Court rules against SOCU in battle to access tax information
A landmark decision on Friday by the High Court is likely to raise the debate of the legality of state investigators being allowed access to tax information of persons of interest.
Chief Justice (ag), Yonette Cummings-Edwards, disagreed with the pleadings of the Special Organised Crime Unit (SOCU), a department of the police that has been investigating the theft of state assets, for the release of certain tax information.
SOCU, more than a week ago, reportedly asked the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), the state’s tax collection entity, for information.
However, GRA insisted that strict secrecy laws bar it from releasing the information.
The law does indeed give GRA some legroom to release the tax information, once it is authorized by the President. However, the tax authority reportedly expressed misgivings about the information remaining confidential. It wanted reassurance that all steps would be taken protect it.
SOCU, according to officials familiar with the case, did not agree with GRA, and decided to take the matter to court.
On Friday afternoon, several top officials of GRA, included Commissioner-General Godfrey Statia, and his legal team, led by in-house counsel, Hessaun Yassin, attended the in-chambers proceedings before the judge.
Representing SOCU was its head, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Sydney James.
The case would be significant for a number of reasons. It would be the first known attempts by SOCU into the uncharted waters of using tax information to investigate money launderers and others in the radar of the entity.
With Guyana passing mandatory anti-money laundering laws designed to reduce dirty money from entering the banking system, using tax information to investigate has been seen as one of the major tools by entities like SOCU.
However, even if GRA is willing to help, the hurdles of overcoming the current Income Tax Act which governs how the authority operates remains just that – hurdles.
According to Section 4 (1) “Every person who has any official duty or is employed in the administration of this Act shall regard and deal with all documents, information, returns, assessment lists and copies of those lists relating to the income or items of income of any person, as secret and confidential, and shall make and subscribe a declaration in the prescribed to that effect before a magistrate.”
Section 4 (2) goes further: “Every person having possession of or control over any documents, information, returns, or assessments lists or copies of those lists, relating to the income or items of income of anyone who at any time communicates or attempts to communicate that information, or anything contained in the documents, returns, lists or copies to any person-
-Other than a person to whom he is authorized by the President to communicate it, or
-Otherwise than for the purposes of this Act; shall be guilty of an offence.”
With new management at GRA, Statia and his Governing Board of Directors had promised a hard line approach when it came to dealing with sensitive tax information.
GRA has faced accusations in the past of illegally leaking sensitive tax information.
In one case, tax information on Kaieteur News’ Publisher, Glenn Lall, was leaked to a paper close to the former administration.