FORMER Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) commissioner-general Gershem Pasi (pictured), locked in a bruising legal battle with his employer of 16 years, resigned last week. Pasi was suspended last year in May to allow for investigations sanctioned by the Zimra board, chaired by Willia Bonyongwe. HLB Chartered Accountants carried out an audit which raised issues of fraud, poor corporate governance, tax evasion and corruption, among other things. Zimbabwe Independent deputy editor Faith Zaba (FZ) on Monday spoke to Pasi (GP) on allegations levelled against him, reasons for resigning and his service at Zimra. Below are excerpts of the interview.
FZ: Can you take us through your years at Zimra and your possible achievements and challenges over the years?
GP: As you may recall, before the formation of Zimra I was commissioner of taxes of the then department of taxes, which I served as commissioner from 1996 to April 2001. At that juncture, I was then fortunate enough to apply and be accepted to be the inaugural commissioner-general of Zimra. I was employed in that capacity since May 2001 and charged with setting up the structures and operationalising the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority Act. I was given six months to do it. I am happy to say, as records show, we did it in three months. By the 1st of September 2001 we were up and running as a revenue authority.
FZ: You have been embroiled in a legal battle with Zimra. The whole thing started when you were accused of importing a Toyota Land Cruiser irregularly. Was that your car and did you not pay duty as alleged?
GP: The press and everybody went to town, saying that I had imported a vehicle and not paid duty on it. My lawyers took the registration book and showed the reporters. It is a Zimra vehicle. I specified the vehicle I wanted to admin and they went through the whole process of going to the Ministry of Transport and cabinet and finally to SPB (State Procurement Board) and the car was delivered through Toyota.
The so-called forensic auditors, if they had gone to Toyota, they would have seen that I was not the importer and that duty was fully paid. So in my view it was a ruse because, really at that stage, there had been no justification to get me out. Somebody somewhere needed it for the public.
FZ: Immediately after that, there was a story on executives who allegedly imported cars but did not pay duty. Were you trying to cover up for them?
GP: I will be short in my response because it is still before the courts. All I can say is that the officers to my knowledge did not import the vehicles themselves. They later came to me after having realised that their vehicles had not been properly cleared. It must have been in December 2015. We then went into the system and found there were anomalies.
I instructed the investigations commissioner, who had not benefitted from the loan scheme, to look into the matter. An interim report was done. Mind you, we have governance issues. I couldn’t just rush to the board without any evidence. I was waiting for the commissioner to do the job. One thing that the executives did, the moment they realised that the vehicles had not been properly imported, they surrendered the vehicles. Those vehicles are still in the hands of Zimra. Zimra caused the suppliers of the vehicles to be arrested. I see no wrong-doing on my part.
FZ: There is also the issue of the renovation of Kurima House? How was the tender awarded?
GP: What happened was that all the tenders of that magnitude would go through SPB or OPC (Office of the President and Cabinet), which uses certain methods of procuring. But with this one, we went through the SPB. Looking into the documents of that one, what then happened is we had recommended certain suppliers after the adjudication. When it went to SPB, in their wisdom they did not accept the recommended company and they gave the job to another company.
One of the losing bidders took us and SPB to the Administrative Court wherein the Administrative Court judge ruled that SPB was wrong. The court then instructed SPB to give the award to the company that then subsequently did the renovations. The auditors blame me for that. Not complying would have meant that I would have been in contempt of court.
FZ: Your contract has been a major bone of contention. From 2001, how many times has it been renewed and by whom?
GP: It is a five-year fixed term contract. So the first time the five-year expired, the board renewed it, which then brought me to 2011. In 2011, a lot of things happened. The short of it is that the board under the guidance of the then minister, notwithstanding that the board was happy with my performance, they decided not to renew my contract upon review of my performance. They decided to advertise, which I then applied for and went through independent people.
I was recommended to be given another contract. There was a board in place during that time but there were issues, I think the recommendations of the board to the minister were at variance with what the minister would have preferred. During the two years, I continued receiving the same conditions that I had been receiving under the previous contract. The two years lapsed and we had the 2013 elections and we had a new minister. The minister authorised the board to regularise the two years. In fact, I was given a contract at the end of the two years. And further, the board then gave me another term for five years, which would have expired end of October next year.
According to the auditors who did the so-called forensic audit, they are taking issues and putting the blame on me and yet there was a board and these were board resolutions.
FZ: Maybe you can explain how your contract is determined?
GP: So the HR committee was charged by the board to come up with conditions of service. The contract would be prepared and drafted by the legal firm, which were Kantor and Immerman. They are the ones who drafted the contract together with our internal company secretary. It is not me the employee who drafted the contract. I never took a cent outside the terms of the contract. It is a very detailed contract with salaries, holidays. My issue was when I said auditors were incompetent is that they had a copy of my contract and those issues are clearly spelt out, but they chose, for reasons best known to themselves, to take one small item and limit my allowances to that one item.
FZ: This also included the amounts for a car loan?
GP: Yes, I knew that for a CEO of a public entity, you cannot do things which are not documented.
FZ: Who approves the amounts?
GP: There are rules and procedures. The origination in my case, the contract is very clear as to what type, what size of a vehicle I should get — one the official vehicle and two for the loan. It is in the contract.
