An interview with Bert Cunningham after he was forced to resign as Customs Comptroller.
Les révélations de Bert Cunningham
Mr Bert Cunningham, you met the Prime Minister and the Minister of finance at the Prime Minister's Office last Monday, what was the tenor of the conversation?
-It was a very long meeting that lasted for over three hours convened personally by Dr Navin Ramgoolam himself in the presence of Mr Rama Sithanen. We spoke about the reasons of my forced departure and some very big pending cases of fraud and corruption, the TV thing and what I can foresee at the Customs and the Mauritius Revenue Authority. For more than three hours I had given full details of everything, of what was going on at the Customs, how many hundreds of millions of rupees are involved in those big cases that the Government of Mauritius needs to cash. My personal security was as well discussed and I was very much impressed to see the Prime Minister phoning the commissioner of Police requesting him that all be done to have me fully secured here. I said thank you and at least I know from there on that I will not go frozen.
Are you serious when you say that Dr Navin Ramggolam or his Minister of Finance were not aware of those big cases?
The impression Dr Ramgoolam gave me was that he was not put into the picture at all about all those very big cases. I call these very big cases because there are big cases as well and petty cases too. He was absolutely shocked when I gave him full details and mentioned names as well. You know, since the setting up of the Mauritius Revenue Authority, I am not allowed to communicate to the Commissioner of Police directly, to the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, the Financial Intelligence Unit, the Customs authorities of the region, any Minister, any Permanent secretary etc. The MRA has tied my hand, blindfolded me and glued my mouth. This is where all the problems started.
And the Minister of Finance, what impression did he give you?
-He gave me the impression that he was not put into full picture by his officers. He was more on a defensive side throughout that very long meeting.
Do you think that there will be actions taken...
-Well, I have said all to both of them. They are fully aware of the Web of mafia operating at the highest Government level, the Caste Based Strategy and immediately, the Prime Minister requested that the dossiers be on his table the next morning. From what I have gathered, he is now in presence of all the files containing these very big cases of fraud and corruption at the customs. He gave me the impression that he is not happy about that. He showed his anger. The ball is in his yard now. I have reasons to believe that he is going to take the necessary steps against all these fraudulent and corrupted people. The people involved in these very big cases of fraud and corruption must be shivering now. I know at least one very much involved in Horse Racing who is shivering since I disclosed his name to the Prime mister in the presence of the Minister of Finance. He must be very much scared.
Did Dr Navin Ramgoolam make any request to you to assist in any way?
-Yes, he did and I guaranteed him that I will do the best I can to help him and the Republic of Mauritius in anyway I can. I have met various Ambassadors and diplomatic representatives since I have been forced to leave my position at the Customs and I know what I'm talking about. They are in permanent contact with me. Coming back to your question, I am even ready to come back here to help the country as a whole, but provided you guarantee my security.
Would you agree to talk to us about these very big cases as you say?
Yes. There's one involving some 7000 cases of whisky imported from Scotland, one involving import of a container of cigarettes from China, one involving drugs in Rodrigues, one involving import of spare parts. The import of the bulk whisky is one of the biggest cases amongst others. A bulk of whisky came from Scotland and was, according to our inquiries and investigations, made with the help of the British customs. We have all documents showing bank transfers from the exporter in Scotland handed to us by UK Customs. We had full support and assistance from the UK Customs and some officers from UK came over in Mauritius to help us complete our investigation. We came to the conclusion that this was a solid case that needs to be referred to the police. The files were handed over to the Police. The police did the job properly, sent the files to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The case has been going on for years. I was personally monitoring it because we concluded that some Rs 300 millions were involved. Then I never heard anything. This worried me and I inquired. You know what I heard That prosecution will not be underway against the importer not because of lack of evidence but for some other reasons which was not given. I remembered them that the UK customs was standby and prepared to come to depone in Court here. Three months later, I ask for a review of the decision. The Customs was only informed four months later that there were no prosecutions against the importer. I got suspicious and asked for all the files back to customs. You know what I was told? That all customs files and documents were stolen. I reported this to the MRA. I have never heard of any investigation since.
So they stopped your action?
-No. I still wrote to the Police and requested that all the files and documents be sent back to the customs since there were no intention to prosecute the importer. The police wrote to me and said that upon advice they are not allowed to return back the documents and files to the customs. So, no files, no, documents, no evidence. Thus there was no way to ask for a judicial review.
