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Ombudsman issues orders

By Staff Reporter

Ombudsman issues orders Ombudsman, Maiava Iulai Toma, has ordered the Customs Department of the Ministry of Revenue to “address what appears to be a prohibited import” that’s been allowed into the country.

The directive is one of three recommendations by the Ombudsman after his office investigated the “suspected misconduct” of a Customs official in relation to the year of a vehicle she let through Customs, last year.

Three weeks ago, the Vehicle Examination Declaration Form, leaked and published by the Samoa Observer, shows that the year of Toyota Tarago had been altered from 1992 to 2000.

Maiava’s investigation was to find if the “official had acted improperly to facilitate the importation of a prohibited vehicle.”
In his findings, the Ombudsman notes that the “fact of the matter is that there were unusual circumstances in this case.”

For instance, the illegible ‘year of manufacture’ inscription on the ‘compliance plate’ and the “enormous inconsistency with seat belt markings in an automobile model that did not change basic design for almost a decade should have provoked suspicion of tampering with the ‘compliance plate’ at some point in the vehicle’s recent life.

“Research and inquiries carried out by my office indicate that the particular vehicle in question is in fact a 1992 Toyota Tarago Car.”   
Maiava recommended three steps for the Customs Division. They are:

• Establish a coherent set of procedures to be consistently followed that include recording the method or documentation used to establish year of manufacture on the Vehicle Examination Declaration;

• Take steps to store its files more securely; and
• To formally address what presently appears to be the presence of a prohibited import in the country.   
Here is Maiava’s report in full:

SUSPECTED MISCONDUCT OF CUSTOMS OFFICIAL
This is an Ombudsman own motion investigation of a suspicion that a senior customs official had acted improperly to facilitate the importation of a prohibited vehicle.

The suspicion was raised in a front page article of the Samoa Observer newspaper on 17 February 2012 and investigation of it is under section 11 (2) of the Komesina o Sulufaiga (Ombudsman) Act.

There is a legal ban on the importation of any vehicle over twelve years old.  Any car manufactured before the year 2000, is therefore currently a prohibited import and it is incumbent upon Customs not to allow it into the country.

A Principal Customs officer when first presented with the used vehicle in this case on 20 December 2011, was reluctant to examine it because registration and ownership papers for it were not available. The intending importer, however, had insisted on an examination promising to provide the necessary documents later.

Every vehicle has a ‘compliance plate’ on which its year of manufacture is imprinted. The Customs Officer on inspecting the vehicle in question found the inscription on the compliance plate “indistinct”. He then inspected the vehicle’s seat belts and found the date of manufacture indicated thereon to be 1992.

The inspecting officer informed the intending importer that, on the face of it, the vehicle was manufactured in 1992. In the circumstances he was not able to proceed further in the absence of Vehicle Registration papers which possibly could throw further light on the matter.  

The Customs Officer recorded the year of manufacture on the Vehicle Declaration Form as 1992 and therefore a prohibited import. He told the intending importer to see his superior, the ACEO for further advice. The ACEO in turn when seen by the intending importer told him that she would need to produce a registration or ownership certificate. 

Three or four days later according to the ACEO, she was given a Certificate of Registration issued in the state of Victoria, Australia. This document recorded the vehicle’s year of manufacture as 2000. The ACEO raised with the intending importer the fact of the safety belts for a supposedly 2000 car being manufactured in 1992. 

It was suggested to her that the original seat belts must have been damaged at some point in the vehicle’s life and replaced with new or little used seat belts manufactured in 1992. The ACEO chose to accept this explanation. She accepted also the year 2000 recorded on the Australian Certificate of Registration as the vehicle’s year of manufacture.

She crossed out 1992 and replaced it with 2000 on the Vehicle Examination Declaration, initialled the change and authorized the release of the vehicle.  She filed the Victorian Registration Certificate with the rest of the importation documents for the vehicle. This was the end of the matter as far as she was concerned at that time.

On 17 February 2012, a newspaper article appeared in the Samoa Observer to the effect that the ACEO had changed to 2000 the year of manufacture for a vehicle that had been determined to be a 1992 vehicle and thereby had improperly cleared it for importation.

