Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mahendra Chaudhrys Tax Inquiry a Farce and Disgrace

Inquiry shallow, says TIs Singh

Thursday, March 13,

TRANSPARENCY International Fiji says the independent inquiry report into the tax affairs of interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry has created more questions than answers.

TI Fiji chairman Hari Pal Singh said the members of TI Fiji met yesterday to discuss the inquiry report and suggest what more could be done to investigate the issue.

Transparency International Fiji believes that the terms of reference of the inquiry team was shallow and lacked the objectivity required for an in-depth investigation, said Mr Singh.

He said TI Fiji believed the terms of reference should have sought further details from the initial findings such as whether after it was established that assessments were done in terms of the Income Tax Act to see whether there were any anomalies and if necessary steps were taken to fully comply with the requirements to ascertain the true wealth of the taxpayer.

Mr Singh said the terms of reference should have also sought to find out whether the tax payer in any way benefited from the tax amnesty recently declared by the interim Government and whether an investigation was carried out into the source and purpose of the funds.

The report is incomplete and requires more detailed investigation, said Mr Singh.

Meanwhile, ousted Opposition leader Mick Beddoes said he was not surprised with the result of the inquiry. In a statement this week, Mr Beddoes described the outcome of the inquiry conducted into Mr Chaudhrys tax details as not unexpected.

The outcome of the Chaudhry inquiry is a travesty of justice and nothing but an orchestrated whitewash which has reduced the level of governance, transparency and accountability of the executive arm of Fijis government to the lowest level since independence, making it the worst administration in our history, he said

I will seek new inquiry: Beddoes
11 MAR
Ousted Opposition Leader Mick Beddoes says the outcome of the Mahendra Chaudhry tax inquiry was a “travesty of justice” and has vowed to seek changes in the new Parliament.

Beddoes said today that he has decided to stand again for the next elections so that “he can, in the new Parliament’s first sitting, file a motion for a Independent Commission of Inquiry” into the tax inquiry and other decisions by the interim administration.

“They will face a commission that is fair, transparent and independent, whose findings will be made public.”

Beddoes said the outcome of the inquiry made public by the interim Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum today “was not unexpected”.

He claims that it was “an orchestrated whitewash” of investigation into the close to $2m deposited in Chaudhry’s overseas accounts.

The independent inquiry team appointed by the interim Government cleared the interim Finance Minister of any tax breaches after consulting with the tax department and the Reserve Bank of Fiji officials.

It also found that the payment of large sums of money into Chaudhry’s Australian financial institution accounts did not appear to constitute a breach of the Exchange Control Act (ECA).

Chaudhry said that the plot to defame and remove him from office has failed and he will be suing his accusers.

'Report raises more questions'

Thursday, March 13, 2008

THE National Federation Party says the inquiry report into the tax affairs of interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and the way the inquiry was conducted raises more questions than it answers.

In a statement yesterday, NFP general secretary Pramod Rae said the restrictive terms of reference and the selection of persons conducting the inquiry based on prior association was questionable. Mr Rae said by saying that Mr Chaudhry was unfamiliar with Fiji's tax laws, the suitability, qualification and experience of the Fiji Labour Party leader in holding the Finance portfolio had been shattered.

"How can any person who is not conversant with basic tax laws become the custodian of the State's treasury and look after an average income of $1.4billion for the welfare of Fiji's citizens? The report is also contradictory by at first saying that the committee had concluded its outcome ahead of the actual inquiry. The report does, however, confirm the allegation that Mr Chaudhry had received large sums of money deposited into his Australian bank accounts during 2000 and 2002, a fact previously denied by Mr Chaudhry," said Mr Rae.

Inquiry link

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

THE head of the independent inquiry team appointed to investigate the tax details of interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry provided advice to the interim Government before he was engaged for the inquiry, according to a document obtained by The Fiji Times.

The document showed that Mr Cowley a partner in the law firm Minter Allison of Brisbane, Australia was engaged to advise the interim Government on issues relating to Momi Bay and the Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority last year.

Part of an independent inquiry team that looked at issues relating to Momi Bay and FIRCA last April, Mr Cowley corresponded through his firm with interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum last year regarding the Momi Bay issue.

