The Labianca Company Limited, a frozen food company owned by Ms Eunice Jacqueline Buah Asomah-Hinneh, a member of the Council of State, has paid an amount of GHS1,074,627.15 into the Asset Recovery Account of the Office of the Special Prosecutor (OSP).
The payment, which was in compliance with a directive issued by the Special Prosecutor, represents a shortfall in import duties arising from the issuance of “unlawful” customs advance ruling in favour of the company between 2017 and 2021.
A 12-Page Investigative Report published by the OSP, dated August 3, 2022, and shared with the Ghana News Agency, accused Ms Asomah-Hinneh of influence peddling by employing her position as a member of the Council of State and a member of the Board of Directors of Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority (GPHA) to secure a favourable reduction in benchmark values on frozen goods imported by Labianca.
It said on 16 November 2021, the (OSP) received a written complaint from one Frank Asare against Labianca Group of Companies and its subsidiaries and the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA).
The Report said the complainant alleged corrupt, illegal and dealings between Labianca and the Customs Division resulting in the reduction of benchmark values of frozen food products imported by Labianca “under the guise of customs advance rulings.”
The OSP said it initiated full-scale investigations into the matter and probed all parties in question, including Ms Asomah-Hinneh; Mr Etse Gadegbeku, the Managing Director of Labianca; Colonel (Rtd.) Kwadwo Damoah, the Commissioner for Customs, and Mr. Joseph Adu Kyei, the Deputy Commissioner for Customs.
The Special Prosecutor found that Labianca, which commenced operations in 2014 and imports about 200 forty-footer shipping containers of frozen foods monthly, did not have “much engagement” with the Customs Division until 2017 – the same period when Ms Asomah-Hinneh had been elected a member of the Council of State and a member of the GPHA Governing Board.
“It would appear that the coincidence of the indicated applications and the public office appointments of Ms Asomah-Hinneh were not altogether accidental. There is strong evidence to suggest that the events are a product of influence peddling.
“Of especial significance to the investigation is a joint application for the acceptance of values of frozen foods intended to be imported lodged at the Customs Division by Labianca and Rafano Frozen Foods Company Limited on 6 April 2021, two months after the appointment of Mr. Adu Kyei as the Deputy Commissioner of the Customs Division in charge of operations,” the Report said.
It said Mr Kyei rendered a customs advance ruling to the applicants by reducing the values of their intended imports between a range of 5 per cent to 10 per cent, below the approved benchmark values of frozen foods.
It said the approval amounted to a revenue shortfall of GHS1,074,627.15 from a total of five hundred 531 declarations in respect of Labianca.
The OSP said upon interrogation, Kyei explained that the approval was based on “proper procedure”– in compliance with a letter dated 6 February 2018 authored by Mr Isaac Crentsil, a former Commissioner of the Customs Division and that his decision “resulted in the prevention of loss of revenue to the State.”
The OSP said Mr Kyei’s excuse was untenable, describing it as an “afterthought.”
“The OSP finds that Mr Adu Kyei’s cited bases for his decision are untenable, and the decision finds its anchor (if there is such) on no other hypothesis but one – that it was borne of influence peddling or trading in influence,” it said.
“…the 6 February 2018 letter cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as a lawful basis for the issuance of a customs advance ruling in the circumstances of the applicants,” it added.
On the back of the findings, the Special Prosecutor directed the opening of a wider investigation in respect of the issuance of customs advance rulings and markdown of benchmark values between July 2017 and December 2021.
It also directed the GRA to submit, on or before 31 December 2022, an Integrity Plan to the OSP designed with the aim of preventing the corruption of the exercise of discretion by officials of the Customs Division.