GOB Falls To Ashcroft Alliance AgainFor 3 days now, Justice Courtney Abel has been listening to arguments on the last court fight over money connected to the half a billion dollar settlement over BTL.
The judge is being asked to determine who should - and shouldn't - have been paid over 114 million dollars out of the entire amount.
The Government controlled company, Sunshine Holdings Limited, is claiming that the amount should have been paid to them, and that the Barrow Government wrongly paid it to the former owners, Dean Boyce and the Trustees of the BTL Employees Trust.
When it was an Ashcroft Company, Sunshine held over 11 million shares in BTL. All that changed in 2009, when the Government nationalized the telecoms company. In one fell swoop, the Government acquired all of those shares, and it also took over Sunshine itself.
The BTL Employees Trust, an Ashcroft entity, has been arguing since then, that the Government takeover was unlawful, and that they should be compensated. That was done, and full payment of the entire half a billion dollar debt was finally completed in November of last year.
A big problem with that is that the in order to have purchased those shares in BTL in the first place, Sunshine, when it was an Ashcroft Company, made a loan from the Musa Administration, and the Social Security Board. That loan totals approximately 20 million dollars, and it is still owed. So, when the Government paid the entire compensation to Dean Boyce and the BTL Employees Trust, it left the Government controlled Sunshine in the lurch. It suddenly had no assets, no money, and this huge debt outstanding.
So, that's the context for this 3-day lawsuit. Sunshine and its sole director, Nestor Vasquez, are asking the judge to grant them restitution, which would force the BTL Employees Trust to pay them the entire sum.
Well, the judge listened intently to arguments from both sides, and 2 hours after the 3-day case was finished, he had a oral decision ready for the litigants. He did not need to reserve judgment to completely trash Sunshine's position.
He dismissed their claim and ordered that Sunshine pay costs in the lawsuit, and he also had a few choice comments for the claimant.
Justice Abel said, quote, "It seems to me that Sunshine is not seeking to get justice. It is seeking to get a windfall… This court will not allow its process to be used to permit that… This court cannot find that any of the monies paid... have been wrongly made or directed… There is no merit in Sunshine's claim… The claim is dismissed." End quote.
Outside of court, attorney Eamon Courtenay, who represented Dean Boyce and the BTL Employees Trust, was delighted with the judge's ruling:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Dean Boyce/BTL Employees Trust
"I had started from yesterday saying that this was a bizarre claim, and it was Sunshine, which is owned by the Government, suing the Trust, and suing the Government, seeking to get compensation that had been paid by the Government to the Trust. So, it was a rather circular situation, the Government's company suing the Government and the Trust to get compensation from it. The judge refused to do that, accepting our submissions because all the monies that have been paid over was paid over by way of the settlement agreement, which went to the National Assembly, was approved by the National Assembly. There were repeated challenges in the CCJ as to the amounts to be paid to the Trust, and the CCJ approved the payments. So, it was rather bizarre for us for Government to have Sunshine come here, and try to get back some of the money. In fact, they were claiming all the money, and alternatively, about 50 million dollar. The judge found that it was what he described as a colourable device, which in my words, not the judge's words - in my words - borders on fraud. You cannot pay money to somebody under an agreement, approved by the court, and then, a few months later, get somebody to come on your behalf to get back that very same money. I said it before, and I say it again, it is a bizarre situation. I say again to Belizeans, hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers money are being paid to attorneys by the Government of this country to bring spurious claims. It is the people who are paying for all of this, and it is sad, and it ought to stop."
But, as we told you, Sunshine, which is under Government control, owes 20 million dollars in to SSB, and to the Government. It was hoping to get some of the compensation money to pay that off. The reality is that with this loss in court, the Government, and by extension taxpayers, will now have to foot that bill.
Here's what Courtenay had to say about that:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Dean Boyce/BTL Employees Trust
"We went through all the evidence, and the evidence showed that from way back in 2012, the Government gave its assurance to Social Security Board that the money that was owed by Sunshine to the Social Security Board, the Government would pay it. Up until 2016, after the settlement agreement, Social Security wrote to Government said, 'Pay me as you promised to pay me.' The Government has not made good on that. In the settlement agreement, clause 5.4, it is made very clear that this liability remains with Sunshine, which is Government-owned. It is simple, as far as the Trust is concerned. An honorable agreement was made on the 11th of September 2015 between the Trust, Dunkeld, and the Government. Monies were paid. It was honored, and the Government should stop these spurious attempts to try to undo that which it agreed to do. There must at the end of the day be an end to litigation, and an end to this endless spending of public money."
"So, the Government - the Sunshine Company, won't get any of the 114 million dollars total, and the Government also has that 20 million dollars debt that it has to now absorb. Is that correct?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC
"That is correct, and as the judge pointed out, and we keep pointing out, why is it that Sunshine never made a claim for compensation? When this acquisition took place in 2009, and was repeated in 2011, Sunshine never made a claim for compensation. It never made a claim for compensation because it would Sunshine, owned by the Government, claiming from the Government compensation. As I had said in a different case, it's stupidity on stilts, and the judge rejected it comprehensively. It is a really ridiculous, bizarre, and expensive frolic by the Government. Enough is enough. It is comedy and - I don't know who is ruling the asylum that the Government is in, but we really have reached the bottom."
After the case, the press attempted to get an interview with Rodwell Williams, the attorney for Sunshine, but he did not grant any. We later went to his law firm, but we were told that he was in a meeting.
Is B.T.L. Litigation Over?
So at long last, is it over? The now nearly nine-year saga of Telemedia’s acquisition by government started in August of 2009 and effectively concluded with the settlement in 2015. That settlement was defined and ratified by the C.C.J. in October 2016 and again in November 2017 as to the level of payments to both the Employees’ Trust and Dunkeld Investments. The Sunshine case was spun out of the latter, but with its comprehensive defeat, Courtenay told reporters that the government must quench its thirst for this case.
Eamon Courtenay, Attorney for B.T.L. Employees’ Trust
“Why is it that Sunshine never made a claim for compensation? When this acquisition took place in 2009 and was repeated in 2011, Sunshine never made a claim for compensation. It never made a claim for compensation, because it would be Sunshine owned by the Government claiming from the Government compensation. As I said in a different case, it is stupidity on stilts, and the judge rejected it comprehensively. It is a really ridiculous, bizarre and expensive frolic by the Government. Enough is enough, man. It is comedy – and I don’t know who rules the asylum that the Government is in, but we really have reached the bottom. It’s really disgraceful: you all were in there and heard the words that the judge used in describing the claim – absolutely without merit. Enough is enough, man.”