Hon. Gaspar Vega was the Minister of Natural Resources when his son, Andre Vega, and the highly connected attorney, Sharon Pitts, both walked away with a combined total of almost BZ $1 million, $400,000 each, to be precise.
They both acquired land titles despite the fact that the Ministry apparently knew that the land in question was already privately owned, and could not be surveyed again. Records show that on at least two occasions public officers pointed out to higher-ups in the Ministry that the said land was already privately owned, and in fact, the Lands Commissioner gave instructions to revoke Pitts’ permission to survey the land.
But still, Sharon Pitts’ survey of the said land was authenticated and made to supersede the original survey.
The government then ruled that there was an error in the title issue and compensated them $400,000 each to reacquire the land.
While that estimated million-dollar payout was jaw-dropping, a review of further government compensations for land acquisitions revealed that the United Democratic Party (UDP) Administration of Prime Minister Dean Barrow has already paid out a whopping $70.9 million in compensation for such land transactions since assuming office in 2008.
GOB has paid out $61.7 million over the last 5 years alone since 2011, and another $9.2 million was spent during the first three years of Barrow’s first term.
What is even more alarming is that almost half of that $70.9 million, or an estimated $30.4 million, was spent during the two election years of 2011/2012 and 2015.
For the first three years of the UDP’s administration, 2008-2010, the Ministry of Natural Resources spent less – $2 million over the first three years – than had been approved in Parliament for Land Acquisition, or so-called Land Compensation.
However, Government spending on compensation ballooned following an incident in 2010 in which the Ministry was forced to pay Orange Walk resident and well-known UDP supporter Derrick Gillett $148,000 in compensation after Silvio Correa successfully argued in court that he was the original owner of a land Government had issued to Gillett.
The following year, 2011, is when all hell broke loose. In that financial year 2011/2012, the UDP-led government spent a damning $10.4 million on compensations, which was more than twice the $4 million Parliament had approved, and a million dollars more than the Government had spent in the three previous years combined.
Interestingly, at the end of that same financial year, in March of 2012, the UDP chose to call general elections one year earlier.
For the following three years, 2012-2014, the Ministry of Natural Resources paid out more than $10 million per year on land compensations, for a total of $31.3 million or $31,335,278.
Last year was an election year, the mother of all election years, which was marked by an unprecedented four elections (2 bye-elections, municipal elections and a general election), and in just six months, from April to October of 2015, the Ministry of Natural Resources paid out an unprecedented $20 million on land acquisition.
We only stumbled on that $20 million figure because on page 111 in the Draft Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure for fiscal year 2016/2017, it shows Government spent $11.6 million on compensation for the financial year 2015/2016, $600,000 more than Parliament had approved. However, the fine print three pages further down, on page 114 of the same 2016/2017 Draft Estimates, revealed that under achievements for 2015/2016, “$20 million have been paid so far as land acquisition commitments.”
These payouts were so alarming that the CEO in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Sharon Ramclam, at the Government’s press conference last week, revealed that she suspended compensation payments in October of last year, just six months into the financial year. We suspect that would have been just before the November 5 general elections, or certainly after that election date was set and the House of Representatives had been dissolved.
Ramclam went on to reveal that in several instances some persons were overpaid for land compensation, and that many of the compensation payments were because of so-called duplications.
The land compensation payouts made by the current UDP administration doubles the estimated combined $35 million paid out by the previous People’s United Party-led government during their 9 ½ years in office.
Furthermore, the $70.9 million payouts almost match the reported $70 million compensation bill the UDP government claimed it met in 2008. That bill reportedly now stands at $100 million, even as government paid out over $70 million in the last 8 years.
A fact that, according to PUP deputy leader Cordel Hyde, begs the question, “exactly where did all that money go?”
In an interview with Amandala this evening, Hyde said, “We need to follow the money. We need to see the list of persons who collected this $70 million, and for what purpose did they collect those big bucks. How can we still owe a $100 million for land compensation when we paid out $70 million? Where did all that money go, and how is it that these payees were so lucky that they were able to jump the queue of persons who are owed moneys by government for legitimate land acquisitions over the several decades since our Independence?”
Hyde added: “And don’t tell us you are doing an internal investigation of all the compensation files. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the honorable Attorney General and Minister of Lands, but she is a member of the Cabinet appointed by the Prime Minister.
“Godwin Hulse did a similar internal investigation at the bedeviled Immigration Department, and everything was supposedly hunky-dory after that, and then the Auditor General’s report surfaced, and blew that theory to smithereens. Cabinet Ministers are inordinately and perennially loyal to those who appointed them, no matter their protestations to the contrary.”
“But I tell you any UDP government that I lead will never be engaged in corruption. As soon as it rears its ugly head, I personally will cut it off. And I will tell you I will sharpen a special machete with blades on two sides so that every time it springs up ‘right so,’ I will chop it off. And if it means the Government has to fall then so be it. Let the consequences be damned, the people of this country deserve better and I am determined to give them better,” Prime Minister Dean Barrow had famously told Belizeans when he was in Opposition.
Amandala will have an update on this alarming story in our next edition.