-We started our own investigation at the customs. We obtained from viable sources that corruption in this particular case involved people working at the the legal levels, the Ministry of Finance and the Prime Minister's Office. I'm not talking about the Prime Minister nor the Minister of Finance, but of Top Executives and some of whom are closely related to the importer. Then I could understand why the importer has not been prosecuted. I reported the corruption case in writing to the Director General of the MRA, Mr Sudamo Lal. He sent my letter to the State Law's Office. They did not even dare ask me what the allegations were. The State Law office put in writing that there was no case against the importer. Instead I was duly requested to release all the whisky to the importer even though I re-opened the case and even though the Judge's order was still valid, even though the UK Customs was waiting and even though the allegation of corruption was there. They instructed me to release the whisky. I did so under protest.
From what we can see, you were very much disappointed?
-Oh yes. Not only disappointed. I was angry, frustrated. Not only me but all the officers and managers that worked on this particular case. More so when I was told of what the rate of Duty and Tax should be.
What was the rate of duty and tax charged?
-It is absolutely unbelievable. Under strict advice of the State Law Office, we were requested to charge 50% less than what the rate should be.
Another case that would be interesting for you to recall but which you feel smells as bad as the whisky?
-Yes, the smuggling of cigarettes where a number of customs officers were involved and interdicted by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in 2002. These officers spent three years at home with full pay. When the time came to prosecute, the DPP decided that there were no criminal prosecutions, but only disciplinary actions. The four officers were reintegrated and had promotions later on. Yes, they were promoted. Still, when we inquired, we were informed that draft charges to have disciplinary actions against those officers were underway at the DPP's level.
And what was your reaction?
-I wrote to ICAC in order to have the necessary documents to take actions. For two years following my letter, ICAC never responded to me. At least three of these officers should have been criminally charged. Then came the MRA in 2006. Drafts were prepared for disciplinary actions to be taken. I sent these to the ministry of finance. It's two years now since these drafts have been sent and yet no disciplinary action has been taken. These officers are still working for MRA. Disgusting.
One more case Mr Cunningham?
A Customs Broker, now a high member of an Association. He went to China with a few customs officers in a case involving Smuggling of cigarettes. We had good information about the transaction and the matter after our investigations was referred to ICAC. There, the broker made a statement admitting full knowledge and participation in the smuggling of cigarettes. When I saw the statement from ICAC, I immediately recommended that his license be revoked. This was sent to the Director General of the MRA. He asked for advice from the State Law Office. He said we cannot abuse of our authority even though the offence of smuggling has no time limit. They still don't take his license away. His case has not been heard since 2001 or rather not yet been heard and we are now in 2008. The worse is that none of the customs officers have been held accountable and are still working at the MRA. The broker still holds a license issued by the DG of the MRA.
Are there other more cases on which you would like to elaborate?
-Yes. The Drug traffic in Rodrigues where a custom officer was involved. He left her place of duty on a particular day, drove to the airport, met a man who arrived from Mauritius, was present when the man presented himself at the Customs. An ADSU officer was watching closely. He drove the man to a hotel and the ADSU followed them. They took a room and after thirty minutes, the ADSU officer broke the door. The custom officer was in the bathroom and the man was in bed with the heroine. He was duly arrested, jailed but passed way in the police cell the next day. Supposedly, he died from overdose. No statement was ever taken from the custom officer. The corpse was sent back immediately to Mauritius and disposed very quickly. Despite my several requests the postmortem report has never been disclosed. I got the information and set off for Rodrigues after two days. I asked to the police why no statement were taken from the the custom officer and they could not answer. I personally wrote to the Chief Island Executive, Mr Wong So and said to him that disciplinary action needs to be taken against the Customs officers, but he refused. You know what were his reasons: Rodrigues Establishment is the entity that pays their salary and that we do not have any jurisdictions. So, under those circusmtances, we could not take any action.
Was this case reported to the MRA?
-Of course. I reported it and strongly recommended that the services of that custom officer is not hired. They did the contrary. I wrote again to the MRA and protested. They did their own investigation but he is still working in the Customs.