FZ: You were also accused of opening a Zimra executive account where around US$121 000 was deposited. Can you explain the circumstances around that?
GP: Again it is sad. I have kept quiet with all the reports which have been across the media, denigrating me and accusing me of all manner of things. But those things are not true. When you read the auditors’ report, they say they went to my bank. I have issues with that and at some point, if I decide, my legal team may take it up, the legality of that move. But having gone to my bank, they were given whatever information from which they then produced a schedule to say over these months I earned so much. They couldn’t even add up their own figures in the schedule because according to what they said was US$121 000 it was US$85 000. If the same bank they had gone to get information illegally from, would have known the source. If they were really forensic auditors, as we know forensic auditors, they should have followed the money trail, which in this case, they concluded in their report that it is not from Zimra yet they had referred to the Zimra executive account. They conclude in this so-called forensic audit that it must be from either fraud or money laundering. Of course I was charged and that was the major, the first charge. But for your information, now I can disclose this because it is personal to me.
When I left central government in 2001 to form the revenue authority I had reached pensionable age and we were tasked to set up our own pension fund as a revenue authority apart from the government’s pension scheme. I receive my pension. The schedule that they received from my bank account actually adds up. If they had followed up, they would have ended up in the government’s pensions’ office. Yet they go out there and they produce a report which is used to paint me as someone who is really corrupt.
FZ: Are you willing to reveal how much you are paid per month?
GP: At some point, yes. It depends on how this thing goes because now reading your paper last week about issues of immunity and so on, who knows what will come? I am being cautious because it might end up in court and I would need to lay bare under the protection of the courts because on some of these things I am still bound by the Official Secrets Act. All I can say is that really I did not steal or launder any money. That money is legitimately mine and everything I earned from Zimra was in terms of the contract, which was given to me and I signed and accepted. The employer and myself both accepted those conditions. So the authority meeting those obligations should not put on my table and ask me to answer as why I accepted and received, no matter how big or small they think they are.
These things are relative. From 2001 to May last year when I was then booted out, Zimra under my care has managed to bring in close to US$50 billion for the state. That is no mean achievement when the economy has not been doing well and when there have not been other sources of funding for government.
FZ: So were you paid the US$400 000-plus we read about some years ago?
GP: I don’t want to go into figures. From the audit what I saw they really are not competent and those figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. You have to see the source documents and how they arrived at those figures because some of those things may have been grossed up for tax purposes in order to give an alarming picture to the public.
FZ: This brings me to the issue of corporate governance. The audit report cited cases dated, in some cases, 10 years back, did it mean that there were no audits carried out over the years?
GP: It is the issue of presentation or the motive behind the forensic audit. If you carry out an audit because you want to find fault in somebody, you probably see something and run to town thinking that you have found somebody because the motive behind it perhaps may not be noble. It is a presumption. Zimra has been for a long time, perhaps the only organisation from inception which really relies on audits from both internal and external. Every year by February, because our year ends in December, either the external auditors would have come in or they would have given a particular date depending on their own commitments, but Zimra would be ready. We would be audited and we would print copies with audited accounts.
FZ: Do you want to talk about the possible motive behind it?
GP: No! You know why? I have very simple faith. I believe it is God who gives us jobs and opportunities and in the book Ecclesiastes, there is a famous writing on seasons. I am sad that my departure had to come this way. But I don’t have any bitterness.
I am grateful that God and the government gave me the opportunity to create the revenue authority which became the envy of the whole world. Now it is time for me to go. According to my letter, I am saying I don’t see any future and any wisdom in me wanting to hold on. I need to correct the notion that I begged for a package and immunity. I did no such thing. If lawyers were discussing options here and there, that is what lawyers do. There is no reason for me to ask for immunity. If I had stolen all that money as reported in the press, do you think I would have remained in the country? This is my country and I served it well.
FZ: When you say they should pay you what is due to you, what are you referring to?
GP: There are contractual things in terms of the contract. In fact, I have been meditating and praying on this for a long time from May last year when I was put on leave. I never got the opportunity up until now to sit down with the board. That was one of the drivers to say a board that does not want to sit down with me, why should I be forcing myself and saying I want to work with them? So I am saying I am walking away in peace but that is not to say that if reports continue coming out denigrating my being does not mean I will not defend myself. I hope those people will also wish me peace as I wish them peace.
FZ: What goes through you mind when you are labelled corrupt?
GP: I know people who know me know that I don’t indulge in those issues. I have never used the authority and I have said so even when approaches were made that the authority shall not be used for the benefit of an individual who is not covered by law. That has always been my stance. I cannot afford to look at those people, they know the reasons and they know why they do what they do.
FZ: Do you feel persecuted in a way?
GP: No. I feel sorry for people who think they may be persecuting me. I know myself. I am at peace. I was given an opportunity to do a job which I believe we did well and it is time to move on.
FZ: Now what is the way forward? Are you into business?
GP: Yes, big business. Now I can be a full-time farmer so I can play a different role in feeding the nation. Now I am spending most of my time nursing my mother because she was affected by this thing quite badly. She had a mild stroke in February.