With one abstention and none against, the Senate comfortably gave the requisite three-fifths special majority of votes to the Financial Intelligence Unit (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill 2011.
Saying most people don’t realise the importance of these laws, Independent Senator Dr Rolph Balgobin said global terrorist funds are lodged in TT. He also noted the boom in suspicious groceries, restaurants and casinos sprouting up in every nook and cranny by recent arrivals from “halfway across the world”.
The FIU, he said, must curb this flow of funny money.
Balgobin asked, in this time of global economic recession, where are recent immigrants getting money to set up restaurants and groceries each costing $3 million or $5 million?
“If you had to leave where you were living because of economic hardship, and travel halfway around the world and come here as an economic migrant, how is it that you have all this money?” he asked.
“Studies of immigration show that it takes at least a generation, or two, before a family unit could scrape together enough money to launch themselves into a business of the size and scale, that we are observing Trinidad and Tobago now.” He said these businesses are accompanied by cases of kidnapping and murder, saying, “There are international dimensions to these things”.
The FIU must probe these businesses, he said.
“Clearly many of these new businesses have no clear source of funding and even more importantly they do not have a sustainable business model,” said Balgobin.
As a business expert, he was amazed to see businesses being set up that supposedly no-one else had ever thought to set up before.
“I stand there and wonder how are they going to make money here. Place always empty but it is not closing down. It is a restaurant, nobody in there eating, but they have 50 tables and 500 chairs”.
He recalled Apple Computers CEO Steve Jobs saying that overnight success is actually the result of years of hard work, but suspiciously that is not the case for these new businesses being set up in TT.
“Many of them do not even have age, they cannot speak the language and they have not even mastered the basics of the society that they are operating in and you have a million dollar business!”
Balgobin urged the FIU to start to jail persons running such businesses, to deter other similar operatives from setting up shop in TT.
More such concerns were mouthed by the next speaker, Minister of National Security, Brig John Sandy, who said certain businesses in TT suspiciously seem to grow “overnight” including jewelry, real estate and fishing.
Focusing on fishy business, he quipped, “They seem to have some big catches that seem to cause them to evolve in the hierarchy of economics”.
Opposition Senators sat transfixed by the speech of the PNM’s very own former trade minister, Mariano Browne, who briefly returned to the Senate to explain the nuts and bolts of the FIU Act that he had pilotted in 2009.
Browne was given a hearty welcome by all sides, amid some good-natured ribbing from the Government benches regarding the former PNM regime’s sudden demise from political office in last year’s general elections.
Health Minister Therese Baptiste-Cornelis teased, “Long time no see”, while Public Utilities Minister Emmanuel George quipped, “Resurrection Easter, boy”.
Opposition Senators were buoyed up by both the content and the delivery of Browne’s expertise. They watched their acting colleague in awe and admiration.
He exchanged friendly cross-bench banter with Minister of Food Production Senator Vasant Bharath whom had been an elected MP and the former shadow finance minister when Browne had been the former regime’s Junior Minister of Finance.
In his speech, Browne rejected Government charges that the former PNM regime had not attended any meetings of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a world body against money laundering. He said the former government had always attended FATF events. The 2009 FATF meeting in TT, he said, was attended by himself, the then Minister of National Security Martin Joseph, the then Attorney General Brigid Annisette-George and then Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira.
Browne said the FIU Bill is important because money-laundering can destabilise a financial system, which itself in turn can harm other financial systems by contagion.
He was glad the present Government had recognised a fact spelt out by Independent Senators when the FIU Act was debated in 2009 that the FIU Director must be an independent professional, not aligned to any Government Minister, but protected by the Civil Service rules and appointed by the Public Service Commission (PSC).
Opposition Senator Shamfa Cudjoe spelt out the real-life importance of the legislation.“It is not just for the business side, but money laundering has a very serious impact on our social fabric.” she said. “This crime is so closely linked to crimes such as kidnapping and drug trade and the trade of illegal arms, they all come in one package and by our very location in the Caribbean, I have said over and over before, we are wedged right between the drug producing South and the marketing in North. So if you are expecting drug trade, illegal arms trade, then you better be sure that money laundering and those type of crimes are going to come right behind or right with it.”
She warned of the dangers of money-launderers. “Criminals are more advanced; they are tenacious, looking for gaps in our financial system, looking for a way to break a rule, looking for a way to break the law in order to carry out their activities. We have to be vigilant.”
Attorney General Anand Ramlogan rejected the Opposition’s claim that all of its work in setting up the FIU had left the country doing well regarding the FIU. He said both appointments to lead the FIU — Director Designate and Deputy-Director Designate — made by the former PNM regime had been illegal.
Ramlogan said rather than the present Government now digging in its heels and fighting a long and costly court battle as to whether it is the Public Service Commission (PSC) that appoints the FIU head, he had instead opted to bring this Bill that says it is the role of the PSC.
Ramlogan explained how the FIU would function.
“They can issue guidelines and directions and you could have a consultative approach to compliance. When that does not work you approach the High Court,” he said. “We have preserved the law enforcement in terms of the court and in terms of when you detect suspicious activity you would request one of the law enforcement agencies to actually investigate it.”
This latter would be the existing Financial Investigation Bureau, a policing agency that he said was housed at the Special Anti-crime Unit of TT (SAUTT).
“The Financial Investigation Bureau will remain the law enforcement agency of choice as it were, for the FIU because they already possess the expertise and training and have already been doing this work for the FIU in the past.”