If you've been tuning into our newscast on Wednesday nights, you'll know all about the Senate Inquiry into the Immigration Department. so far, copious irregularities and illegalities at the department continue to be exposed, kind of like layers on an onion.
But, one of the most explosive revelations coming out of the hearings is that in the run up to the 2012 general elections, the Immigration Department rushed through over 2000 applicants for nationality. That caused the system to be compromised, and many applicants got nationality that they were not entitled to.
But, even back then, it caught our attention, especially with presence of politicians and political operators, who were working hard to get applicants approved. We kept pressing Ruth Meighan about that back then, and concerns that it was not all above board. We've dug into our archive to show you her answers to those questions then, and what has been revealed in the last 4 weeks. Here's how it looked back then:
File: January 13, 2012 Jules Vasquez "Is all this being expedited because registration for the next election closes on the 20th of January?"
Ruth Meighan "I don't know Jules; I would be able to say that we are just doing what immigration does. I think people should understand by now, especially the political persons, is that we offer a service and as a result of that, the service requires that you do certain things."
Jules Vasquez "Would you agree though that there is a coincidence certainly in the fact that registration has, by statutory instrument, been extended up to January 20th, and two naturalization ceremonies are being held within that time?"
Ruth Meighan "Jules I don't think it's for me to comment on that. I don't know what the reason is why, if it is coincidental or not. I am only saying that if we have the applications to process we have a directive to process them so that we could swear these persons in - that is what we are doing."
File: January 25, 2017
Hon. Eamon Courtenay"You were director in 2012
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "You were aware that there was a general election in 2012?"
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Are you aware that there was a unusual amount of persons who got nationality shotly before that general elections?"
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Are you aware that ministers were heavily involved in speeding up the processing of nationality for many individuals in the run up to that election?"
Ruth Meighan "I am aware that the ministers were trying to get people processed for nationality during that period."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "On an expedited basis."
Ruth Meighan "Well, the Department did process a lot of applications that would have maybe taken a little bit longer, during that period."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So, the answer is yes, on an expedited basis."
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And you're aware that the purpose for that was in order for these people to be registered to vote."
Ruth Meighan "I believe that was the reason why."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And you were the director at the time."
Ruth Meighan "I was director at the time."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Are you aware that quite a number of those persons who got nationality, their files were incomplete?"
Ruth Meighan "That's what I noted from the report, yes."
File: (January 18, 2012) Jules Vasquez "Will you all - I know a naturalization process is planned for this afternoon. Is there another one planned before Friday?"
Ruth Meighan "We still have a lot of applications outstanding, Jules, and depending on the political - or my minister, I shouldn't say political - my minister, then we decide whether we're going to have another one."
Marion Ali - Love News "There was a meeting here last night. Your staff - I assume that it was your staff - were working late. What was happening here?"
Ruth Meighan "Processing of applications for nationality."
Jules Vasquez "However, I guess the real question is, is everything that's happening above board?"
Ruth Meighan "It is. As I said the last time that I spoke to you, what we do is we process applications based on an individual basis. People are asked to bring certain requirements along with them. Those things are ensured within the file before we do the processing. In some cases, we don't even accept the application once they do not meet the requirements."
File: January 25, 2017
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Those persons, whose files were not complete, did not qualify at that time to get Belizean nationality."
Ruth Meighan "Those persons did not qualify, but the file that was presented, and I could clearly remember my minister and telling me - because we were concerned that the process that the files, they were requesting a lot of files. And we said that we have to ensure that all the applicants meet the requirement for nationality. And that was clearly stated throughout the department, and so, any files that came to us for approval, they were presented as qualified applicant."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "You now know, Miss Meighan, that many of them were fraudulently prepared."
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "They did not qualify for nationality."
Ruth Meighan "Yes, according the report."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And obviously did not qualify to be registered to vote."
Ruth Meighan "Yes."
File: (January 18, 2012) Jules Vasquez "Now, I see a lot of political operators about - people who are trying to get their people processed, naturalized, registered - and you know that there is a bottle neck, back log, all these things. Are these political operators: a) exercising undue influence on your staff, and b) are some of them acting as paid agents of certain people to say that, 'I can facilitate this process; I know the guy inside'? Because these things happen; There is a tremendous rush; there will be discrepancies in operation."
Ruth Meighan "I do not agree with you in terms of the discrepancies because we do go through due diligence in terms of the processing of the files. At the Elections and Boundaries Department around this time - same process where the political party in power is the party that takes people in to get them registered."
Jules Vasquez "For a lot of the general public who don't know maybe that these things happen, this seems unseemly - a lot of people cueing up to become Belizean, the haste with which they are being co-expedited, processed and registered."
Ruth Meighan "We have applications sitting in this office from as far back as 2005, and a lot of those applications, now, are being processed. Now, whatever their reason, or whoever is behind it, I don't know, but people are coming in for those applications, and there is no reason why we do not process them. So there isn't anything sinister going on in this department, as far as I am concerned."
Jules Vasquez "The citizens out there now shake their head when they see all these people cueing up, this big crowd, all the political movers around."
Ruth Meighan "That's an interesting question, and you are actually putting me on the spot, Jules, but what I would say basically is that this is something that we do. Immigration, elections - we register people, we process nationality. That's it. It just so happens that at certain times, we get more people than we would normally get, but that's basically it. I really don't see any other perspective, other than the fact that we work really hard around this time."
File: February 1, 2017
Hon. Eamon Courtenay"Oh they have to come in legally?"
Gordon Wade "Well in my view, like I said from an immigration standpoint what this says ordinarily residing in Belize for 5 years in my view means legal, legally residing in Belize for 5 years."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "This is more opportune, who prepared this list of 2,110 names?"
Gordon Wade "Those were prepared at the registry, the records management unit."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Yeah but how do you know which 2,110, how did they know - why were these 2,110?"
Gordon Wade "Because they were people that were sworn in."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "It is your evidence that you are aware that a number of these specific files were approved on the basis of an interpretation of section 10 in which you disagree?"
Gordon Wade "Exactly."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Right and it was the director and or the minister above you who looked at ordinarily resident and they put an interpretation on it which not an interpretation that is consistent with your 27 years' experience?"
Gordon Wade "Right."
The hearings continue this Wednesday, and we'll show you what direction the Senate Committee decides to go with its new witnesses.
Former CEO Saldivar Says Citizen Kim Officers Got Off On Technicality
They also asked whatever became of the Department's Public Service Hearings on the officers named in the scandal where South Korean Fugitive Won Hong Kim got Belizean Nationality and a Belize passport, while he was in a Taiwanese jail.
About 3 years ago, we told you about the 3 officers who were brought up before the Public Services Commission on disciplinary charges for that passport that was never supposed to have been issued. We followed the case, and we showed you how those officers were tried, but they were acquitted.
Today, the Senate asked Saldivar-Morter to explain why, and here's what she had to say:
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "You're familiar with the issue surrounding the Won Hong passport?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former, CEO Responsible For Immigration "Yes and again I took the case to the public service's commission against Ms. Sharon Neal, Mr. Omar Phillips, Mr. Erwin Robinson."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Mr. Sharon Neal, Mr. Omar Phillips..."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "And Erwin Robinson, the 3 officers who were working at the passport section at the time."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Mark Tench wasn't involved, wasn't taken in relation to that one."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "No, no, no, it was Mr. Erwin, Mr. Phillips.."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "What about a Ms. Ady Pacheco?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "No because they weren't involved in the passport - because we dealt with it in terms of the passport issuance."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Sorry the passport itself."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes we dealt with it in terms of the passport issuance because we did not have sufficient evidence to take the nationality section, the officers that dealt with it at the nationality section in front of the commission. But we took the officers in terms of the issuance of the passport."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I asked specifically about - so you did take the matter against these individuals to the commission for disciplinary action?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes sir I did."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "In relation to the Won Hong Kim issue."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "And I sat on those case personally, both the Mark Tench one with the 8 stickers and the one with the-"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "When you say you sat on it personally-"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "I went in front of the commission and took the case."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "To put forward the case for the department."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes sir."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "What were you recommending for disciplinary action, did you recommend anything for disciplinary action against them? In the case of Mark Tench you previously said you recommended that he be charged."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "In terms of the other 3 officers we are looking at dismissal."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "You wanted to have the dismissed?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes sir. Due to some technicality the case was thrown out by the commission."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Can you say what the technicality was?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "There was a memo issued by the then director which I was not aware of at the time when I took up the case which kind of had the whole case thrown out because-"
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "And who was the director?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The director at the time was Ms. Marin."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Okay so your intention was to have them dismissed from the department?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes sir."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "For their role in the Won Hong Kim-"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Do you know if any reference was made to the police, a criminal investigation against them?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The police was involved against those officers, no because that was kind of administrative; the issuance of the passport was more administrative."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "The police was involved-"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The police was involved in terms of the nationality of the issuance of the nationality but that still has not yet been finalised as far as I can remember."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "And I ask you specifically about, sorry senator..."
