THE TOKAUT BLOG
Smoke and mirrors in cigarette wars
Law enforcement agencies in PNG struggle to make any impact because of chronic underfunding, low staff numbers and subpar facilities. It is an environment where staff morale and professional standards are difficult to maintain.
As a consequence criminals operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that most crime goes unreported and any investigations that are instigated face considerable hurdles at every turn, including blatant political interference.
The current furore over Goldensborough Limited’s alleged involvement in the production of fake cigarettes and the employment of illegal foreign workers is a classic example.
Is Goldensborough a legitimate business, importing and manufacturing cigarettes, struggling against the odds to challenge the monopolistic power of British American Tobacco, giving the nation’s nicotine addicts a different taste and cheaper choice?
Or is it a rogue operation run by Chinese crime gangs, illegally importing and repackaging cheap Chinese cancer sticks in an unlicensed warehouse with machines operated by workers smuggled in from Asia?
The answer depends on which law enforcement agency you talk to.
The truth seems unlikely to ever emerge as the alleged ringleaders have been hastily served with deportation notices. This has deprived the police of the opportunity to conduct a proper criminal investigation.
As Oro Governor, Gary Juffa, has pointed out, this looks like a political cover-up and an attempt to pervert the course of justice.
The PNG Immigration version
For PNG Immigration and Citizenship Service, Goldensborough is a rogue operation, illegally producing counterfeit cigarettes. The company’s director and employees, accordingly, have been served with deportation orders.
This follows two raids on the company premises at the Kennedy Estate at 8-mile in the NCD.
On January 28, the Post Courier reported an alleged multi-million kina cigarette making factory had been uncovered by the police Drug and Vice Squad supported by the National Narcotics Bureau.
More than 700 cartons of Chinese cigarettes were reported to have been uncovered. It was alleged factory workers were unpacking the cigarettes, fitting them with new filters and then repacking them in boxes under the brand name ‘Brus Cigarettes’. These were then being distributed around the country for sale to consumers.
Although the workers produced a trading licence for police officers at the scene, four factory machines and the cigarettes were reported seized by the police as evidence.
Just three days later, on February 1, the Post Courier reported 17 foreign national involved in the alleged production of counterfeit cigarettes were to be deported.
Immigration Minister, Petrus Thomas, said he had received ‘a very damning report provided to the Immigration and Citizenship Authority by the National Narcotics Bureau’.
‘Based on national security concerns given the rampant and increasing incidences of the importation, production and sale of counterfeit products’ he cancelled the visas and signed deportation orders for the 17 foreign nationals including the directors and employees of Goldensborough Limited.
Fourteen of the foreigners were reportedly already out of the country and would not be allowed to return.
PNG Customs version
The Minister’s remarkably swift action in ordering the deportations on ‘national security’ grounds seems even more bizarre given it came just days after the Customs Service declared the company’s operations were legal.
On January 30, the Post Courier reported PNG Customs Commissioner Ray Paul had confirmed the Goldensborough cigarette factory at Eight-Mile was a licensed business and had evidently been operating legally as a cigarette importer for eight years
According to Paul, Goldensborough had recently moved into manufacturing and had been given a customs licence. Paul described Goldensborough as a ‘legitimate firm’, ‘they pay tax and employ nationals’.
Indeed, when media revisited the factory the day after the police raid, they apparently found a sign reading “customs-controlled area” at the entrance.
Though the Post Courier reported they had seen no national staff ‘only Chinese nationals repacking cigarettes’.
An EMTV report on the same media conference by Customs Chief Ray Paul was rather more circumspect, noting only that the company possessed an import warehousing license and had been paying taxes, but referring to the challenges the service faced and lack of manpower.
The Manufacturer’s Council has also weighed into the debate questioning why Goldensborough was being allowed to sell cigarettes at a price lower than the tax margin.
As for the company, it has spoken through a newspaper advertisement published on February 6 (though dated January 31), before the deportation orders were announced.
In the advert, the company directors claim Goldensborough is licensed to import and manufacture cigarettes. It contends that the accusation it is repackaging other brands and selling at deflated prices is incorrect.
The company also states it will shortly begin manufacturing all of its own cigarette brands in Port Moresby and is the sole distributor for Marlboro cigarettes in PNG.
“Goldensborough is a legitimate tobacco importing, cigarette manufacturing and distribution company”
This version of the truth has seemingly been endorsed by a newspaper story which claims the Waigani District court has granted a police request to withdraw all charges against the company.
Vindication or more evidence of outside interference in due process?
Who is the company at the centre of this mystery?
Goldensborough Limited was first registered in PNG during 2012, by an Australian, Philip Tan. Since then ownership of the company has changed several times, most recently in May 2018.
According to IPA records, Goldensborough Limited is now owned by three Chinese nationals, Yan Wang (who has been involved in one role or another since since 2012) Xingwu Zhou and Mengwu Yan.
The three, also own a share in various other PNG registered companies.
From 2012 until 2018 the company’s registered address was Section 515, Allotment 4 & 5, Waigani Drive. This address has been used by over 140 different companies, primarily owned by foreign nationals from the Asia region.
Goldensborough has not filed an annual return since 2016. At that time, it was recorded the company had 6 full time staff and its assets of K4 million were exceeded by liabilities of K6.1 million.
With all the contradictory information that is swirling around this case it is impossible to know where the truth lies but the public deserve some answers.
Immigration Minister, Petrus Thomas should explain why it was considered a matter of national security for the directors of Goldensborough and its employees to be issued with deportation notices and why the police were not allowed to conduct a proper criminal investigation.
The police should come out and confirm whether they have now dropped their charges against the company and explain why.
As things stand, the whole affair has the unpleasant odour of a cover-up.