Mr Cowley specialises in Corporate Law and Governance.

Announcing the findings of the inquiry into Mr Chaudhry's tax affairs, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said at a press conference yesterday that Mr Cowley was familiar with Fiji's laws because he had carried out a number of assignments here since the time of the SVT Government.

Mr Cowley is also a member of the International Bar Association.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum did not mention that Mr Cowley was engaged by the interim Government last year.

When approached late yesterday to comment on the issue, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said he had already clarified the issue and would not want to make any further comments on it.

Political parties have claimed that the inquiry into Mr Chaudhry's taxation issues was a farce.

They also questioned the independence of the members of the team.

On the independence of members of the Chaudhry inquiry, Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said they were professionals and their independence should not be questioned.

National Federation Party general secretary Pramod Rae said Mr Sayed-Khaiyum had worked for Minter Ellison and it was not a coincidence that Mr Cowley a partner in the firm was appointed as a member of the team.

Mr Sayed-Khaiyum said he had worked for Minter Ellison 10 years ago but Mr Rae's allegations were not justified.

"His feeble reasoning was that I worked for that law firm. Yes, I did work for Minter Ellison in the Sydney office some 10 years ago I did not even know Mr Cowley," said Mr Sayed-Khaiyum.

Media accused of having an agenda'

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

INTERIM Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry says media organisations in Fiji should take a critical look at the manner in which they are abusing the freedom of the media in pursuit of what is clearly a political agenda to discredit the interim administration.

In a media release issued yesterday, Mr Chaudhry said the local media had conspired to defame him and have him removed from office.

The statement came after the announcement by the interim Government that an independent inquiry team had cleared Mr Chaudhry of any taxation breaches,

Mr Chaudhry said he welcomed the findings of the inquiry team which cleared him of all allegations of having breached Fiji's tax laws.

He said he was not surprised, however, that the same elements were now trying to discredit members of the team.

"I have always maintained that the initial Victor Lal articles (published in the Fiji Sun) were motivated by spite, malice and outsized ego. The articles were the product of a conspiracy hatched between Lal and certain media people here, including the departed publisher of the Fiji Sun, to not only defame me and have me removed from office but also to divide and weaken the interim Government," said Mr Chaudhry.

"There was clearly a conspiracy by elements in the media to collude and connive with certain individuals and politicians to discredit, malign and defame me," he said.

Mr Chaudhry said his lawyers have filed legal papers against 0 and all those who were associated with it as part of the conspiracy to defame him.

"Defamation action against other media organisations and individuals will follow in due course," he said

A foregone conclusion

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

THE conclusion of the inquiry into interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry's tax matters was foregone.

Once the terms of reference were made known at the weekend, even a blind person would have been able to see what the three-member team would say in its report.

There was no mention in the terms of reference of the $A1.6million at the centre of the tax issue.

There was no mention of who provided the money or, indeed, where these mysterious funds may be at this time.

Nor was there any attempt to find out how involved a foreign power has been in the internal politics of this sovereign nation.

It is obvious from Mr Chaudhry's bank statements that over $A500,000 was deposited in his account by a Sydney-based consulate general of a foreign government.

This government has always decried the attempts of Australia, New Zealand and the United States to influence our affairs.

This time, however, it has been deafeningly silent.

More troubling is the fact that this team was chosen, provided a terms of reference and started work without the public being informed that the inquiry would take place.

By the time the interim administration announced the team's terms of reference, the report had been prepared and was ready for dissemination.

This is rich, coming from a regime which espouses transparency and accountability.

Last week this newspaper approached several members of the administration to seek information on this matter.

At no time was any information forthcoming on the issue.

This secrecy does not augur well for the regime or the nation.

Neither does the fact that at least one member of the inquiry team has been contracted by the interim Attorney-General to provide tax advice on a project involving the State.

But the exercise has now been exposed for what it was a sham

It is a farce

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 -

POLITICAL parties have called the inquiry process into Mahendra Chaudhrys tax matters a sham and a farce.

They based their comments on the fact the team had completed its work and had handed it to the interim Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.