Hon. Dr. Carla Barnett, UDP Senator "The issue of the technicality, can you explain to me what the technicality-"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "I cannot recall at this time, the memo that the council for Ms. Marin presented but it was contrary to what we knew were the procedures in the issuance of the passport and the check and balance that had to be in place and it had changed without my knowledge and I wasn't aware of it until the memo was presented by the council for Ms. Neal and that throw everything."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So it was advertend-"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Yes because we were saying one thing and the memo said something else."
She also told the Senate that the Ministry did not go after the officers who were involved in the issuance of the Nationality document because the Department did not provide them with the evidence needed.
Former CEO: The Ministry Pursued Justice In Visa Case
As we've told you, the Auditor General was very critical of the way that the Immigration Department handled that case, and in her opinion more needed to have been done to either prosecute or discipline those officers who participated or were complicit in what looks to be corruption.
The Senate asked Candelaria Saldivar-Morter about those criticism, and here's what she had to say:
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "In relation to those 8 Visa foils, are you - do you know if any disciplinary action was taken against officers who were involved?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former, CEO Responsible For Immigration "Okay, yes. I actually took the case of the missing stickers to the commission."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "What commission is that?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The public Services Commission."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Who did you take to appear before the commission for disciplinary action."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "For disciplinary action, we took Mr. Mark Tench."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Mr. Mark Tench. Why?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Because, based on the information provided to the Ministry, by the department, Mr. Tench was identified as the person responsible, who was negligent. I have to explain to you all that in order for any file to go to the Public Services Commission, the Department would have file to the Ministry that some wrongdoing was done. And based on the information provided by the Department, it is then that the Ministry would decide whether there is a case for the Commission or not, and then, it is take to the Public Services Commission for any disciplinary proceedings against the officer."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So I just want to clarify. It's not that the Ministry threw up its hands and didn't do anything about it. You did take Mr. -"
Candelaria Saldivar "We took Mr. Mark Tench, and he was actually charged for the value of the stickers, as recommended."
Former OIC Cano Discusses Those 8 Missing Visas
Saldivar-Morter was the second witness for day, and we'll have a little her a little later on, but we turn now to Senior Immigration Officer Edgar Cano.
He's the man who was in charge at the Belize Western Border when those 8 visa foils went missing. As we told you that's the incident which triggered this audit in the first place, and today, the Senate had very tough questions for him about what happened under his watch. Here's How that went:
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "There is a comment here from an Immigration Officer Vernon Leslie, well this is the report of the Auditor General, who is quoting Vernon Leslie. Basically it's saying that some visa foils went missing, they turned up in Belize City, with a Mr. Eric Chang and Patrick Tillett, who then, according to the Auditor General's report, brought the visa stickers to Belmopan to confirm their authenticity."
"The contention in here is that you took the decision to issue visas, using those numbers, despite the fact that the foils - that the stickers were missing. You read that part of the report?"
Edgar Cano - Former OIC, Belize Western Border Station "Yes, I read that part of the report."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "The Auditor General, in her report, stated in her report that she could not understand, or could not ascertain why OIC Cano, you, gave approval for visa numbers to be sold to applicants, knowing that all applicants - approved visas should have stickers in their passports. He should have been fully aware that it was not legitimate for those visas to be issued in that manner. Can you, first of all, say whether you did in fact give approval for visas to be issued to individuals without the visa stickers, because they were missing."
Edgar Cano "What I can say - and I don't see it mentioned anywhere in the Audit Report, that I was on vacation leave when that incident happened. Right, I don't see it any at all in the audit report and I think that should have been included in the report as well. I was out from the 12th to the 23rd, and then I returned to duty on the -"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "From the 12th to the 23rd of?"
Edgar Cano "December, then there was an extension, and I reported to duty on the 4th of January. I have copies of those here."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I understand that, but the question is whether you did give approval for visas to be issued without the stickers, whether it was at another time, or another point. I understand that you said that you were out."
Edgar Cano "Yes sir."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "But my question is whether you gave approval."
Edgar Cano "No sir."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So, the Auditor General's report - the Auditor General is wrong."
Edgar Cano "Well, I didn't give any approval in writing, none at all."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Mr. Vernon Leslie - this is where the Auditor General got it from. Vernon Leslie said, the decision to issue Belize visas without the stickers was approved by OIC E. Cano, was done for two reasons, primarily to give our investigation team sufficient time to find the perpetrators, secondly, to avoid excessive revenue loss."
"OIC E Cano was reluctant to issue the visas without stickers, but eventually, he gave the approval. In doing this, we were given ample time to find out what occurred, and we avoided revenue loss. So, what you're saying is that if Vernon Leslie said this, he's being untruthful?"
Edgar Cano "Sir, I gave no approval Vernon Leslie. I gave nothing in writing to him. I was on vacation leave. And, that is his statement - or his whatever - declaration, but I gave none Vernon Leslie. I was out of the office."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Did the Auditor General seek your response to the allegation made against you, at any time, by Vernon Leslie?"
Edgar Cano "None at all, sir. None at all."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "Who approves visas at the border stations?"
Edgar Cano "It would be the supervisor on shift, or Shift Supervisor."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And the shift supervisor would sign when a visa was approved?
Edgar Cano "Yes sir."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "There is a form that was kept there for the applications."
Edgar Cano "Yes, the applications."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Who's in charge of the inventory of visa foils or stickers?"
Edgar Cano "The Supervisor who is on the shift would be responsible for the visas that he sell or uses."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And in this case, the supervisor on shift was Mr. Tench?"
Edgar Cano "Yes sir."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And when you change shifts or supervisors, is there a handing over? Is there a - I give you 10 visas, and you receive 10 visas kinda transaction recorded? Is that handing over recorded in some book or some-"
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Okay, so when Mr. Tench discovered that 8 foils were missing, who would he have reported that to?"
Edgar Cano "He mentioned to me that would have - He called me and said that he discovered that those were missing."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So, he called you to tell you, even though you were on holiday."
Edgar Cano "Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So, he called you."
Edgar Cano "Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So, you knew."
Edgar Cano "Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "It was found out that Mr. Wade had removed the visa foils, but Mr. Tench should have been the one in charge. Because Mr. Tench would have signed off that he received them from the previous shift supervisor. Am I correct?"
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So, how did Mr. Wade come in possession of those? Was Mr. Wade the previous shift supervisor?"
Edgar Cano "No. No sir, I don't think so, but I cannot recall, but he was not a supervisor."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "How did Mr. Wade come in possession of those foils. Did he steal them?"
Edgar Cano "I don't know."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Because he was not responsible for them."
Edgar Cano "He was not responsible for them, so I cannot comment on that."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And then he gave them to one Mr. Middleton for sale. And then, Somehow, the Deputy Mayor ended up with them etc."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Did you follow up about the missing visa foils, how the system broke down? Did you say to yourself, alright, this should not have happened, because we had a system in place? Did you try to ascertain, as the person out there, what went wrong, and how it could have been avoided in the future?"
Edgar Cano "Of course, I was concerned."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Did you try to find out what happened, and how it could be avoided in the future?"
Edgar Cano "Well, I just thought that maybe we should conclude that maybe we should be more careful. That's it.'
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Careful?"