Now we would like you to talk about the case where an importer of spare parts apparently beneficiated from a gratuity with your approval. It has been alleged that some Rs 800 000 were involved. Can you explain why?
-This is another issue was raised and used by some people in order to harm me. In fact, we had the importer, a very young guy in his early twenties who was caught by Customs. We had evidence that he was defrauding. He was brought to my office and all that happened in the presence of his lawyer. According to our evaluation, he should have been charged for some Rs 1.6 million. We applied the very maximum charge because we could deduce that he had a lot of useful and important information which could help us. Eventually, he said he could not afford that amount but was ready to give a guarantee of Rs 800 000 and give solid evidence regarding five other importers of spare parts. We said to his lawyer, we cannot guarantee that he will have to pay only Rs 800 000 until we have inquired into what he revealed and documents he gave us the very next day he was caught. We investigated and caught three of those five importers. Our strategy worked perfectly. They were fined and we got much much more than expected. So we agreed with his initial proposal and he gave a bank guarantee for Rs 800 000. Now after some years, the original document was found to have disappeared from our office and replaced by a very much professionally scanned copy that you would say was the original document. We investigated and found out that the original was handed over to the importer against a bribe of Rs 120 000. The matter was referred to the police. In the meantime at the car park of Jumbo in Phoenix, the importer was in the presence of a police officer and the Customs officer who had stolen the original bank guarantee document. The latter stabbed the importer at the back and they left him to die in the car park. Police investigated into the matter and the proper punishment were applied. Now, to say that we gave a gratuity to the importer is absolutely ridiculous. We, in fact, offered him the opportunity to be punished less than what he should have been under normal circumstances only because he was our informant. The customs is not like ADSU and so we cannot give reward. So we did something different and it worked. Did we do something wrong when we all know that the information of that importer allowed the account of the MRA be credited with millions of rupees? If I have to use that device twenty times, I will without any hesitation.
Mr Cunningham, the MRA has cleared you regarding the TV thing and stillyou had officers from ICAC at your office. You said that they came to take statement from their new witness in that TV thing. Could we know more about that?
-Yes. The accused is now the witness. A boomerang effect. You know whilst they were taking my statement, I told them how come that I was the last person to be interviewed by them and why they allowed some radios and newspapers to tarnish my name here. You know what they said: Mr Cunningham, this is the procedure. Oh! Anyway, I have been asked by ICAC to explain that episode at the airport, that pr the other truth will come out. Now, I can say that truth has triumphed.
But, the MRA held a Press conference last Thursday and the said that you were insubordinate, an outlaw, a destabilizing figure who dared went to talk to the Minister of Finance?
-You talking about the MRA held a press conference, you should rather say Mr Sudamo Lal and Mr Yip held a press conference. Ask yourself why the other Directors were not present. Ask yourself why the chairman of the MRA was not present when I was forced to leave my position on that very Friday night. That's why they said I did not resign and that they did not revoke me. But they put a dagger under my neck and told me to sign the letter. They said if you don't go, we will not publish the notice they had already given me stating that I have committed no wrongdoing or malpractice in the TV matter and that they will not pay me the gratuity of US $ 33 000 the MRA retained since the TV inquiry we started. Insubordinate, destabilization. This is nonsense Mr Lal and Mr Yip. Do you know that I received a phone call from a very Director of the MRA who told me that if I do not leave Mauritius quickly, they cannot guarantee my security since very important people are involved in the big fraud and corruption cases I have brought to their attention. That's where started my fears that I could go back to Canada frozen. A dead lie was told to the press last Thursday. You now have a clear example of how the MRA operates. Insubordinate, distabilising, outlaw. Oh I can now understand why they wanted my head. What I have done wrong? Reported cases to Mr. Sithanen. I did it and felt it was my duty and my responsibility as a professional towards the Republic of Mauritius to proceed that way, irrespective of the attitude of the MRA against me. Today, I bear the consequences of my action, but I believe in truth and honesty.
From what we have been able to gather, there was a conflict between Mr Lal and yourself?
-Can I say the contrary? Right from the very start of the MRA, I did not see any support. Instead all communications were centralised. I was left with no power to act, with a petty cash of Rs 9000 only and with no budget. I was not allowed to hold any press conference nor to give any interview. I was not allowe
From what we have been able to gather, there was a conflict between Mr Lal and yourself?
