400 thousand dollars - that's how much former land minster Gaspar Vega's son Andre was compensated by government for land he bought - and now the Supreme Court says he's gotta pay it back!
It's the dramatic culmination of a major trial that's been in the court for weeks.
Last month, we told you about the civil case that the Government brought against Vega. They're seeking to get back 400 thousand dollars that the Government paid him in compensation for private land that GOB purportedly sold to him when Gaspar Vega was in charge of the Lands Ministry. The Attorney General is asserting that Andre Vega benefitted from unjust enrichment, contrary to public policy.
The dispute centers around a 1 acre parcel of land near the Haulover Bridge, between the Caribbean Sea and the Philip Goldson Highway. This is a private piece of prime real estate, which the Government ought not to have touched. In January 2013, however, the Ministry of Natural Resources, under Gaspar Vega, approved the purchase of the land, at a greatly discounted price of $2,500.
Accused murderer Hilmar Alamilla became a new paper owner to this already private land, and several months later, he sold his paper ownership to Andre Vega for $15,000. Land Department's personnel specifically warned their bosses that this was private land, not available for the Government to sell.
But because they did so anyway, the Lands Ministry's compensation policy was triggered, and by negotiation, the Lands Ministry agreed to pay Andre Vega, through his girlfriend, Dominque Gomez, $400,000.
So, Andre Vega was able to turn his investment of $15,000 into almost half a million dollars, at the expense of Belizean taxpayers. Shortly after the scandal broke, Gaspar Vega resigned as a UDP Minister of Government.
The Barrow Administration pledged to do its best to get back that compensation from Andre Vega, and last month, the Attorney General's Ministry began a lawsuit against him to do just that.
The main case that Assistant Solicitor General Samantha Matute-Tucker has made against Andre Vega in this claim is that he acted in bad faith and that he failed to conduct a proper background check on this land, to find out whether or not it was government-owned available for sale. Matute-Tucker was initially attempting to convince the court that Hilmar Alamilla, Gaspar Vega, and Andre Vega acted in collusion to deprive the Government of public funds.
In Vega's defense, attorney Estevan Perrera, is insisting that the duplication of paper ownership which passed from Hilmar Alamilla to Vega, is an error that the Government made. He argued that the compensation agreement of $400,000 is a release agreement between the two parties in which Vega waived his right to sue the Government, in exchange for compensation.
The two sides went before Justice Courtney Abel today to argue their case in an attempt to convince the judge to see the lawsuit from their perspective.
At the end of the submissions, Justice Courtney Abel delivered a 1-hour oral decision on the case.
After outlining his reasoned analysis of the entire case, Justice Abel said, quote, "This court has come to the conclusion that Andre Vega has been unduly enriched by receiving the $400,000 from the Government, and that this enrichment was gained at the Government's expense."
He went on to describe the compensation agreement as a nullity which cannot be enforced. With that, the judge ruled that Vega must return the entire sum back to the Government of Belize.
It's a big win for the Government, and less than an hour ago, before the start of news, we got a chance to speak with Vega's attorney. He told us that there are already considerations that Vega may appeal it. Here's how that conversation went:
"The judge has made a ruling against your client ordering that he returns the money and that your client was unjustly enriched at the expense of the government and people of Belize. What are your comments to that outcome?"
Estevan Perera, Attorney for Andre Vega
"The decision was just made by the judge. The judge hasn't provided us with the written judgment so we can't really comment on all of the findings of the judge or the reasons why he ultimately made that decision at this point in time."
"What is your client's position at this time? Can he return his money?"
"I haven't spoken to the client with respect to the return of funds at this point in time. Again, we are waiting for the decision to come out in writing and then we will be going through the judgment, and the contents of the judgment and reasons and we will decide whether or not we will appeal. We do believe that there are many grounds to appeal. And we do believe first instance that we will appeal."
"But its definitely not the outcome that you or your client was looking for."
"I am a bit concerned about the ultimate decision by the court and the reasons for my concern why as I indicated to you previously on the last occasion it is because I do believe that as an investor or a buyer or any Belizean in Belize once the government prints out and issues a Minister's Fiat grant there has to be some confidence by investors and buyers and the Belizean public that those ministers fiats grants that are issued are valid. And if it is that these errors can persist or continue or occur without any repercussions for the government compensation someone who receives these ministers fiat grants in error it is a sad state of affairs for that persons. I think it is important for these types of cases to be brought forward so that the government can take more responsibility in ensuring the ministers fiat grants that are issued are valid because the general public needs to be able to rely on these because that is what we consider good root of title once we see a ministers' fiat grant, that's a good root of title."
"But sir in this particular case your client received financial benefit from the ministry that his father was responsible for and that is what specifically made this particular transaction put under such scrutiny and microscope."
"Well the judge did indicate that he looked at the case closer because of that issue. Again that wasn't something that was raised or we believe that that wasn't an issue brought before the court. There was evidence or there was no one who brought any concern to the court in their pleadings in respect to the fact that perhaps that the minister himself had any role in this particular title. There is no allegation"
"But it is a minister's fiat grant which he has to sign."
"It is a title, yes. This case concerns any issue as to actions by the actual minister or any allegations against the minister. That is not what is before the court and I can only speak to what is before the court."
"Isn't it educated and reason guess that's if it's a minister fiat grant and the minister has to sign on it and the minister at the time was Gaspar Vega, he must have known that he was making an error which involved his son."
"I can't speak to the minister's thought at that time, you'd have to speak with him directly to get any answers as to that, but all I can say is that I'm sure that there are thousands of titles that the ministers they sign. Again, I can't speak to the particular title or any intentions by the minister. I think you need to speak to him directly about that."
"Sir, you yourself as an attorney deal with many documents every day. If a document lands on your desk in front of you and it involved one of your children, you must be able to - that document will have caught your attention. Do you disagree or not?"
"I agree that that could be the case, but again, everyone is different and you need to speak to him about that. I cannot say or speak to that."
"At the end of the day what is the take away? Is Mr. Vega going to return the $400,000 that was paid to him by the Ministry of Natural Resources?"
"As you have noticed that was the order of the court. I would have to speak to him as to what steps next we are going to be taking especially since I do believe that Mr. Vega will be appealing this matter. We will be applying for a stay of execution until the court of appeal can make a decision. However, we cannot do so until we get the written decision from the judge and the final order."
Of important note is that Hilmar Alamilla managed to get this case struck out against him many months ago. We understand that Sharon Pitts, who was also compensated with $400,000 for this very same property, has entered mediation with the government to resolve the case that they brought against her.