Edgar Cano "And then, and that's why - that is why the officers went in front of the commission."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Why did you use the words more careful? But, you had a system in place that already was careful, because you had to hand over, right?"
Edgar Cano "Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "You had to check. You had to count."
Edgar Cano "Right."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "You had to signed that you received; you had to sign that you handed over."
Edgar Cano "Yeah, that's why."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "How could you improve the system? How could you improve on that system?"
Edgar Cano "Having more security, more proper, containers, proper safety measures, in terms of maybe a proper safe."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "When the visas were handed over at the shift change, where would the foils be kept, normally?"
Edgar Cano "In a cabinet."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "In a cabinet. With a lock and key?"
Edgar Cano "With a lock. Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So, the officer before Mr. Tench would have had the safe locked. Mr. Tench would then have been given the key, checked it, locked it."
Edgar Cano "Yes."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga
"So, the question begs, how did Mr. Wade come in possession of those visas, if he was not the before."
Edgar Cano "No idea, myself, I cannot explain, cannot comment on that, sir."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "But, you did not make any recommendations - did you make any recommendations after this incident?"
Edgar Cano "Well, the only recommendation could have been for safety, security."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Did you make a recommendation?"
Edgar Cano "Verbally, yes, to the department."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "The department is not a person."
Edgar Cano "To the Director."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "But, you did make a recommendation. And your recommendation was..."
Edgar Cano "To get a safe. Yes."
Candelaria Saldivar Explains How Broken Immigration Is
So, while PUP Senator Courtenay was able to leave Senate Hearings before the session was done, the public officer on the stand wasn't so lucky. That's because Former Immigration CEO Candelaria Saldivar-Morter was in charge of the Immigration Department for a huge portion of the period which the Auditor General and her team looked into.
As viewers are aware, she's also Defence Minister John Saldivar's sister, and though she had a controversial exit from the Public Service, she asserts that she was a major part of the reform efforts that the Immigration Department made after the Department became embattled with scandal after scandal.
That's just the point she made today in the Senate Hearings after hours of testimony and cross examination. There's a lot from her comments today, and we'll not be able to share all of it with you intonight'snewscast, here's a very revealing moment from the conversations when Saldivar told the Senate that band aid fixes will not repair what's broken at the Immigration Department. Here's that moment of real talk that the former CEO engaged in:
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "For me, yes, you're saying 'oh, there is these issues that the Auditor General reports', but nothing in these auditor General's reports was a surprise to us, and that is the reason why we went into the whole session, and we put so much emphasis, especially myself, in terms of getting the working group to push to come up with a recommendation because we realized that if we stay and sit back and try to fix all the little things within, we will still have the problems at the end of the day. We had to come up with a holistic approach to fixing the problems at the immigration and nationality services department. And I continue to emphasize that this is all we can do at this point. Because for me, what the Auditor General put out, myself and Minister Hulse knew. And I think the public knew. What we need is a fix and until we look at that fix, we could always point fingers, and we could always say. But we need to do that…"
"We tried - the Ministry tried, like I said, worked hand in hand with the Director of Immigration. But I don't know if during the period, 2012 to when I left, 2015, we had so many issues that side-lined whatever kinds of work that we wanted to do that we had to deal with, like emergency issues. We had the issue with Dyck, Wilhem Dyck, and then after that, we had the issue with Won Hong Kim, and then, and so, each time you tried to put things in place, you're side-lined by some scandal, which takes you away from trying to put in place some of the things. But, I don't know how to put this. One of the things - One of the reasons I put emphasis on the whole restructuring and reform was because no band aid fix - there was no band aid fix for what was wrong at the Immigration and Nationality Services Department. And that is why we put so much efforts, weekends, all-day session, in trying to push that forward. Because we realized that no matter what band aid fix we did. We would still be having a lot of issues. And that is my person feeling in terms of Immigration and Nationality Services. There is no band-aid fix for it. We need a complete reform and restructuring in order that these issues could be corrected. And I am talking about the systems, the resources, the human Resources. We need a complete reform and structuring. Otherwise, 10 years from now, we'll be having another Senate Hearing."
Former CEO Saldivar Says Immigration Officers Need To Be Disciplined For Breaching The System
Last night, we showed you a small portion of the testimony from Candelaria Saldivar-Morter in yesterday's Senate Inquiry. She was taking questions from the Senate Select Committee about the irregularities revealed in the Auditor General's report on Immigration.
Well tonight, we have a bit more for you from the former CEO who was once in charge of that Department. She shared her perspective on what went wrong, and how no amount of revised guidelines and procedures can keep that department honest, if the Immigration Officers don't follow the rules do their jobs properly.
Viewers who have read the Auditor General's reports know very well that there are visitors who turned into Belizean Citizens in a few days, weeks, or months after arriving in Belize. Some of them got nationality even before their visas were approved. So, if you're wondering why there aren't more officers who are facing criminal or disciplinary charges before the Public Services Commission, thats where Senate Inquiry ventured yesterday. Here's that careful examination that the Senate did with the Former CEO on that topic:
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "When we make a case to the public service commission, it is based on the evidence provided by the department that the file is prepared and submitted to the public service commission for action. So whatever information we received, that is what we make the case on the relevant officers based on the recommendations. So the fact that no action was taken against Mr. Tench was because nothing was sent up from the department regarding Mr. Tench for any action to be taken."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "And the person in this case making those recommendations would have been whom? Specifically whom in the department?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "The files are sent to the ministry by the director."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "And the director at that time was?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "Miss Maria Marin."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "In your mind was there any situation that there could have existed a conflict? Why was Miss Marin asked to do this when it was under her watch, so to speak, that these things happened? Did you at any time say 'you know maybe, there may be a conflict here and maybe I should get somebody else to look into it?'"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "As the head of the department and as the supervisor of the officers, Miss Marin would have to recommend that action be taken against them, because their subordinates. So Miss Marin has to make a recommendation for action to be taken against her subordinates."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "If you could go through all the recommendations made by the auditor general, to see and identify those which you do not agree with, because you have a lot of experience. You were there for a long while."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "Some of the recommendations as I see it in the audit report is already in the financial regulations. A lot of it is just in terms of compliance and how do we get our people to comply with what already exists, and so it could either be done by, it could be lack of training, it could just be that people are not interested in doing the proper things. It could be other reasons why compliance was not being done."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "But you recognize this as the CEO. What did you do besides making the recommendations to cabinet? The buck stops with you, almost. You're responsible for that ministry right?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "It is systematic and so we had to put in place something that would solve that issue. We have the financial regulations, we have the legislation - how do you force officers to comply? It has to be through discipline. Because it's not that it's not there what you're supposed to do. Everything is there what you are supposed to do. It's how do you get them to comply and if they don't comply, there are mechanism within the public service, within administration that you get these people to comply and that is by taking them to the public service commission and put them up for disciplinary action. It is not that there was nothing for these officers to work with. There were procedural manuals, there is the public service regulations, there is the financial orders, the audit and reform act - all of these things are there. It is to get them to comply."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "But what we are hearing here is that when things came to those people that we've spoken to before, that it's all been filled in, it's all there, it's all correct. So where do the irregularities come in, in your view?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "Because all the procedures were not followed. You see where a form is not completed. A lot of it is forms that are not completed. It is not that they do not know that the forms needs to be completed. It's just that they did not ensure that it was completed. So what can you put in place to let an office ensures that a form is completed other than to tell them you need to ensure A, B and C on the form is completed."