The newspaper reproduced the Vehicle Examination Declaration that had been leaked to the Newspaper. The point of interest in the leaked document was obviously the clear substitution of 2000 for the earlier entry of 1992.  The ACEO, as one would expect, went to retrieve the filed papers to support an explanation of her actions but found the crucial Victorian Registration Ce

rtificate missing from the file.

She believes that the document has been removed by a mischievous person or persons bent on doing her harm.
She contacted the Vehicle owner for any other documentation in his possession that might fill the informational vacuum created by the allegedly stolen Registration Certificate. 

The importer was able to come up with a Registration Transfer Advice certifying the transfer of the vehicle’s registration to a relative of the importer with the same family name. This document issued on 15 April 2011 in the state of Victoria, Australia records 2000 as the year of vehicle manufacture. 

The ACEO now submits this document to support her assertion that her earlier sighting of the Registration Certificate, a crucial factor in her decision-making, is not fabrication.
What of the Assistant Chief Executive Officer’s (ACEO) actions then?

There is no crucial significance in the fact that the ACEO changed the entry on the leaked and publicised Vehicle Examination Declaration Form.  She had the authority to do so.  The question of interest is why she did it and whether it was a reasonable exercise of her authority and powers.

The ACEO has never tried to hide the fact that she changed the Vehicle Examination Declaration Form. She initialled the change for the world to see. She claims to have done it not on whim, but on reliance on a Registration Certificate in accordance with normal Customs practice, barring presumably, any unusual circumstances. 

The document in this case was an Australian Registration Certificate, which showed 2000 to be the year of manufacture.  She is unable now to produce this Certificate because she claims it to be stolen from the Customs’ file.

To her benefit is my sighting of documentation that verifies the information she claims to have obtained from the now missing Registration Certificate.  The document now available is as useful and as weighty as the missing Registration Certificate for purposes of factually establishing the vehicle’s year of manufacture.

SITE INSPECTION
A site inspection carried out by Ombudsman staff revealed an atrocious state of affairs in Customs’ storage of files such as the file involved in this matter. 

There were several boxes full of all sorts of documents on the floor. Papers were seen piled up on a desk in an open space. It would be an easy matter for someone to pick up a document at any time and to make it disappear without others being any the wiser.

CONCLUSIONS

Although the ACEO failed to observe simple administrative practice such as noting on the Examination Declaration Form that she had belatedly sighted the Registration Certificate, I am satisfied that the ACEO is telling the truth in her account of events. 

I am satisfied also that she had no ulterior motives or improper intentions in this matter. She exercised her best judgment presumably, in determining the issue before her.
Whether her best judgment was good enough, is another matter altogether.

Whether appropriate support is given to customs officers to become familiar with aspects of particular relevance to their work in this field is another matter also.
The fact of the matter is that there were unusual circumstances in this case. 

The illegible ‘year of manufacture’ inscription on the ‘compliance plate’ and the enormous inconsistency with seat belt markings in an automobile model that did not change basic design for almost a decade should have provoked suspicion of tampering with the ‘compliance plate’ at some point in the vehicle’s recent life.
Research and inquiries carried out by my office indicate that the particular vehicle in question is in fact a 1992 Toyota Tarago Car.   

LEAKED DOCUMENT
The leaked document in this case has obviously caused consternation within Customs for obvious reasons. 

There is of course well known obligation to maintain confidentiality and to protect official information.  There is also well accepted whistle blowing in public affairs to address purposeful concealed wrong-doing.  In their proper contexts one objective need not necessarily endanger the other. 

Appropriate legislation for the protection of genuine whistle blowers hopefully, will feature in Government’s action plans sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, genuine whistle blowing is one thing; hijacking the truth or balance by surreptitious acquisition and concealment of crucial information is sinister mischief.

Elements of this case and allegations in it are worrying.  
For this reason the Office of the Ombudsman will be paying ongoing attention to the activities of Customs.  Any helpful information from any source will be very welcome.

RECOMMENDATIONS
It is recommended for Customs to:

Establish a coherent set of procedures to be consistently followed that include recording the method or documentation used to establish year of manufacture on the Vehicle Examination Declaration;

Take steps to store its files more securely; and
To formally address what presently appears to be the presence of a prohibited import in the country.   

Maiava Iulai Toma
Ombudsman                                                                                              
5 March 2012

 

 

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