Comptroller of Customs says he was not approached
September 28, 2012
Comptroller of Customs says he was not approached

Comptroller of Customs and Excise Grenville John says his department was not approached by investigators for a statement in relation to the June 3 incident off Union Island, in which a customs guard died.{{more}}

“As far as my knowledge goes, no investigator came to anybody in the Customs administration to clear up any question they might have had … Nobody approached us!” John told SEARCHLIGHT on Wednesday.

But Director of Public Prosecution Colin Williams, in a separate interview on Wednesday, told SEARCHLIGHT that he was informed that the customs officer who was in charge in Union Island on the night of the incident, refused to give investigators a statement when asked to do so.

John, however, said neither he nor his office was ever asked to submit any report explaining why customs guard Othneil Whyte was on board the Venezuelan vessel — El Amigo Fay — when three foreigners were shot dead and another injured.

Whyte was unaccounted for after a reported shootout between the cop and person(s) aboard the Venezuelans’ ship.

He was found at sea hours later and an autopsy concluded that he drowned.

John’s comments to SEARCHLIGHT came two days after the DPP said on radio that the customs department never made a statement saying on what authority Whyte was on board the vessel.

The DPP was at the time defending his decision to discontinue several charges, including alleged customs offences, against the Venezuelans last week Wednesday.

“Everybody knows that the police is responsible for investigating crime in St Vincent and the Grenadines,” John told SEARCHLIGHT.

“I can’t tell the police investigators how to investigate a particular crime. I know from my experience, when police are investigating, they will cover all grounds,” he further stated.

“As the Comptroller of Customs, I was never asked for any report. I can’t direct the investigations. This is not a matter [that] was investigated by Customs. This whole thing is laughable…” John further told SEARCHLIGHT.

John, who is also a lawyer, noted that he worked in the Office of the DPP over 11 years ago, before Williams was appointed.

“If there is a matter that is material to a particular case being investigated, the police prepare the file, the file is sent forward and is vetted before any piece of evidence is made public,” John said.

“If there is an issue to be addressed, because there is something that is found to be material and is missing, the investigator could be asked to pursue that matter…” John said.

John said he did not hear the DPP’s comments directly, but read about it in SEARCHLIGHT Midweek.

He explained that the customs is an arm of government and if there is an issue, he can be contacted.

“We work with the police all the time. The police know who to contact. If even the police went to our enforcement personnel and they have not gotten the response or the cooperation, the Customs has a structure…”

He explained that the Customs structure comprises the comptroller, two deputies and five assistant comptrollers.

John further said that after the incident, he visited Union Island twice, where he met with Whyte’s family and other officers.

He explained that there are seven other customs officials working on the southern Grenadine island.

“I … met with them and spoke with them. I said to them, an investigation will take place and that they should cooperate fully with the investigations …

“I have never been told that there was any issue getting any information from the Customs … Customs is not a private agency; it is a government agency.”

John explained Whyte’s presence on the Venezuelan boat, saying under the Customs laws, any Custom official has the authority to board any vessel within the territorial waters of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

At the time of the alleged shootout, Whyte was on board the vessel with the police officer from the Rapid Response Unit (RRU).

Officially on duty

John also said Whyte was officially on duty at the time of the incident.

Asked if it is normal procedure for customs officials to accompany police in events such as on June 3, John said that it is the Customs that authorises boarding and that the police may accompany them.

“In terms of the formalities that ought to take place, the Customs is the authority for carrying a vessel in and out of the country,” he said.

“If an investigator feels he needs a report from the Comptroller of Customs, he could come to the Comptroller of Customs and get such report. No request was made of me as the Comptroller to provide a report,” John reiterated.

He said there are Customs officials on Union Island responsible for the day-to-day operation of the station there.

In addition to these, there is a supervisor of the Grenadines, who has oversight for the station; then an assistant comptroller in charge of the Grenadines, then a senior assistant comptroller responsible for operations, then a deputy comptroller in charge of operations.

“You see how many lines there are? So that is the organisational structure of the Customs.”

John further said that he did not get any feedback from the investigators that Customs officials on Union Island did not cooperate with them as he instructed.

John said he would follow up with Customs officials in Union Island to find out if any statements were taken from them.

“If it was of material importance, the investigator should have written the Customs and asked those questions and prepared a file in relation to them …

“If the investigator feels there is a question here about whether this guy [Whyte] had authority to go on board and needed to talk to some Customs person, not necessarily one in Union, but somebody in administration to find out what the Customs law says about customs officials boarding vessels, the Customs is right on Bay Street…

“The vessel [El Amigo Fay] was never cleared by Customs. It was in territorial waters. So he had every right to board the vessel,” John said of Whyte.

Customs ‘duty’ to provide a report

But the DPP told SEARCHLIGHT he was informed that the senior Customs officer on Union Island who refused to give the statement said that a report would instead be provided to or through the Customs officer’s superiors.

Such a report was never provided, the DPP said.

He further said the Customs officer in charge had spoken to Whyte just before he went out to the Venezuelan vessel.

“Didn’t they have a duty to make sure a report was submitted to the police?” the DPP asked.

He, however, reiterated that the issue of a non-statement from Customs is not the sole, or even the primary basis for the notice of discontinuance.

“It is just one factor in the overall scheme of things,” he said.