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "Senator places a lot of emphasis, he's asked persons before to speak about the recommendation. But this is you're addressing an issue that I have. Because some recommendations, I don't know how they can be recommendations like: for example, expired US visas and permanent cards are not to be accepted. I think that's a given. You don't need a recommendation to say that, because they are supposed to do that. Incomplete application forms are not to be accepted. That's another recommendation. Only business certificates from company's registry are to be accepted. The supporting document section should be filled out - so you should fill that. I don't see how you can make a recommendation that you followed the procedures."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "Chair, with the greatest of respect, it's obvious that the auditor general has seen that these things are being accepted or being done in this fashion and thus her... but your point is taken. But now I need to ask you this, I mean if we speak to these persons in charged - the directors and they are saying 'look everything that has come to me has been complete.'"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Then they have to answer to the auditor general how the ones that she identified was not completed. All the sections as far as I know, there is an immigration and nationality services manual, there is a passport manual, there is a nationality manual within the departments. So they knew what the procedures were."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "But with the greatest of respect, we have been asking if these documents are in existence and we've been told no."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "But they are. I think I brought - this is the immigration and nationality services manual. We can't give more than this. The only other way is to have them answer for why they are not complying."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So a decision was made at certain times and places along the road not to prosecute."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Any case that came to my ministry while I was the CEO, I took personal to the commission. No other case came to my desk while I was CEO about any officer not doing their due diligence at the department. But once they came, I took the time to take those cases to the public services commission. I can only do that based on a report from the director indicating that officer "A" was negligent in doing his or her work. Officer "A" allowed A, B, C to happen."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "But for somebody to have been reprimanded or some legal investigation to have taken place, seeing that you all knew what was happening, that decision would had to have come from the director and the case would have had to have been presented to the police by the director or to the public services commission."
"Whose call was it, for example, when you have missing files? Was the police brought in? When you have missing visas, were the police brought in? When you knew that certain visas were being sold to certain people, why wasn't the police brought in?"
"These are lots of the question that people asked and nag us that if everybody knew what was going on, including the public and I agree, then why weren't people prosecuted. Who made that call? Was it you, was it the director? Who made the call not to pursue..."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The director would have to make a submission to the police department or to the ministry whether they wanted any. If she did in terms of the missing files that Arthur Saldivar had in his possession, she was the one that wrote to the commissioner of police asking them to do an investigation into how it is that Arthur Saldivar ended up with the files."
"So for me, yes you are saying yes, oh there were these issues that the auditor general report, but nothing in this auditor general's report was a surprise to us, because we knew and that is the reason why we went into the whole session and we put so much emphasis, especially myself, in terms of getting the working group to push to come up with a recommendation. Because we realize that if we stay and sit back and try to fix all the little things within, we will still have the problem at the end of the day. We had to come up with a holistic approach to fixing the issues at the immigration and nationality services department and I continue to emphasize that, that is all that we can do at this point, because to me what the auditor general put out, myself and Minister Hulse knew and I think the public knew. What we need is a fix and until we look at that fix, we could always point fingers and we could always say, but we need to do that and there are 8 cases where they may be, in terms of the recommendation, there may be some cases that could go to commission. There may be some cases that you might just have to say okay, we need to just move on."
Former Immigration CEO Defends Her Reputation
The Former CEO also had to defend herself in yesterday's hearing as well because the Auditor General names her as one of the Government officials who intervened in a questionable way for applicants trying to get immigration documents.
As soon as the Senate brought that topic up, she jumped at the opportunity to point out that the Auditor General's team got it wrong with her because she was simply doing her duty as the supervisor of the Director of Immigration. Here's that back and forth with the Senate Senate Select Committee:
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator "Miss Morter, on page 9 at paragraph 8, it identifies you as one of the persons who made request for applicants to be facilitated with Belize Visa. That's on page 9. Could you say whether that is so?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "Again, I mentioned earlier that as the CEO I am the supervisor for the director of immigration. And so as the CEO, if any document, if any application whether it is for visa, for passport, for nationality by some way ends up on my desk, it is my responsibility to forward it, because I am not the person that deals with it. So it is my responsibility to send the document over to Miss Marin and say 'these are for your necessary action.'"
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator "So are you saying that this matter is referring to that?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "At no time have I ever recommended anybody for a visa. She mentioned one. There are several times that documents reached my desk, either through the minister or through other ministries where they are requesting visas for different reasons. I then forward the application to the director who is expected to action the file. In terms of my personally recommending a visa, I have never done that. I never interfere with the work of the director of immigration in terms of those things. I only deal with the director in terms of what is my responsibility and in terms of my job as her supervisor."
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "I want to clarify and elucidate that point if we can. If you look at same page 9 which Senator Smith pointed to at that paragraph, it says, the auditor general's report says "Chief executive officer made request for applicants to be facilitated with Belize Visas at BMPS." We know that chief executive officer, CEO of Labor, Miss Candelaria Saldivar-Morter, the CEO at the time, requested that some visa applicants receive Belize Visas from the BMPS and then it goes to appendix 2. If you look at appendix 2, it says 'only memo from CEO'... So you are saying the statement that you requested that they facilitate a visa is false?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "I never ask for them to facilitate any visa. Like I mentioned, sometimes application reaches my desk and all I do is forward it to the director for action. I am not the director, I do not approve visas. So if an application reaches my desk, I have to forward it. It is not only immigration department that documents reaches my desk and I have to route it to the correct department. Things come to my desk for the labor commissioner and I have to route it to him for necessary action. It won't be that I recommended."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Again, speaking for myself, this gives the impression, so I want you to clarify that. It gives the impression that you wrote and say please facilitate these people with visas."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "I always and it is not only this case and that's why I was concerned as to why only this case. But I sent over more than one memo."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "And what would this memo have said?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Submitted for necessary action or for consideration or whatever. But the thing is it's not for me. It is information that comes to my desk and I forward. If an application comes for a work permit, I send it to commissioner of labor. If something comes for NEMO, I sent it over to NEMO. It is in that capacity that I write to the director of immigration, not in a personal..."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "The auditor general is putting you as sponsor in this table."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "I was kind of concern that I was group with, because I am the supervisor of the director and so documents that comes to me, I sent to the director for her to action. That is under the only condition that I have ever sent any request to the director."
At the next hearing, the Senate Committee intends to call Theresita Castellanos, Eric Chang and Patrick Tillett and George Reynolds. That's right, that's the the same former Deputy Mayor Eric Chang who allegedly bought those 8 stolen visas from an Immigration Officer, and who allegedly acted as the courier for that scandalous passport for Won Hong Kim, while he was in the Taiwanese Jail back in 2013. That's who the Senate wants to answer a few questions, but there could be a problem.
Chang has since exited public life, and he's now a private citizen. This means that he has no obligations to show up and present himself before the Senate, which would mean that they may have to take steps to compel him to testify.
Of important not is that former CEO Candelaria Saldivar-Morter is also a private citizen, and she did not have to answer to the summons yesterday because she is no longer a public officer. She did so of her own free will.
The Immigration Department’s Hunt For Nationality Files
For the past few 2 days, we've been showing you portions of this Wednesday Senate Hearings on Immigration, and we've mostly been featuring former CEO Candelaria Saldivar Morter, who was in charge of the Immigration Department.
Well tonight, still, we have a little more from the CEO in which she disclosed details of an extensive inventory check of the nationality files at the Department. It occurred from October 8 to the 18th of 2013, around the time when Arthur Saldivar had revealed that he had come in possession of a throve of nationality files which were labelled with the word "to be destroyed" or "destroyed". This was during that period at the Immigration Department when the Won Hong Kim scandal was raging, and the suspicion at the time that there was an attempt by unknown personalities in the Department to cover their tracks.
Well, that inventory check revealed that there were missing nationality files for 164 persons. Here's the Senate discussing that with the former CEO, since it forms a part of the Auditor General's report:
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter - Former CEO In Charge of Immigration "Initially the ministry had its staff do an inventory of the nationality files during my time and it was done not only to do an inventory of what files existed, but also to see the completeness of the files and there were a lot of incomplete files and it was based on that that we had to put certain polices in place in terms of getting the files completed. We went through an exercise where we try to reach people to ask them to please bring in these documents because they were not on file. Not to say they weren't submitted, but it was not on the files. So there were incomplete files, but the department had to go through a stage where we had to try to complete some of the files that already existed."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "Was this exercise done at the time that Arthur Saldivar was said to be in possession of the files? Is this what triggered that..?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "No, that did not factor into it at all. What factored into it was the fact that whenever the minister would request a file, we had issues with finding some of the files and so we decided on our own, to do an inventory of the files so that we do not have that issue - so that we know whether we had the files or not and inventory also entailed checking the files to see the completeness of the files."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "You had somebody in charge of the files obviously, in the department right?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "In the department there is a records clerk."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And that is the person responsible for the safe keep of the files and did you find out why there were files missing? Do you have a copy of that report that we can...?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "The report is in te nationality file."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "I'm talking about the report that you did internally."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "It's in the report."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And what did you do when you found that there were files missing?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "We couldn't really do anything of we couldn't find the files. At that point we had to find out what all files were missing, but we know the numbers and we may have known some of the names, but there was nothing we could do. We searched for the files and we just couldn't find them."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Did you find that to be unusual?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "Well a lot of things were unusual at the immigration department and that was why we were trying to put things in place to ensure. But we had to start at some point and the only way we could know where we were is to find what situation is was and that was why the inventory was done."