Late yesterday the team sent a signed statement confirming it had completed its review of Mr Chaudhrys tax affairs, saying a report had been delivered to Commodore Bainimarama.

A statement from the team said there had yesterday been some media speculation regarding the independence of the members of the committee.

The independence of this inquiry has been of paramount importance to all of us, the statement read. Interim Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said he saw no problem in the Sunday announcement of the appointment of the inquiry team looking into interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhrys tax files.

He said the team started work at 7.45am last Friday.

Whats the problem with that? If you can explain to me the anomaly in that then I will answer your question, said Mr Sayed-Khaiyum.

He said the media had already made a Mickey Mouse out of things and this was part of the interim Governments concern in announcing the inquiry team as they wanted to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

The three are professionals and if we had announced beforehand, there would have been attempts to stop them from coming. He said he had not had any discussions with Commodore Bainimarama on the matter but that the matter would be handled by the interim PM.

The former taxman who blew the whistle on Mr Chaudhrys tax matters, Lepani Rabo, said he was not satisfied with the discussion he had with Mr Cowley yesterday at Holiday Inn, in Suva.

Mr Rabo said when he offered documents he had in his possession but Mr Cowley said he did not need them as he already had documents with him.

Ousted Opposition leader Mick Beddoes said Mr Chaudhry should follow the example of former Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua Minister George Shiu Raj and resign. Mr Raj had been accused of abusing his travel allowance, a far less serious issue than the $2million scandal surrounding Mr Chaudhry, he said.

He was concerned about the impartiality of the inquiry team, saying some the members were linked to the interim regime some way or the other.

National Federation Party secretary Pramod Rae said the vast majority of Fijis right thinking citizens were not fooled by the Mr Sayed-Khaiyums boastful statement on Sunday that his regime was the first Government to take such action against any minister.

Inquiry team member Taufa Vakatale said she was balanced while being part of the Fiji Human Rights Commission elections inquiry team and did not know where people accusing her of bias were coming from.

Mr Rae said Mr Sayed-Khaiyum had once again attempted to pull wool over peoples eyes and that the inquiry was a sham.

He asked why did Mr Sayed-Khaiyum announced details of the inquiry three days after the team had already started work in secrecy.

Fiji Islands Council of Trade Unions secretary Attar Singh said the real question was the source and purpose of the funds that Mr Chaudhry allegedly invested but allegedly failed to declare the consequent earnings

Whistleblower Rabo unhappy with talks

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A FORMER Fiji Islands Revenue and Customs Authority chief auditor says he was not satisfied with discussions he had with the head of inquiry team looking into Mahendra Chaudhrys tax affairs.

Lepani Rabo said he met with inquiry team head Bruce Cowley at the Holiday Inn yesterday.

He said he had hoped to meet with all three members of the inquiry team but only managed to meet with Mr Cowley.

He said his meeting with Mr Cowley at around 10.15am yesterday was not as profound as he had hoped it would be.

He said their discussions barely scratched the surface of Mr Chaudhrys tax matters.

But, he said, he gave as much information as he could during their short discussion.

He said Mr Cowley refused to accept documents he had prepared for the inquiry team.

Mr Rabo said he was told the team already had the documents available to it.

He said a tax expert should have been part of the team.

Beddoes rubbishes tax team report

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Update: 11:45AM OUSTED Opposition leader Mick Beddoes described yesterdays announcement by a team to look into interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhrys tax affairs as a not unexpected, a travesty of justice and an orchestrated whitewash.

He said the announcement clearing Mr Chaudhry of any tax anomalies as reducing the level of governance, transparency and accountability to the lowest level since independence.

Mr Beddoes said people will regrettably have to continue to put up with lies, deception and immoral behaviour of the members of the interim Government until a democratically elected Government is put in place.

He said up to now he did not know whether elections would be held in 2009.

Tax team appointed secretly: Kinivuwai

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Update: 3:22PM Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua Party director Peceli Kinivuwai says the tax team that investigated interim Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry was appointed in secrecy.

He said the whole process smacked of bias and dishonesty.

"The names of members of the committee were announced on the eve of departure of the Australians the following day," Mr Kinivuwai said.

