Ministry of Finance and Customs and Excise respond to ‘unjustified attacks’ by Evangelical Association President

(Left to right) – Legal Advisor in the Ministry of Finance, Dr. Ken Ballantyne; Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Georid Belle; Financial Secretary, Mrs. Janet Harris and Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Rodney Harris (Photo by Lesroy Williams)

ST. KITTS, FEBRUARY 17TH 2010 (CUOPM) – The Ministry of Finance and the Department of Customs and Excise has responded to what is said to be “unjustified attacks” by the President of the St. Kitts Evangelical Association, Mr. Ron Collins.

In several statements to the media and press releases, Mr. Collins made several allegations among them that police, army and customs officers visited the Basseterre High School to arrest him on the non-payment of a transaction on behalf of the Association and not one done by him personally.”

At a joint Press Conference on Tuesday afternoon Ministry of Finance officials and Senior Customs officers also deemed “abhorrent and irresponsible” a public statement from Mr. Mark Wilkin of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce and Mr. Isaiah Phillip of the St. Kitts Christian Council on the issue without first contacting them.

“Mr. Ron Collins committed a serious criminal offence by issuing a “bounced” cheque to the Comptroller of Customs in late December to settle indebtedness to the Department. As is our responsibility to do when faced with such a problem, we sought to have the matter rectified by collecting the requisite cash, without having to proceed through the courts.

This is to avoid unnecessary embarrassment and additional court cost to the individual and our desire to give the offender an opportunity to cure the problem. Despite our best efforts though, Mr. Collins has sought not only to politicise the incident, but to use his position of influence aided and abetted by elements of the media and privileged society to mislead the unsuspecting public into believing he was a victim of this sordid affair,” said Financial Secretary Mrs. Janet Harris in a prepared statement read at the Press Conference. She was supported by Legal Counsel in the Ministry of Finance, Dr. Ken Ballantyne; Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Rodney Harris and Deputy Comptroller of Customs, Mr. Georid Belle.

She informed that in mid-December 2009, the Customs & Excise Department released a 20ft container of toys to Mr. Collins for which the Government had granted duty-free concession. As is customary, Mr. Collins was required to pay the necessary customs service charge which in this case amounted to $1463.09. As an accommodation to the good gentleman, and not wanting to deprive needy children of their toys during the festive Christmas season, the Department pre-released the goods in exchange for a post-dated cheque dated December 28, 2009.

“In keeping with this agreement, and having not heard anything from Mr. Collins, the cheque was presented to the bank for collection subsequent to December 28, 2009, but was returned by the bank on which it was drawn because of NSF, that is, there was not sufficient funds to cover the cheque in the account on which it was drawn. In layman terms, ‘the cheque had bounced.’ As in any country with modern fiscal laws, it is a crime in this Federation to issue a “bounced” cheque. Mr. Collins ought to have known this, and it was brought to his attention, and he did confirm with the bank that the cheque was deficient in two respects, namely, the absence of another signature on the cheque and insufficient funds in the account to cover the cheque. Despite this department’s good faith efforts to have him rectify the problem, Mr. Collins remained rude, dismissive, pompous, arrogant and even threatening to officers of H.M. Customs & Excise Department in their efforts to have the matter resolved,” said Mrs. Harris.

She continued: “Yet, despite his unprofessional behaviour, when Mr. Collins did see it fit to report to the Department, he was given an extension of ten days to try and collect the funds from other denominations in order to resolve the matter. Contrary to all that has been said and insinuated, the matter was never reported to the police or dealt with outside the jurisdiction of the Customs & Excise Department.

When the deadline of the extension granted to Mr. Collins arrived and passed, another attempt was made to contact him to continue our plea with him to have the matter resolved as it was beginning to occupy much time and resources. Mr. Collins’ response was to dismiss the officers in his customary rude and aggressive manner and threatening to take the matter to the public airwaves. By this time, the behaviour of Mr. Collins had warranted the intervention of more senior and supervisory personnel from the Department to speak with him.”

Expressing appall with the “inaccuracies and misapplication of the truth by Mr. Ron Collins about an incident at the Basseterre High School,” the senior government officials said they were “even more disappointed that prominent and responsible members of our society in the persons of Mr. Mark Wilkin and Mr. Isaiah Phillip could in all honesty affix their signatures to a press release accusing the Department with the ‘use of security personnel to intimidate, embarrass and literally terrorize school children and an outstanding leader of Civil Society, threaten the fundamental rights of all citizens to decent treatment; and create much ambiguity with respect to the role and function of security forces generally throughout the Federation.’

“That such inaccuracies in language so inflammatory could be used to describe the Department’s handling of this matter without first considering their responsibility to the check out the facts seems almost treasonable to say the least,” said Mrs. Harris.

The Financial Secretary further disclosed that on the afternoon of February 2, 2010 when Mr. Walters, Assistant Comptroller with responsibility for Enforcement at the Customs & Excise Department accompanied his officers to the Basseterre High School to implore Mr. Collins one more time to do the right thing given the seriousness of the matter, it was as a result of an unsuccessful visit earlier that morning when Mr. Collins rudely dismissed and threatened officers who had gone there to see him on the very matter.

“Incidentally, when the officers got to the school in the afternoon, Mr. Collins was not there, children were in their classes and there were no police officers present. The contingent met with the Deputy Principal of the school to state their business and left shortly thereafter,” said the Financial Secretary.

She said that in this long and arduous encounter, the Department officers, accompanied by a police, had no intention of apprehending or threatening Mr. Collins.

“At no time did any officer of this Department intimidate, embarrass or terrorize school children or Mr. Collins. At no time did the Department deploy security personnel from outside of the Department to perform any function related to this matter, and at no time did Mr. Mark Wilkin or Mr. Isaiah Phillip communicate with the Department to check the accuracy or veracity of the statements to which they both affixed their signatures,” Mrs. Harris stressed.

She pointed out that as a department of the Government that deals on a daily basis with members of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and from time to time with the members of the Christian and Evangelical Councils, “we are indeed saddened that the very individuals in our society to whom we look up to as examples for the rest of society to follow, and for obvious reasons, hold to a higher standard of responsibility, could be so cavalier in using any means necessary, including the platform of The NGO Coalition to tarnish the good name of this Department and by extension our country, and show it to all the world in a negative light, all the time giving scant regard for the quest for truth.”

“We trust, and indeed we pray, that we do not become so cynical and blinded by hatred and prejudice that we lose sight of our basic human decency and plunge this beautiful country into the abyss of anarchy, deception and distrust. If we fail to teach honesty, tolerance and the quest for knowledge and truth, we would have done great disservice to our fellow man this country and the very word of God. That we are claiming to uphold,” the statement said.

Mrs. Harris also said that H.M. Customs & Excise Department like most Government Departments has from time to time experienced its fair share of praise and criticism from the general public.

“We have managed however, to take both praise and criticism in stride and to treat them with the utmost seriousness to improve in positive ways, our service to those whom we are called upon to serve on a daily basis. Never will we take criticism personally and make a public spectacle, for to do so would be counterproductive to our very purpose.”

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