Who’s Job Was It At Immigration To Weed Out Forgery?
And here's our final piece of former CEO Saldivar's testimony. This is that part of the hearing where the Senators were asking her about the assertion by Former Immigration Director Ruth Meighan and Former Nationality OIC Gordon Wade that they don't check for fraud or forgery in the application documents they receive. Here's what she had to say about that one:
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator "When the files got to her, she was not supposed to verify anything, she was just supposed to either look at what is there, check and either recommend or return for further work that probably needed to be done, So as the CEO, could you recall that, let's say for example, in her case, recommending visas, that she was not responsible for verifying information, she was just responsible for...?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "If you approve anything, you will confirm that all the information and all the requirements are met. That is what you do before you do any kind of approval - that all the requirements are met."
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator "I'm trying to understand because we have been told over and over that there are persons within the process who are responsible for verifying these things so that by the time it gets to the last person there is no need to verify, because the persons before them had already done those verifications and so when it comes to that final person to just sign off on either recommended or if they see that something is obviously missing, it would be returned and I can recall clearly that Mr. Wade had said that when the file got to him, all he had to do was just sign off and send it or he would make a note and say "this document is missing" and he would still send it on."
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "How do you sign off if you don't check? While it need to be said and may be it need to be documented, just the mere fact of you singing off is saying that you confirm what should be there is there. That is standard. You will not sign off to something that you have not confirm is there."
Hon. Elena Smith, Senator "That's the excuse that they gave us. But seeing that you have a manual... Miss Morter, it is fair for me to say that these persons despite being the last person to receive a file, did not complete their duty to ensure that everything that was placed before them was verified?"
Candelaria Saldivar-Morter "That is what you could say is the outcome. If it is incomplete, then it has to be that somebody did not ensure that it was completed."
Since the Senate Hearings on Immigration Started last year in November, we've been faithfully reporting on all the major revelations. But nothing so far has caused as much of a stir as today's testimony from Teresita Castellanos. She's the former Finance Officer for the Immigration Department from 2011 to 2014, and she was called to answer questions in the afternoon session of the hearings last week, right after former CEO Candelaria Saldivar-Morter left the stand. She returned this morning to finish up, and she told the Senators that she had something which they needed to hear.
When she was given the floor to share her perspective, she stunned the unusually crowded gallery with what she asserts is her honest opinion of the Immigration Department. She called it a place of hustling and corruption, with the Immigration Officers acting as a fraternity, resisting order and transparency, and covering for each other.
Now, you've heard the Former Acting Immigration Director talk about a culture of irregularity at the Department, which she met there, and which she tried her hardest and failed to change. Last week Wednesday, Former CEO Candelaria Saldivar said that there is no band-aid fix for what is wrong at Immigration, and if there is not extensive reform, quote,"…10 years from now, we'll be having another Senate Hearing."End quote.
Well, today Teresita Castellanos described it as "the belly of the beast". Here's her startling disclosure:
Teresita Castellanos - Former FO, Immigration Department "The Department, heading by the acting Director, Miss Maria Marin, and a small team, including myself, the Administrative Officer, made many attempts to stop the rampant mal-practices that plagued the department. The problem was too difficult to accomplish. The reason being that there was not the support from our Ministry. We considered - and I will read verbatim, because I have to say what I have to say today. We considered ourselves orphans of the Ministry of Labour, Local Government, and it ended with the Immigration Department. The Department because important when a document needed approval. We became infamous with scandals, but even so, the support was just not there. Yes, the culture was there, is there. It still is, but there are persons who are trying to pretend they don't know what culture exists at the Department. I may not have another opportunity to say what I have to say to the Belizean people. Some may even ask me what gives me the right to talk, but today, I do. I was in the belly of the Beast. I was at the Immigration Department, for 3 years, and I'm among those named in the Auditor General's report. This gives me the right to say the following. The Immigration Department has an entrenched culture of corruption and hustling, milking the cow, we say, from the very top, to the very bottom of the ladder. No politician can force a public officer to do illegal acts when performing our jobs, and if we do, we should face the same consequence, as the politicians, if necessary, if it comes to that. For, the Belizean people are demanding justice. There are a few good, honest and dedicated immigration officers, but there was not enough trusted staff to see the daily operations of the sections, and at the district offices, and border stations. The call for help was not answered, and this inquiry is the result. The resistance to follow instructions given by head of departments, and to adhere to the Government regulations was frustrating. The culture by immigration officers, of treating civilian public officers, as a director or as a finance officer, or admin. officer, we are considered as intruders in the Department. Of how dear we to come - example - how dare the FO to come and check our offices, to check our visa application files. How dare them? The culture of Immigration Officers work against the civilians or any officer at the Department who was doing the right thing; the Immigration Officers, they are a fraternity, the mentality of touch one, touch all."
"I will like to state that the resistance by some officers was beyond my comprehension, resistance in adhering to regulation, to doing the right thing. At one point, some of us were fearful for the life of the acting Director, Maria Marin. Why? Because she was doing her job, because she was strict, because she was putting things in place for the hustling to stop. This is just a part of the story regarding the Immigration Department. The corruption behind closed doors, the intricacies, the lies and the attempts to cover up the wrongdoings, a department - as far as I can call it - of ill repute. It is all sad. I will be hated for this, but I am under oath today, and the truth must be told. This was written by me last night. I got this inspiration last night. God, please let me do it. Tell me to. Guide me. Do it; say it, or do not say it, and I have the privilege to say it today."
Officer Reynolds and The Missing Visa’s
In the afternoon session, the Senate called Senior Immigration Officer George Reynolds who has been at the Department for over 26 years. He's currently a port commander in Independence Village, but during the audit period he was in charge of the Immigration Services Section of the Department in Belmopan.
That means that he was in charge of visas and all other temporary immigration permits.
He was called to answer for that infamous incident with the 8 stolen visas from the Western Border Station. 8 Visas foils went missing in December 2012, and that's what brought the disappearance under the microscope of the Audit Department - which now brings us to the Senate hearings.
You'll remember that the Auditor General quoted in her report from an internal investigation into that matter in which Immigration Officer Vernon Leslie declared that on December 26, 2012, Officer Mark Tench realized that the 8 visa foils were missing. They initiated an investigation, and allegedly discovered that Officer L. Wade removed them without authorization and allegedly sold them to a private citizen. That man then allegedly took them to former Deputy Mayor Eric Chang and City Council Financial Controller Patrick Tillett, who allegedly purchased the visas.
Officer Vernon Leslie's account continues to say that both men allegedly doubted the validity of the visa foils and so they took them to George Reynolds. Vernon claims that Reynolds allegedly confirmed to both men that they were legitimate, but were illegally issued.
So, that's why the Senate called Reynolds to answer to the allegations that he knowingly allowed these men to keep these stolen visas, when he ought to have confiscated it. The Senate put that directly to him, and he said that Leslie's account is wrong. Here's how he answered their questions:
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "Vernon Leslie the Auditor General says relayed a version of events in which according to him immigration officer Elwade removed 8 visa foils from the officer M.Tench and gave it to one Mr. Middleton for sale. Mr. Middleton took the visas to Belize City to deputy mayor Eric Chang and the Belize City Council financial controller Patrick Tillet who purchased the visas. He says that both Mr. Chang and Mr. Tillet wrote statements confirming the transaction, both men doubted the validity of the visas so they brought them to you and you confirmed the visa foils were legitimate but were illegally issued. Is this statement accurate as far it relates to your knowledge?"
