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Govt discards opposition’s recommendations for appointing anti-money laundering staff, seizure of cash

The opposition A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) recommendations for the removal of direct ministerial involvement in appointing a Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and arresting suspected money launders were Sunday night rejected by the government.

The government members of the parliamentary select committee set up to examine amendments to the Anti Money Laundering and Countering of Financing Terrorism (AML/CFT) also rubbished the opposition’s desire to outlaw the possession of huge amounts of cash.

Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh declined to say definitively whether government would vote in favour of the opposition’s suggested amendments when the National Assembly meets Monday at 2 PM.

Ahead of that sitting, the select committee is expected to meet again on Thursday at 12 mid-day to consider how the opposition’s ideas have been incorporated into the AML/CFT and the proposed amendments.

APNU sources on Sunday reiterated that even if the select committee reaches consensus on the AML/CFT amendments, their vote in the House would depend on whether government operationalises several Bills already approved and signed into law. APNU also wants government to agree to vote in favour of several Bills that President Donald Ramotar has refused to assent on grounds that they are unconstitutional.

The Private Sector Commission (PSC), Western diplomats and the Guyana Association of Bankers have all urged that the AML/CFT be passed or the country could face serious consequences by the Financial Action Task Force, the France-based global watchdog on financial crimes, when it meets later this month. Essentially, that means that money transfers for the purchase of key supplies such as pharmaceuticals, fuels, equipment and spare parts could be slowed up because correspondent banks would refuse or slow to conduct certain transactions without intense scrutiny.

Labelling the opposition’s proposals a set of last minute incoherent and inconsistent ideas that were presented at the last moment, the ministers were not definitive on whether they government would vote in favour of A Partnership for National Unity’s (APNU) proposed amendments. “That remains to be seen. I don’t know what the committee will decide. It depends on what emerges from the committee,” said Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh.

APNU point-person on the committee Carl Greenidge declined to discuss the details of the proposed structure but suggested that his team recommended a new mechanism for appointing the Head of the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU). He hinted that under the present system in which the FIU is appointed by the political directorate which could include politically exposed persons including the Minister of Finance and the Attorney General. “There are issues as to who has oversight of the FIU, how the FIU is appointed, what skills are to be in there, how they are to be fired… There are amendments proposed and the draughtsmen now have to incorporate that neatly into the existing legislation,” he said.

Dr. Singh said APNU reps want to introduce the establishment of an Anti Money Laundering Authority, a mechanism he said was copied by that opposition coalition from another country without considering Guyana’s administrative system and the need for further amendments.

Attorney General Anil Nandlall stated that APNU’s proposal to establish a parliamentary system for selecting and appointing the Head of the FIU and its officers was inconsistent with the recommendations by the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF). “They are bringing to the anti-money laundering apparatus a new and complete set of persons and stakeholders which may fly in the face of the international recommendation which is to keep and confined body of persons who are least influenced or influence-able and we are expanding it beyond a scope that they are able to say so that may collide frontally with CFATF recommendations,” he said. Asked whether the Finance Minister and the Attorney General should not stay as far as possible away from the process to avoid conflict of interest if they are at any time identified as suspects, Nandlall shrugged off the question by accusing the opposition of attempting to bring the entire National Assembly into the decision-making process.

With the opposition’s introduction of several fresh amendments that were not included or germane to the Bill, the Finance Minister said the select committee might be in violation of the Standing Orders. Amendments to the principal Act, he said, were proposed but apparently no consideration was given to what that would mean for amendments to other sections. On the issue of oversight, government team stated that a number of the opposition’s recommended changes were not in keeping with recommendations and standards of the CFATF.

Junior Finance Minister Juan Edghill reacted sharply to APNU’s recommendation that the police, customs officers or the FIU Head should be empowered to seize large amounts of cash, precious stones, jewellery and other items from persons based on reasonable suspicion of being involved in money laundering. “It’s making money contraband!,” he said.

Asked if government would support APNU’s proposed amendment by adding a provision that seizures could be made only if the necessary intelligence is gathered, the Attorney General said that would require broad-based input from the public. “That I believe is a political question. It affects Guyanese right along the length and breadth of this country. I believe that needs consultations. You cannot impose a law on a people against their will,” he said. Nandlall said the opposition should have brought that proposal months ago rather than at a time when the committee was winding up its work. In the absence of criteria for seizures to be done, the Attorney General said that would be a dangerous step because it would be “easily susceptible to abuse”.

Currently, Customs is only empowered to seize large amounts of currency equivalent to more than US$10,000 at the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (CJIA).

The PSC, GAB, Distinguished Economics Professor Clive Thomas and Chartered Accountant Christopher Ram have made presentations to the AML/CFT parliamentary select committee on how the bill could be strengthened.