"The decision by interim Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama to clear Mahendra Chaudhry of all allegations does not come as a surprise but the decision is a disgrace.

Tug of War

THE political scene this week has been rather intriguing. It appears that the whole country is going through a political time-warp.

There is nothing much happening except that the people are being exposed to a daily barrage of verbal dosage of the so called “peoples charter” discharge oozing out of the air waves – courtesy of the secretariat of Building a Better Fiji committee based in the parliamentary complex.

The legal challenge against the overthrow of the Qarase Government is well and truly underway this week as well.

I suppose the best legal minds available to both parties are having a royal legal battle fighting their cases.

The outcome of the case is expected to be known in a week or two. The verdict?

Well, to a layman like me it’s a foregone conclusion. Qarase will win.

But the decision I suppose will depend on the legal interpretation the judges will apply. But that is another story.

And if that is not enough, we are also witnessing this week a political tug of war that could, if not handled properly, become disastrous for Interim Prime Minister Voreqe
Bainimarama and his regime.

Here, I am referring of course to the controversy involving the rather enigmatic and enduring Mahendra Chaudhry – the politician many regard as the political maharaja of the Indian community.

In fact, the political guru of many talents is right now fighting for political survival – a path he has crossed many a time.

I thought in this weeks’ column it is perhaps best we take a look at the political black cloud hanging over Mahen’s head.

There have been calls from all sectors of the community for the guru’s head to roll. The pressure has been building steadily that the guru’s knees appears to have buckled.

So much so that Mahen himself has written to Bainimarama leaving his fate as the country’s Treasurer in his master’s hands.

That could be interpreted as an admission of guilt in itself. It could also be interpreted as an act of remorse.

Something like this: “yes I may have caused the regime some damage due to bad press but not enough to warrant dismissal. However, I leave my fate entirely in your hands boss”.

It can be likened to a cry for mercy, akin to small children caught with unsavory behavior frightened and ashamed to be flogged for the wrong committed.

By writing to the Interim PM, Mahen is, in fact, pleading for mercy hoping to be given another chance.

However, in the face of overwhelming evidence and constant calls for an independent inquiry to be conducted into his alleged tax evasion, the inaction by Bainimarama is deafening.

Why is Bainimarama reluctant to let Mahen go? What influence has Mahen on Bainimarama that is making it so difficult for the military strongman to act decisively on the matter?

Does the interim PM know something that ordinary folks on the street are not privy too? If that is indeed the case, what is it?

I would have thought that political expediency would encourage Bainimarama to act with a firm hand.

That is of course if he wanted to rebuild the confidence of the people in his leadership prowess and in that of his government.

But, lo and behold, Bainimarama appears to be on the defensive accusing those calling for the maharaja’s head as being anti-Indian.

I suppose one is forgiven in believing that Bainimarama is so mesmerised with Mahen’s magic, that the military leader is even prepared to go down with him if the crunch comes. Such faith is indeed overpowering. Again we ask why?

The bond between Mahen and Bainimarama is so strong that even the advice by the military council for the removal of the maharaja did not go down well with Bainimarama. Instead of Mahen being relieved of his post the axe has fallen on two senior military officers.

Again I ask what is it that frightens Bainimarama from acting against Mahen?

I have also been reliably informed that a wellknown politician holding a senior position with the interim regime is to be relieved of his duties because he had advised Bainimarama to seek the termination of Mahen’s appointment as Minister of Finance from government house.

But we must not underestimate Mahen’s capabilities as a politician. He is shrewd, cunning and an astute political strategist. He has survived many political confrontations and knows exactly when to act. Right now his reputation is on the line.

And like a wounded tiger, Mahen is now at his most dangerous form. He will not go down without a fight. He has come a long way trying to build a better life for his Indian electorate. And no one is going to deny him at the last hurdle.

His electorate survival depends on the land and that’s what he intends to provide them with.

He saw Bainimarama as a means to an end for his political ambitions. He will do anything in his power to nurture that partnership. Is it any wonder then that the bond between the two men cannot be moved?

Well, one thing is for sure though, at the end of the day, Mahen will come out victorious with his re-colonisation plans well and truly entrenched.

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