George Reynolds - Former Port Commander, Belmopan "Not totally accurate."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "What is inaccurate about it?"
George Reynolds "The part that I said that they were illegally issued - I did not use those words or I would have acted differently if I had used those words."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Can you recall what words-"
George Reynolds "I can recall they were not issued completed because they were missing something. So I did not say illegally because they were missing the stamp and that was something that happened often just with the new use of visa foils because people come back to you in Belmopan that the officer forgot to put the actual stamp on the visa."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Should you have visa foil-"
George Reynolds "These were in passports already, they were not there because the visa come in fours and two were in passports."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay - PUP Senator "That's what I wanted to ask you Mr. Reynolds. Who came to you?"
George Reynolds "Mr. Tillet only."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Which Mr. Tillet?"
George Reynolds "Patrick Tillet."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "You knew him before that?"
George Reynolds "Well I saw him around yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So he came to you and what did he come to you for?"
George Reynolds "He asked me if I could fix this for him because he think the officer did not do it properly. He assumed it was issued at my office which in return I told him yes these are legitimate files because I saw the security feature on it and I told him these were not issued here so you need to take it back to the office where you got it issued. Being that I wouldn't expect him to steal anything, we did that for more than one people came with different issues and we asked them to go back to the office where it was issued to get it completed and that was it - it was just two minutes the most because I was coming out of my office when he met me and we went in there just spoken briefly and he left."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "This was in Belmopan?"
George Reynolds "In Belmopan yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And you said that the visas were in passports?"
George Reynolds "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Did you take a note of the passport?"
George Reynolds "No I did not."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Right and he left after that is what you are saying?"
George Reynolds "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Do you know where he went?"
George Reynolds "No I did not."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I have been labouring under the thought that these were 8 visa foils and I kept asking myself why would you leave them with the visa foils if they just came and brought 8 visa foils. I said how could you do that that was what I was thinking this entire time."
George Reynolds "I think there are many things that are left out in this statement that caused people to have different opinion of what happened because there's no date here to say exactly when this meeting happened compared to the date when the visas were noted missing to alert me to think that this was possible with one of those. Those data are missing, this happened before about nearly a month before we actually got note there were visas missing from the Western boarder."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Okay I understand this now, what happened if I can summarize and you tell me if that is the case. They brought these passports to you, 8-"
George Reynolds "No, two..."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Two passports, so you only saw you two passports with visas in it?"
George Reynolds "Yes."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "And you were told that, you were asked-"
George Reynolds "He just asked me to fix it because he assumed that I would just put the stamp on it to complete the process. I did not stamp it because it was not issued at my station because I sign every sticker personally and I stick them in the passport myself at my station in Belmopan. I don't have anyone issue visas for me unless I'm on holiday."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So he just came in and said can you?"
George Reynolds "Yes he just popped up in my office because like I said I don't know how people just get into that secure area and out just like that because I'm in an office that is closed up and I can't see outside to the public but he just popped in to my office and asked me these questions."
Hon. Ashley Rocke - Church Senator "In hindsight it would have been right to withhold those two documents?"
George Reynolds "You see we are talking about timeline and knowledge. If you have knowledge of something you act differently on a situation, I had no knowledge of that so I couldn't be in hindsight whatever to hold something that I didn't see the necessity to hold."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "I have in my possession - let me ask you, you are aware that there was an investigation by the public service commission into these missing stickers? Visas, whatever you want to call them."
George Reynolds "Yes I was aware."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Did you give a statement?"
George Reynolds "No one questioned me and I didn't give any statement."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "No one asked you to attend?"
George Reynolds "No one asked me to."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "I have in my possession a statement that was supposedly given by Vernon Leslie, immigration assistant number 2. I want a read a portion of it to you and for you to comment on it. By the way have you seen this before? It's dated the 15th of August 2013."
George Reynolds "No I haven't seen it."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Alright, it says immigration clerk number 1 Michael Tench, immigration assistant Enida Morales, immigration assistant Andrea Jones received information from port commander George Reynolds Belmopan office that two individuals namely Belize City deputy mayor Eric Chang and Belize City Council financial controller Patrick Tillet had paid him a visit at the office. The express concern over 6 visa foils that they had purchased from an individual from Orange Walk named Middleton. One scrutiny of the visas placed in the Chinese passport, Mr. Reynolds observed visa foils itself was authentic but the issuance protocol was severely flawed. Mr. Reynolds relayed this information after which they both left the office. Is that accurate?"
George Reynolds "No."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "What is inaccurate about it?"
George Reynolds "The amount of passports and the amount of persons that came to see me and the information about the-"
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Seriously flawed."
George Reynolds "Yes those information are way exaggerated."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "They are exaggerated?"
George Reynolds "Yes."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Why would Mr. Vernon?"
George Reynolds "I believe he could answer that when he comes here because I won't be able to know why he did so or why they did not call me to collaborate or to answer to what they said there."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Very well. So I guess we will have to ask Mr. Vernon to come and explain this."
George Reynolds "I believe you do."
Leslie has concluded his testimony, but the Senators suggested to him to go over the recommendations from the Auditor General and respond to them in writing. He is also advised to review the documents and indicate whatever there in the report about him that he does not agree with.
Sent Committee Chasing After Chang
So, at the centre of this scandal about the 8 stolen visas are Former Deputy Mayor Eric Chang and Former Financial Controller for the Belize City Council, Patrick Tillett. The Senate sent them invitations to appear and defend themselves against the allegations.
Of course, it's not that simple for Chang, who is named in the Auditor General's Report as the man who acted as a courier for Citizen Kim, while he was in a Taiwanese jail, back in 2013. So, no doubt, the Senate also wants to ask him a few questions about that.
Neither of them showed up to testify today, and we asked the Senate Committee Chairman about the implications of that. Here's our conversation with him on their absence:
Daniel Ortiz "Has Mr. Eric Chang and Mr. Patrick Tillet indicated that they will present themselves before the Senate sir?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "No they declined the invitation, I should explain that we don't have a lot of history of Senate inquires so the convention as I understand it the practice is that you invite persons to attend. They have declined the invitation saying that after consideration they declined the invitation so they won't be here today."
Daniel Ortiz "Can the Senate compel these two gentlemen to present themselves before you all to answer your questions?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "The Senate can exercise certain power, that is a particular issue that the committee is contemplating. The powers of the Senate are created in legislation which predates our constitution, those specific powers and then the constitution also speaks to certain power of the Senate. So the committee is going to determine whether it's going to compel or to issue any further documentation to them in that regard."
Daniel Ortiz "But is this a situation where the Senate is able to bring any sort of sanctions against them to oblige them, you don't want to face these, present yourself."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I'm not aware of any sanctions. I am aware that in that document which I referred which gives the Senate certain powers, there is language in there about compelling person to attend. There's a legal issue in relation to that which I don't wish to discuss at this time because that is a private matter for us to consider."
"We conduct the business of the Senate in an amicable way and that is why invitations were sent out. Persons were named in the report and we invited them to come and discuss the issues in relation to which they were named. It was their choice to either agree or disagree, we didn't tell them they had to come, it was an invitation. I think that if at the end of the day if the Senate does not have the ability - I am not saying that is the case, let's just say that is the worst case scenario, the Senate is unable to compel them to come in a timely fashion. If there is litigation about whether what are the powers of the Senate in that regards, I'm not ruling that out. If the Senate is unable to compel them at some point then the Senate is still bound or my view is that the committee is still bound to afford everybody fairness and natural justice principles. So if the Senate is going to make a finding or is going to say something in regard to a person, I would think that it is our obligation to speak to that person before to advise them as to what the Senate is contemplating and to ask them to give them the opportunity to address us on the issue because I think that is only fair and we have to be guided by fairness. If given that opportunity, if you're told look the Senate is considering this from the report, we're leaning towards this view of it, can you please explain. If you refuse then you can't complain about what the Senate has produced in its report because you had ample opportunities to address the matter."
