An investigation into a cash payment of just under Shs2.9 billion to two ghost informers that helped the taxman recover nearly Shs32 billion from Uganda Breweries Limited (UBL) has unearthed a string of syndicated actions.
The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) has an informer management and reward policy that extends benefits to whistleblowers whose information leads to the recovery of any duty evasion. One of the ground rules of the reward amount, which has since Financial Year (FY) 2022/2023 been up to five percent of the tax or duty evasion having previously been 10 percent, is that URA staff and their immediate relatives are ineligible for rewards.
Sunday Monitor understands that an investigation has spotlighted underhanded practices that led to the recovery of an estimated Shs32 billion from UBL. The underhanded practices include changing informer reference numbers and codes; concealment of documents and information, as well as falsification and alteration of documents on the part of a number of URA staff. We understand that some of the implicated staff members are at the level of the commissioner.
The impugned payments to two ghost informers have sucked in Mr. Dickson Kateshumbwa. The Sheema Municipality lawmaker worked as commissioner of Domestic Taxes at the time the payments were made.
Informers are typically identified by either code names or code numbers for purposes of keeping their identities under wraps. The ones in question went by the code names Black Cob and Air Force 1.
Air Force 1’s alleged award amounted to Shs1,883,755,265 and Black Cob Shs1,169,759,207. Since the rewards are subject to tax, the former took home Shs1,770,729,994 and the latter Shs1,099,574,655. We understand Shs113,025,271 was withholding tax on Air Force 1’s reward, and Shs70,184,552 on that of Black Cob. Air Force 1 was paid on May 8, 2018, and Black Cob on July 19, 2019.
Mr Ibrahim Bbosa, URA’s assistant commissioner for Public and Corporate Affairs, was reluctant to comment on the alleged fraud around the payment of informer rewards. He told Sunday Monitor that URA is under investigation on a wide range of matters, including informer rewards.
“Those two cases are under my docket. I have already scheduled an appointment with the [Inspectorate of Government]. Informer management is under me so you can see why it might not be appropriate to pre-empt a discussion I am meant to have with the [ombudsman],” Mr. Bbosa told Sunday Monitor.
A March 2022 probe report into the rewards has now revealed that URA staff members colluded in the informer reward payments that were shelled on Air Force 1 and Black Cob.
“The informer reward payments to Black Cob and Air Force 1 was cleverly crafted and concealed fraud that was planned and executed by URA staff in a syndicate,” the report reads in part, adding, “The fraud exploited weaknesses in the informer management and reward process, and was made possible by a management culture that allowed heads of department to act unaccountably.”
More than 10 URA staff members are said to have acted questionably en route to facilitating the impugned payments.
According to the report, the commissioner general of URA—working at the behest of the board of directors—commissioned an investigation into the circumstances that had led to a decline in taxes collected on beer in May 2014. This was in comparison to what had been collected the previous year. Ms. Doris Akol was the substantive commissioner general at the time.
Both the Customs and Domestic Customs Tax keyed UBL into their audit work plan for FY2014/2015 and FY2015/2016. A post-clearance audit resulted in the collection of just under Shs18.9 billion.
The audit teams, however, filed reports with varying details. Whereas one of the auditors indicated that the audit was completed without the help of an informer, another claimed that an informer code-named “Air Force 1” had been crucial to the audit. Copies of the customs audit plan for FY2014/2015 were hidden to conceal the fact that the investigation and subsequent recovery of taxes had been prompted by the board.
“The case officer conspired with the customs informer liaison officer and introduced a false customs audit start date of 28/04/2015 for UBL instead of 02/03/2015, which was in the customs audit plan 2014/2015,” the report read in parts.
The document further reveals that the staff interchanged audit reference numbers for two different companies that had been lined up for special audits in order to confuse members of the informer awards committee.
“There was a planned audit for UBL reference URA/TI/SIU/002/14-15/062 and Henchang Plastic Uganda Limited under reference URA/CA/3/34/2015-528. Instead of the UBL reference, it was mostly the Henchang Plastic reference URA/CA/3/34/2015-528, which was used for most of the communications during the Post Clearance Audit of UBL and when claiming the reward paid to Air Force 1,” the report notes.
It was also established that a tax evader’s informer form (TIF) was filed more than four years after the investigation had commenced. The probe also discovered that the case had not been entered into the customs informer checklist.
“Whereas the informer policy required that the case is formalized at the corporate informer desk within 48 hours, Bruno Wairagala (an auditor, who was later fired) filled in the TIF for Air Force 1 and showed up at the PCA (public corporate affairs) desk after four years, three months and 15 days at the time of seeking the reward,” the report noted.
Mr Wairagala is one of the two auditors who run the rule over the UBL audit. He has since left URA.
Lack of cap to the time within which informer reward cases can be completed is one of the 17 queries that were raised in the report of the internal auditor general for the year ended June 2022.
Black Cob queried
It has, however been established that Black Cob had not provided URA with any substantial tipoffs to warrant the reward received.
“The compliance team conducted the review on UBL without any documentation availed by the informer, Black Cob, to substantiate the allegations apart from the TIF filed … contrary to Section 6(4) of the informer management reward policy,” the report concludes.
Sources at URA indicated that the investigation into the informer rewards was triggered by an insistence by Black Cob that URA owed them more money than the Shs1 billion that they received.
The report also accuses Mr Dicksons Kateshumbwa, who worked as commissioner of Domestic Taxes at the time the payments were made, of complicity in the matter, saying he dabbled into what was described as “blatant conflict of interest.” Mr. Kateshumbwa, now the Sheema Municipality lawmaker, left URA in 2020. The report states that while he was commissioner for Customs Department, Mr Kateshumbwa recommended the payment to Air Force 1 and also approved the pay while sitting in for the commissioner general. Ms. Akol was away on leave at the time. Mr. Kateshumbwa, however, denies any wrongdoing.
“There are many stages the informers go through. So when someone starts putting people’s names there, I think I might have to go to court if I land on that document,” he said, adding, “The objective is just the same blackmail because I [used not to] deal [directly] with informers. Informers [used not to] really interface with me.”
Speaking to Sunday Monitor on Thursday, Mr. Kateshumbwa threatened legal action against the authors of the report.
“If I get the author of that document, I am ready to take him to court to substantiate because I am tired of nonsense … I left the organization almost three [years ago]. So for someone to start dragging me when I left the organization… I was cleared by [an] internal audit. Human resource, I had no query; the board, I had no query. So for someone to author this kind of document knowingly is unacceptable,” he said.