By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Attorney General yesterday said law enforcement will gain "greater teeth" to target civil servants, politicians and their relatives, and criminals living beyond their legitimate income.
Carl Bethel QC told Tribune Business that the Unexplained Wealth Orders introduced by the Proceeds of Crime Bill, tabled in the House of Assembly yesterday, would better enable the police and other agencies to 'follow the money' and bring organised criminal gangs "to their knees".
While the Bill's introduction was sparked by the weaknesses identified in the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force's (CFATF) assessment of the Bahamas' anti-money laundering defences earlier this year, Mr Bethel said its contents would improve the "well-being" and security of all Bahamians.
While the Unexplained Wealth Order concept was "not drastically new" to Bahamian law, as it was already part of the Penal Code, Mr Bethel said the Bill was "fleshing out" and giving greater "flexibility" to law enforcement to crack down on the proceeds of corruption, fraud, bribery and other criminality.
"The law is being given greater teeth and flexibility," he told Tribune Business. "It's important not just for our international obligations; it's important for law enforcement generally.
"We have a lot of people in the Bahamas, whether Bahamian or otherwise, who do bad things. It's difficult to know, but if there are instances where someone who has no apparent source of income is suddenly able to do certain things, buy certain things, it probably raises questions as to their source of funds."
The Government's seemingly increased focus on 'the money trail' is likely to be warmly welcomed by many Bahamians, given the numerous stories and suspicions about persons enjoying a lifestyle - and owning assets - seemingly out of reach of their legitimate income.
"The Bill introduces the concept of Unexplained Wealth Orders, which permits the courts to inquire into assets which have been acquired by the relevant person but which are not explained by legitimate means," the Proceeds of Crime Bill's 'Objects and Reasons' state.
The Proceeds of Crime Bill introduces Unexplained Wealth Orders as a civil proceeding, not criminal, targeting persons who are "politically exposed" (politicians, top officials and their friends and families); "public office holders"; criminals and those subject to asset seizure and forfeiture proceedings.
This procedure can also be invoked for persons charged with corrupt practices, such as bribery, extortion, fraud and misconduct in public office, plus offences that include drug, human and firearms trafficking.
Following an application by the police, the Supreme Court can Order the subject person to "file declarations and answer questions" regarding their assets, income and how they came to own them. There has to be "reasonable susipicion" that the person's "total wealth exceeds the value of his lawfully obtained wealth"; that the assets were unlawfully obtained; and they are under the relevant person's control.
Persons have a 28-day period in which to seek an Unexplained Wealth Order's revocation, after which the law enforcement agencies can apply for it to become an "absolute" Order.
Once proceedings reach this stage, the subject of the Order has the 'burden of proof' to show their assets/wealth was lawfully acquired. The Bill sets out the process by which property and assets can be used to "satisfy" an Unexplained Wealth, which will be treated as a "judgment debt".
Mr Bethel said the Proceeds of Crime Bill, together with the Financial Transactions Reporting Bill and Travellers Currency Declaration (Amendment) Bill, were all "critically important to the Bahamas being able to have its rating re-evaluated in due course" by the CFATF.
He was backed by Deputy Prime Minister, K P Turnquest, who said the Unexplained Wealth Order provision was "fair warning" for those living above their means to remedy the situation.
"The [CFATF] report indicated several areas that need strengthening, and in keeping with our commitment to be proactive with all these agencies we are moving with haste, deliberate and committed haste, to address all the weaknesses identified," Mr Turnquest told Tribune Business.
"We intend to protect our reputation as a clean jurisdiction, well-regulated and with a clean book of business."
However, Mr Bethel told Tribune Business that the Proceeds of Crime Bill changes were "for our own well-being", not just to meet the Bahamas' international obligations and address deficiencies exposed by the CFATF.
"When you're dealing with organised crime, syndicates and gangs, you're dealing with persons who are in it for the money and all that money buys," he said. "It's for all our protection.
"Some people will jump up and down and say: 'You're bowing to the foreign man'. It's about having the same flexibility and powerful tools in law enforcement to protect Bahamians. Going after the money is a time-honoured way. That's the way the most powerful organised crime syndicates were brought to their knees."
Legendary Chicago gangster, Al Capone, was brought to justice by the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) over unpaid taxes, and many in the Bahamas believe asset seizures and confiscations have not been employed enough to combat drug and human smuggling, and other forms of organised crime.
The Attorney General yesterday said that while Bahamians typically saw the symptoms, in terms of murders, the illegal cash flows and profits that underwrote it via the proceeds of crime was rarely glimpsed.
"Organised crime is not 'organised' for the fun of it," Mr Bethel added. "It's organised for the money. Once you can find better ways to track the money, you will be able to break the back of it.
"When you start to look further back and get the money, you get the head. What we see are the skirmishes, but what's underneath is what's behind it."
Mr Bethel revealed he planned to undertake a "personal mission" to London in January in a bid to obtain technical support and assistance for all Bahamian law enforcement that would enable them to better detect, and follow, the criminal money trail.
Acknowledging that "official approaches" were also being made by the Government in this area, the Attorney General said the forensic accounting and analysis capabilities of the police and other agencies needed to be "strengthened quickly".
"We have to change and improve the vision of law enforcement," Mr Bethel told Tribune Business. "Sometimes you don't see what you don't look for. Our job is sometimes to help them look at things in a different way to see, and then to act.
"We feel this is an area that needs to be strengthened and strengthened quickly: Forensic analysis, forensic accounting, how to spot the money and connect the dots. We need in-house people trained in the forensic disciplines."
The CFATF, in its July 2017 assessment, found that the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF) "lacks the capacity to effectively pursue" money laundering offenders due to inadequate skills, training and resources.
It added that there had been no money laundering convictions in the four years prior, and just one case was before the courts, describing this as "inadequate" given the Bahamian financial services industry's size.
The CFATF suggested this reflected both the RBPF's inability to properly investigate complex financial crimes, and the policy set out by the Attorney General's Office and director of public prosecutions.