Experienced observers have since pointed us to the Legislative Assembly Powers and Privilege Act 1962. We are told that this law makes it absolutely clear that Senate can call for any person, whether they are public officials, or private citizens. We are told that Section 10 of this act gives the power to the Senate to issue Summonses, and Section 11 allows for the upper parliament to issue warrants.
We understand that the Senate Select Committee is going the route of the summons in the first instance, and if they decline a second time, the Committee will consider issuing a warrant. The summons will go out next week, and so they will be expected to show up at the Senate Hearings on March 1.
Officer Reynolds’ Take On Minister Frequenting Immigration
Last night, we brought you coverage of the yesterday's Senate Hearings on Immigration, and we showed you how the Committee grilled Port Commander and Senior Immigration Officer George Reynolds. He had to answer questions from the Senate Select Committee about those 8 stolen visas of December 2012. As viewers are aware, that's what triggered the Special Audit of the Immigration Department, which is now the subject of tough questions for those who worked there, or those who are named in the Audit. They'll have to strap in because, these public hearings will continue for well… probably the next few months.
While he was before them, the Senators decided to ask him about those ministers who were showing up regularly, pressing influence to expedite applications for visas, nationalities and passports. Here's his take on that, given his 26 years of experience in "the belly of the beast":
Immigration Officers Refused To Follow Protocol?
posted (February 16, 2017)
We also have more from the testimony of Teresita Castellanos. you'll remember her as the former Finance Officer for the Department who held nothing back yesterday when she mauled the Immigration Officers. She described the Immigration Department as a place with "an entrenched culture of corruption and hustling". According to Castellanos, the officers behave like a fraternity, resisting order and transparency, and covering for each other.
So why does she have such a negative view of these public officers? Well, she said that she and the Former Acting Immigration Director, Maria Marin, tried to get them to follow the rules, and to do their jobs properly. But, according to her, nothing they did helped the situation; the officers did as they pleased. Here's how she outlined it to the Senators yesterday:
She has given them a huge volume of reports to review, and she will be called back, and she will take a few more questions on what those reports say.
Our archives show that in January 2008, before the March General Elections, the Musa Administration swore in over a 1,000 new citizens, in a closed door session, just in time to meet the deadline to register to vote.
So while both sides of the political colour bar are guilty of the same thing, there is only one constant: and that is the misuse of the Immigration Department. Today, Gordon Wade confirmed as much to the Senate Select Committee today:
Gordon Wade - Former OIC, Nationality Section "Whatever year an audit would have been done in our department from a department when civilian - if any 2 years or 1 year would be chosen to run an audit we would be doing the same thing we are doing now with different people answering questions because that has been the norm ever since from I have been in the department that's the way it has been."
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "You're saying not that it's normal but it's a usual occurrence that running up to an election politicians and not just from one party government or opposition - politicians would engage in heightened activity to see that whoever it was would get nationality?"
Gordon Wade "Yes sir."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "We have heard of this culture that has existed in this department for so long and you've been there for 27 years so you've probably seen it all. And over the years I'm trying to establish why were a lot of these things not addressed and fixed and why did it take an audit by the auditor general to really stir things up and to get some action where we still haven't determined what action and how many plugs have really been put in place. What was it in this culture that blocked improvements? That blocked revamping of the way things were done, what is it in your view?"
Gordon Wade "Like I mentioned before these were political requests and it starts there because like I said if there was an audit to be done in the department at any time since the department has existed this would have been the same thing that would have been encountered."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "So you're basically saying if I'm hearing you right is that the political culture is what has allowed this to continue."
Gordon Wade "Right."
Inquiry Says They Cannot Go After Nanes Case
Those two public officers, plus former Director Ruth Meighan, and a UDP Minister are all Nanes called in the internal report.
The Senate Select Committee can or have called these persons to testify. In fact, Gordon Wade was called back this evening, and we'll have more from him in tonight's newscast. But, the Committee Chairman says that he doesn't believe that the Committee can question them about the David Nanes Case.
That's because the Nanes scandal was never covered in the audit period of 2011 to 2013, and so, the Chairman believes that they aren't allowed to bring up that topic in these hearings. Here's how he explained why:
Daniel Ortiz "Can you share your personal view on whether the committee is able to review cases that maybe outside the scope of the audit report but it demonstrates the same irregularities that the senate is trying to examine?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "I think our terms of reference are very clear, we can only examine that which are in the report, which are produced in the report for that period 2011 to 2013; In my view we can't go beyond that. If something only tangentially on that I believe we can but if it's something that is totally outside of the period or outside of the report itself then I don't believe we have any - in relation to that."
Reporter "So in specifically in the case of Nanes Schnitzer which does fall within the time frame but is not highlighted in the report; what would happen in relation to that?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I am not familiar with any details of the Nanes Schnitzer matter, I don't know about any allegations against Ms. Pacheco in that regards and as far as I'm concerned I myself am not concerned with, that is a matter for the police or other authorities, not for me."
Reporter "Sir have you heard back from Ms. Pacheco about when she would be available to the committee?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Ms Pacheco is not able to attend because of a certain medical issue which I don't wish to disclose. There is a time period by which that will expire; a medical survey is for a certain period. I can't really say what will happen thereafter."
Reporter "You do recall though that when Senator Lisa Shoman then the lead opposition senator brought a motion before the senate in 2015 December, you voted against that motion alongside the leader of government business Mr. Hulse who she was asking to recuse himself. So you are aware of the case."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Nanes Schnitzer?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Yes I am but the question is whether I am going to commence an investigation, I don't have that power."
Reporter "To question removing your hat as chairman, to question you as a senator taking that decision back then, I'm not sure if you've been following it up but with the revelations now that there was clearly fraud and although the nationality and passport were revoked there was never any police investigation into the matter to find out who were the ones who committed that wrong doing. Do you feel that there should be such an investigation or a police investigation?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Well I don't know - I haven't studied any of the things that you're saying, I don't know that there wasn't an investigation. If what you're saying is true that there was illegality, there's wrong doing then I believe that any illegality should be investigated but I don't know, I don't really know, I haven't seen what they are speaking about on Plus TV and really it's not my responsibility to do that. When the matter comes before the senate then we will consider it at that point."
A Casual Case Of Bribery At The Immigration Department
So, we turn now to the immigration hearings held by the Senate today in Belmopan. Teresita Castellanos, the former Finance Officer for the Department, was one of 2 witnesses called back to testify today.
Her time on the stand was spent mostly on administrative matters, but close to the end of it, the Senators asked her about a very curious case highlighted in the passport Audit. It involves a 500-dollar bribe which the former officer in charge of the passport office was allegedly given to process the Belizean passport for a Asian woman.
Now, instead of making a formal complaint and handing the money over to the police to investigate this bribery attempt. The Auditor General questions the decisions they took to instead collect the money and deposit it into the Government purse as regularly collected revenues. So, since Castellanos was part of the courier for payment, the Senators asked her about, it. That topic caused an interesting back and forth between Castellanos and the Committee, which would have been comical, if they weren't talking so casually about a crime. Here's how that went:
Teresita Castellanos - Former FO, Immigration Department "This 500 dollars was given to me by the director. I did not get anything Mr. Sambula nor Ms. Chavarria - I don't know what the report has but Ms. Ruth Meighan the then director called me and she explained to me what happened and she told me before I have the money the 500. I did not get it right away and then somehow I believe later on I reminded because she was going out for a meeting - I don't recall if it was the following day or a couple days afterwards but I went to her office and I asked the director for the money. During that while I made contact with the treasury, FO and told her the situation and the combination of cost, under what we would pay it."
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "Miss I don't think you understand, they are saying that this is bribe money. It's a bribe; somebody was being paid to do something."
Teresita Castellanos "Yes but do you want me to start from there because I did not see the report. Yes from what Ms. Chavarria is saying here, yes it was a bribe at the time. At the time the passport office, they still had a passport office in Belize City that it was printing passport. That bribe took place in Belize City with Ms. Chavarria and a Chinese individual. The thing is that, that money was handed to the director and if you want to get to the bottom of it yes I went and I got the money from the director but regarding the report and the bribe - that's why I'm saying we paid 500 as I was instructed into the treasury, that money was paid into the treasury. That money that the person took - the 500 that person took to Ms. Chavarria, Ms. Chavarria did not accept the money."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I have no confessed that I am absolutely confused. We really need to get to the bottom of this."
