will act and both ending up doing nothing. The other main legislation where there is such joint responsibility is the Companies Act 1991, which has not been very successfully implemented and which cries out for amendments. It must be over one year ago that I made detailed representation to the Minister of Finance on some necessary amendments to the Companies Act but all I have heard is that the recommendations are engaging the attention of the Ministry of Legal Affairs.
Having had the opportunity to appear before the select committee I was struck by the exuberance of some of the members about the expected effectiveness of the bill which is largely an imported piece of legislation. Its origin is the international Financial Action Task Force set up by western governments, but even that body recognises in the Glossary to its 40 Recommendations and 9 Special Recommendations that “countries have diverse legal and financial systems and so all cannot take identical measures to achieve the common objective.” There is little evidence, however, that this bill has been sufficiently localized, and it does not identify the necessary consequential amendments to a number of other statutes, including the Bank of Guyana Act. Unless this is done, we can expect some lawyers having a real field day as they draw attention not only to the conflicts with other laws but also with the constitution which is the supreme law.
Apart from the laundering associated with the drug barons, the fuel smugglers and those who are called businesspersons, money-laundering is also related to tax evasion for which we already have many laws and other arrangements which are seldom invoked. We clearly need to develop capacity in the Guyana Revenue Authority to deal with rampant tax evasion, the proceeds of which must themselves be laundered, and I can only wonder why better use is not made of the Property Tax Act and the exchange of information provisions under the Double Taxation Treaties with Canada, the UK and Caricom states and the Income Tax (Exchange of Information) USA Order.
There is in fact a raft of other legislation that can help to ferret out money-laundering, with the Integrity Commission Act coming to mind, but what about the Companies Act itself, section 496, which allows for the Minister of Finance “on his own motion” and for the protection of the public to appoint inspectors to look into the affairs of a company. Certainly one prominent company comes to mind, but is there the will?
The real test of this bill is in the detailed provisions as well as the subsidiary legislation to follow. These should ensure a balance between dealing with money laundering and the financing of terrorism and the pursuit of legitimate business. But in the final analysis it will be in how serious the government is in stamping out money-laundering or whether this bill will be simply as ineffective as its predecessor.