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Top Customs officers in ‘vast fee disparity’

• Six-figure earnings by keeping best clearances for themselves

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Two senior Customs officers received a combined $836,391 in reimbursements over a three-and-a-half year period by selecting themselves for the most lucrative import clearance assignments.

The Auditor General’s Office, in a report tabled in the House of Assembly yesterday, revealed that the “supervisor” in charge of Customs’ examination section and their “assistant supervisor” together accounted for 21 percent - more than one-fifth - of all so-called “transportation fees”.

These are paid to the Department’s officers for using their own vehicles to attend the clearance of containers at an importer’s premises. Finding there was “a vast disparity” between the fee reimbursements obtained by different Customs officers, the report said the “top 20” claims accounted for 61 percent - or $2.393m - of the total $3.913m paid out between July 2018 and December 2021.

That meant the other 452 Customs officers shared $1.52m, for an average of $3,363 person, a sum which pales in comparison to that received by the two senior officers. The duo are not named in the report, but the Auditor General’s Office urged that those selecting which officers handle on-site clearance “do not partake in” such visits themselves to avoid potential conflicts.

The two senior officers obtained such extensive compensation because they frequently assigned themselves to on-site container examinations involving goods imported by companies in Customs’ ‘Trusted Traders’ programme, who typically import the greatest cargo volumes on a near-daily basis.

“The process of assignment and scheduling of attendance requests for on-site examination is under the supervision of the Examination section supervisors, a senior Customs officer and Grade 1 Customs officer,” the Auditor General’s Office reported.

“We noted that the supervisors in charge, senior Customs officer and Grade 1 Customs officer, had the authority to assign and schedule the on-site examination visits. In managing the process, both of these Customs officers assigned themselves to be in charge of the majority of ‘Trusted Traders’.

“The ‘Trusted Traders’ are the bulk of the on-site examination visits and, as such, volumes of container movements and attendance requests are transacted. This trade drives the ‘highest transportation fee payments’ and is linked to the bulk of Customs’ revenue and activities.”

Tribune Business understands that the transportation fee reimbursement claims were signed-off by senior Customs officers. The size of the payments is thought to have attracted the attention of top Ministry of Finance officials under the former Minnis administration, who became suspicious and initiated the probe by the Auditor General after Customs found it hard to justify the sums involved.

Dr Geannine Moss, Customs’ comptroller, was recently placed on administrative leave by the Davis administration. This newspaper understands her response to the ‘transportation fee’ probe had been awaited when the Minnis administration was voted out of office in September 2021, although there was no suggestion of wrongdoing on her part.

The Auditor General’s report confirmed that these fees are “reimbursement to Customs officers for the utilisation of their personal vehicle in the execution of their duties at on-site examination at importers’ place of business”.

For Customs officers to inspect containers and imported goods on-site, companies must pay a $75 ‘Road Tax’ fee and a further $100 ‘Service’ fee. A $50 charge is also levied as a ‘Requesting Officer’ fee, while the ‘transportation fee’ for Customs officers is set at $40-$50. 

The Auditor General’s Office, though, found that a “disproportionate distribution” of these transportation fees had occurred through senior officers selecting the most lucrative on-site examinations for themselves.

“We were informed that it is a practice for senior Customs officers and Grade 1 Customs officers to manage the ‘Trusted Traders’ on-site examinations,” the Auditor General’s Office found.

“Assigning Customs officers to examine the bulk of ‘Trusted Traders’ resulted in a vast disparity in officers receiving much higher overall transportation fee payments than all of the other examination team of Customs officers, who are providing attendance and examination services and using their private vehicles.

“The continuance of the large share of attendance requests by ‘Trusted Traders’ assignments to the first and second in command (the supervisors of the Examinations section) contributed to the disproportionate distribution.”

The Examination section’s supervisor received $351,849 in transportation fees over the near three-and-a-half year period assessed, while their deputy took home some $484,542. The next highest ‘earner’, by contrast, received just $190,619.

The so-called “top 20” fee earners were reimbursed sums ranging from $31,850 to $484,542. All were assigned to the clearance of containers and other goods imported by so-called ‘Trusted Traders’. In contrast, the other 452 received reimbursements ranging from $31,177 to just $1.54.

The Auditor General’s Office said “the payment variance is significant”, with “the uneven distribution of attendance requests resulting in inconsistencies in transportation fee payments”. It attributed this to the daily on-site examination requests submitted by ‘Trusted Traders’, who on average moved between 11 and 20 containers per day. Some had as high as 29 container movements per day.

“This is the main reason for the two Customs officers that supervised the Examination section receiving $484,542 and $351,850m respectively,” the Auditor General’s Office added. “The record reflects that they assigned several ‘Trusted Traders’ to themselves....

“We recommend that those who manage the distribution and assignment of attendance records for on-site examination, ‘supervisors of the Examination section’, do not partake in on-site visits that require use of personal vehicles for transportation fee reimbursement. 

“We further recommend that the assignment of ‘Trusted Traders’ on-site examination attendance requests be equitably distributed and rotated to strengthen the internal controls. In addition, we recommend using data analytics and reviewing performance reports for effective decision-making for continuous improvement in good governance and accountability.”

Comments

The_Oracle 10 months, 4 weeks ago

The political free for all trickles down throughout the rank and file of the civil service. How could it not? Ethics in Government is a myth. Fixing it from the bottom down will always fail, it must be fixed from the top down.

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Proguing 10 months, 4 weeks ago

I always told my children, if you want to be rich, be a Customs Officer

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tribanon 10 months, 4 weeks ago

The Auditor General and, of course, Neil Hartnell, seem oblivious to the much bigger issue here, and that's big time Customs fraud by many of our country's largest importers.

The reimbursements received by the supervisor and assistant supervisor in charge of the Customs examination section is no doubt chomp change compared to their onsite cold cash receipts from 'Trusted Traders' in exchange for them turning a blind eye while overseeing the most lucrative clearance assignments.

And you can bet these so called 'Trusted Traders' don't want too many Customs officers knowing about their fraudulent activities that result in our Public Treasury being short changed many, many millions of dollars in customs duties each and every year. I am sure most Bahamians would be absolutely shocked to learn the names of the 'Trusted Traders' and which other businesses they are connected with.

It seems our Auditor General has become an under-resourced poodle at a time when we need a well-resourced pit bull.

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SP 10 months, 4 weeks ago

The most outstanding part is, everyone knows what you said is true, but no one has done anything to stop this ongoing, humongous, graft in the Customs department!

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John 10 months, 4 weeks ago

Ever wonder why certain businesses flourish when all others struggle to keep their door open? Ever wondered why increases in import duties and taxes doesn't faze some people? A former MP said that is how we corner the market. We go to the house and raise taxes but we already have mechanisms in place to avoid paying those taxes. So while the other fella is out there struggling, we can undercut his prices and still make more prpofit tthan him, And there will always be someone willing to work in the channel. Hey its a part of doing business.

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BONEFISH 10 months, 4 weeks ago

This practice is endemic in the public and private sector in the Bahamas. This has gone on for some time. The media here is just getting around to report it.

This is one of the factors that is driving the brain drain away from the Bahamas. Some people who are not a part of these cliques, are not going to stand to be mistreated here.

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DWW 10 months, 3 weeks ago

get rid of duties entirely and lets go with VAT all the way. is that not the plan? these lucky customs folks won't be happy with a change in the status quo though.

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