Teresita Castellanos "According to Ms. Chavarria she was given the 500 to facilitate the passport. That happened in Belize City at the passport office at the time."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So Ms. Chavarria got money from somebody? A bribe-"
Teresita Castellanos "Yes to facilitate a passport."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "For a passport, and then what happened?"
Teresita Castellanos "Ms. Chavarria claimed she did not take the money, she left it on the desk."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So money was left on the desk?"
Teresita Castellanos "Mhmm."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "And then what happened?"
Teresita Castellanos "That part I don't think, I think the director was in Belize City- Ms. Chavarria must have brought it up to her."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Who was the director at that time?"
Teresita Castellanos "Ms. Ruth Meighan. Some investigation was done in regarding that passport."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Let's just focus on the question. So then the director Ruth Meighan somehow got the money which according to Ms. Chavarria was left on the desk as bribe to facilitate a passport. Then the director spoke to you?"
Teresita Castellanos "Yes I was brought into the picture."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "And told you this money is bribe money?"
Teresita Castellanos "Mhmm, yes."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "But you were going to pay it into the revenue?"
Teresita Castellanos "Yes."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "So your involvement, you found out there was bribe money, it was left on a desk at immigration office Belize City, the director found out, she gave you the money in order for you to pay it into government and that the police?"
Teresita Castellanos "When it comes to that I don't know if there is any investigation into that-"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "How did you record that revenue?"
Teresita Castellanos "I went to the Belmopan sub treasury - I personally went and paid it in and got a government receipt."
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Paid it in as what?"
Teresita Castellanos "We refer to a file to a file of this investigation. It has a reference on it and even the audit was questioned but I advised by the finance officer of the sub treasury - I gave her the whole detail and they collected it and they referred it to a file reference of that same investigation."
And we have one more piece of Teresita Castellanos's testimony to the senate today. It's her condemnation of the way the Auditor General's team handled the audit, and she says, they made mistakes that they could have avoided. Here's how she explained it:
Teresita Castellanos - Former FO, Immigration Department "I need for them on the record to do a proper auditing. I think they should have sent in their best team, top team to do this investigation at the audit department because they are causing a lot of unnecessary confusion and wrong information and then I don't want to say I was not remembering because I remember things - certain things I remember in detail as if it was yesterday. But the thing is they should have sent in their top team to do this investigation."
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "So you don't think the audit was properly done?"
Teresita Castellanos "The audit has a lot of things that need to be amended and those of us who are affected and being accused - I fully agree with an investigation they want to carry because I have nothing, I'm taking about myself, nothing to worry about. If I did a human error I can admit it anytime and say sir I did an error, I apologise for it if that be possible."
Eric and Patrick Will Be Required To Appear
But, one UDP who the Senate wants to question is former Deputy Mayor Eric Chang. He and Patrick Tillett, the former Financial Controller for the Belize City Council, are named in the scandal for involvement with 8 stolen visas.
Chang is also named in the Won Hong Kim Passport scandal, and both men are refusing to show up to answer questions from the Senate.
Well, it appears that both men will be compelled through the Legislative Assembly Powers and Privilege Act 1962. As we told you, this law allows the Committee to compel anyone, even private citizens to show up and give testimony. Today, Senate Committee Chairman Salazar told us how they will use it in this instance against both men:
Hon. Aldo Salazar - Chairman, Senate Select Committee "Yes we have as far as I understand issued the summons. I'm not sure if it's on today's date or yesterday but we have issued it."
Reporter "Is that in relation to both persons?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "Yes. 1962 Act gives the legislature certain powers and privileges and part of that - it does gives the legislature powers and privileges speaks to the power of the senate to call witnesses etc. How it directly affects us is that when these laws predate the constitution there's a constitutional provision which saves all the laws that existed prior to the constitution and except where there is an inconsistency with any law then that law must be modified so that the constitutional provisions are retained."
Daniel Ortiz "Is the committee confident that the summons or the warrant that these laws allow for will give you enough authority to bring these gentlemen before you?"
Hon. Aldo Salazar "I don't like to speak for the entire committee but the committee gave it consideration and it acted based on advice and its own deliberations. So it acted from an informed position. Whether there's a dispute or there's a challenge is not necessarily up to us but we have our views. So it's not necessarily whether we express confidence but we acted based on what we feel the law is."
They are expected to show up next week Wednesday, and if they don't, the law allows the Senate to take a stronger step against them.
More Cutting Corners In The Elections Rush
Another of the witnesses who came back today for a second round with the Senate Committee was Gordon Wade, formerly the Officer In Charge of Nationality at the Immigration Department.
PUP Senator Eamon Courtenay used that opportunity to get more information from him on that immigration rush heading up to the 2012 General Elections.
Wade and former Director Ruth Meighan have told the Senate the same thing, that the rush compromised the Nationality procedures when over 2,000 applications were processed before that Election. The Opposition is accusing the UDP of using that feverish activity to steal two marginal electoral seats: Cayo North East, and Cayo Central. When we asked the Prime Minister about it, he said that was nonsense, and so, Courtenay asked Wade more questions to explore what exactly happened during the last 4 months before the 2012 General Elections. Here's how that conversation went:
Hon. Mark Lizarraga - Business Senator "So there were instance when the files were not complete you would make a note and say this file is missing is missing so and so. It would then go to the director, the director would make a decision whether she would pass it on the minister or not. I'm taking about those files that you did not recommend but that you sent up incomplete. Did you ever see any of those files? Were they ever approved for nationality being incomplete? That was my question."
Gordon Wade - Former OIC, Nationality Section "Yes sir."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "And was this frequent, was this a frequent occurrence?"
Gordon Wade "Well the last time I was here the questioned was asked and that was mostly prevalent during the time when we had a lot of applications being processed in 2, 3 months."
Hon. Mark Lizarraga "Prior to elections?"
Gordon Wade "Yes that was when most of the files in that status would have gone up."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay - PUP Senator "The level of vetting that was taking place was it anymore intense or less intense that the ordinary?"
Gordon Wade "Sir with the magnitude of applications I don't think they could have been more. I remember it was a time between let's say 3, 4 months and the magnitude that was done in that time I don't think it could have been more scrutiny."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So what you are saying and I want to be very clear is that because of the amount and the significant amount and the short period of processing, you're saying that the vetting was not more than usual?"
Gordon Wade "No."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Would it be less?"
Gordon Wade "It would definitely be."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Now there are only a finite number of people in the vetting department."
Gordon Wade "Final vetting in the department should be done by myself."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "But below that where the vetting is taking place, how many employees, how many officers?"
Gordon Wade "At any given time I would say 2 to 3 other - which would be considered a pre vetting because final vetting was done by the officer in charge. So the other officers in the section would have done a pre vetting."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "What I want to know is at this time again around up to the 2012 election when things were being expedited, was there an increase in the number of officers who were doing the pre vetting or was it just the same two?"
Gordon Wade "During that time there were officers that were doing final vetting not only pre vetting, a part from myself."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So there were people who were actually giving final approval and recommendation-"
Gordon Wade "Final recommendation to the director."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Not you, in addition to you?"
Gordon Wade "In addition to me."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So was there extra staff brought on?"
Gordon Wade "From the office in Belmopan from the different sections."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Isn't that out of the ordinary?"
Gordon Wade "Considering yes, that's why the sections are specific."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And so this was being done to facilitate-"
Gordon Wade "The magnitude of applications that were being processed during that time."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "And then finally, for some time it was known that a substantial number of these nationalities were approved on files that were incomplete to be charitable, let's say incomplete- has there been any review in the immigration department of these files to go back to see how many of them were complete, how many were incomplete?"
Gordon Wade "No sir that hasn't been done."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "So there is now review to saw that those persons who are walking around with passports that they are not legally entitled to - to find those people and cancel their passports."
Gordon Wade "No sir that has not been done."
Hon. Eamon Courtenay "Does the law provide for persons who receive passports on a process that is incomplete, what is to happen to those?"