-Can I say the contrary? Right from the very start of the MRA, I did not see any support. Instead all communications were centralised. I was left with no power to act, with a petty cash of Rs 9000 only and with no budget. I was not allowed to hold any press conference nor to give any interview. I was not allowed to communicate to the the persons at the head of major authorties here. This is fundamentally wrong. They completely tied me. Never in my life had I seen such centralised bureaucracy. Since MRA came, the customs department has never been allowed to integrate the MRA. In two years, the Director General came to the Customs only once and to my invitation. Can you imagine that Mr Lal has never dared pay a visit to the new Customs house due to be handed over to the Customs next month. All my staff who used to work into the fraud and corruption cases were transferred. When there was that big inquiry into Horse racing, so many funny things happened.
We have in front of us a Bert Cunningham very much frustrated?
-My frustration is due to many reasons. I have worked for some eight Revenue authorities in this region and I don't think that Mr Lall has my experience nor any other member of the Board. In two years, I have had to operate with a part time personel officer and his office is located far from the customs building in Port-Louis. Today, many of the 13 Directors who worked with me do not have the necessary staff. I can recall that many of the Senior Post at the MRA have not yet been filled. Can you imagine that the MRA does not care for training. Never throughout my career have I seen such a poorly run organization. Go and ask the Senior managers at customs whether their department is fully supported by the MRA. I have presented some 55 projects of reforms and yet not once has the MRA asked me to give them one explanation.
You have also been criticised after your meeting with Mr Rama Sithanen?
-Yes. In mid December 2007, I raised all these things with Mr Sithanen. I came back form vacation and I was asked to attend a meeting by the MRA Board where I was criticized for having talked to Mr Sithanen with whom I raised many fraud and corruption cases that, according to me and my managers, have not been properly dealt with by the MRA. The MRA Board reprimanded me. Then, I told Mr Lal that if ever those cases were exposed, he will lose his job. He did not take my advice and paradoxally I have lost my job. The MRA shoot the messenger. If you call my action insubordination when I went to the Minister of Finance to tell him what was going on, then I am guilty of charge. I met the Minister of Finance because from my twenty years of experience in this region, I am of the opinion that its critical that these fundamental problems be seriously dealt with.
Have you ever made any recommendation to the Director General of the MRA?
-Yes. I recommended that if the MRA could not properly support Customs, then Customs should be seperated from the MRA. I think that's the best solution. I do not see things improving. Instead of the MRA helping and facilitating Customs Reforms and the modernization program, it made all this impossible. Personally I deeply regret to have suggested that the MRA be created. I wish I never ever made that recommendation to the Governement here at least from a Customs perspective. With the idea of having Mauritius a Duty Free Island, there are little reasons for Customs to be part of the MRA. This is my humble opinion. So if the Government wants to have customs out of MRA, invite me back. I would rather suggest that Customs should be joined with Immigration, Coast Guard and the border Control Sections of Health, Agriculture and Fisheries. This is the trend in many developed countries. We call it Single Border Agency.
Mr Lal and Mr Yip also raised the issue of declaration of assets of the MRA personnel. They did not hesitate to criticize you on that issue as well. How do you see their critics?
-Must I laugh or rather say that I respect the opinion of those who say that even though an officer has been involved in drugs, in fraud, in massive corruption in the past, who has made fortunes should still work at the MRA because the MRA is not interested at all with what happened before it was instituted? In brief, MRA gives an amnesty on any ill-gotten act. I wrote to the MRA when staff was being recruited to say please be very careful about some officers when they recruit. Yet, not one of the officers I have reported for fraud and corruption have ever been requested to explain their wealth by the Internal Affairs of the MRA. Not one involved in fraud and corruption cases have been asked to give explanations by the MRA. I have sent dozens of cases but they are working at the very MRA. Any manager worth his salt would have thrown up his arms and left long time ago. There's no leadership in the MRA. Call me insubordinate. No one has ever brought me here to have blindfolds put on me and handcuffs in my hands. When I see fraud and corruption cases not being dealt with, I am not that kind of guy who can conform working in an imperfect system and find administrative solutions to major fraud and corruption cases. From an advertisement in the newspapers these days, it is clear that they are looking for someone that is able to work in an imperfect system and turn a blind eye to fraud and corruption. Good luck to them and to Mauritius.