Supreme Court Declares G.O.B.’s $1.5 Billion Expenditure Unconstitutional

The much anticipated ruling in respect of the Petrocaribe case brought by the Opposition was delivered this morning by Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin in the Supreme Court. The ruling found that over one billion dollars were spent illegally and that the Prime Minister had violated the constitution. In the unprecedented ruling, the CJ found that the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance was in breach of the Finance and Audit Reform of Act when he did not get the required parliamentary approval for the over a billion dollars in expenditure. The CJ also ordered a constitutional amendment to correct the matter. For this to happen, the PM will need support from the Opposition because he needs a Yes from twenty-two house members. Here is Isani Cayetano with a report.

The Supreme Court, in a case brought before Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin, has ruled in favour of Opposition Leader John Briceño, declaring one point five billion dollars in government expenditure as unconstitutional. The decision follows a claim that was filed on March 6th, 2019, against Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow, challenging the legality of government’s spending of Petrocaribe funds, among other expenses.

John Briceño, Leader of the Opposition
“We are very happy with the judgment and I think it is time that the prime minister understands that the people’s money is not his money and that he needs to be able to, as the Minister of Finance, give account for every single cent of the Belizean taxpayers’ [dollars] that he spends.”

The Finance and Audit Reform Act, Revised Edition 2011, expressly states that all revenues or other monies raised or received by Belize, not being revenues or other monies payable under the Belize Constitution or under any other law into some specific public fund established for that purpose, shall be paid into and form one Consolidated Revenue Fund. It stands to reason then, that the Petrocaribe funds from Venezuela ought to have been deposited into the Consolidated Revenue Fund, but that was not the case. Likewise, government did not go before the National Assembly to seek approval prior to spending these monies. Senior Counsel Eamon Courtenay explains the court’s decision.

Eamon Courtenay, Attorney, People’s United Party
“What the Chief Justice found was that in relation to the first declaration which was to establish that for 2012/2013 the approximately one hundred million that was spent, that the auditor general had identified which has never been approved by the National Assembly is unconstitutional, so that the Minister of Finance who is the prime minister and the financial secretary have spent a hundred million dollars without any parliamentary approval and the court has now pronounced in favour of the party leader and the Honorable Julius Espat that that is unconstitutional. Secondly, in relation to the Petrocaribe, well you know that there were twenty-one supplementary bills that were brought to cover expenditure of one point four billion that had been spent without parliamentary approval. The Chief Justice has found that all of those bills are unconstitutional and void for failing to comply with the constitution. So we have approximately one point five billion dollars that was spent unconstitutionally.”

Financial Secretary Joseph Waight, who is a defendant in the claim brought against government, views today’s decision as a fifty-fifty outcome, despite the fact that the Chief Justice has ruled that over a billion dollars from the public purse was spent contrary to the constitution.

Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary
“My understanding is that the judge, the Chief Justice, decided that certain elements he granted the claim, in particular the first one which was that supplementaries were null and void. But then, on the other hand, he gave the government time to fix it in the other parts of the claim. What we need to do is go back and first of all get the written judgment, better understand it and see what the implications are.”

Aside from voiding the ten figure expenditure, CJ Benjamin also granted an injunction but postponed its consequence until after a six-month period during which government is expected to amend the constitution in order to address the issue retroactively.

Eamon Courtenay
“We also asked for an injunction to restrain the Minister of Finance from continuing this unconstitutional and illegal practice. The Chief Justice has granted that injunction to restrain him, but has suspended the effect of that injunction for six months to give the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance an opportunity to amend the constitution to correct all of this so that they would have to propose an amendment to the constitution to retroactively approve all of this one point five billion which has been spent by the government unconstitutionally.”

Despite the six-month deadline that has been put in place, Opposition Leader John Briceño says that he wouldn’t be shocked if government drags its foot in amending the law.

John Briceño
“I would not be surprised if the six months would be up and then the prime minister does not make an attempt to amend the constitution. So we will wait, we are going to see, but we will keep the prime minister’s feet to the fire.”

Reporter
“If he is to amend the constitution, would he not invariably need your support?”

John Briceño
“Absolutely, but that is why I am saying, I need to sit down with our parliamentarians to discuss it. But just as important, we have to see what the amendment is going to be before we can say yes. On principle, if it is just to be able to fix what he has done illegally then probably it is something that we would seriously consider but we have to see what exactly he wants to amend and ensure that it is only that and nothing else.”

Court ruling notwithstanding, is there a political will, however, for the Barrow administration to amend the constitution, given the fact that it is an election year and the timetable for other political activities may instead take priority?

Joseph Waight
“Well that is what the court has determined. I am sure that the Minister of Finance and the Ministry of Finance will comply with the decision of the court.”

B.C.C.I. Issues Release on Petrocaribe Ruling

The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry has issued a statement on the unprecedented ruling on Friday, in which Chief Justice Kenneth struck down the Petrocaribe Loans Act and declared the government spending of approximately one point billion dollars as unconstitutional. The B.C.C.I. recalls that in 2005, social partners supported the amendment of the Finance and Audit Reform Act as a necessary step to ensure increased accountability and transparency in public spending.

Consequently, it says, when the Government first offended the FARA and sought to retroactively repair its breach via the Loans Act, there was widespread objection from the public, as well as from the B.C.C.I. and non-government Senators. The B.C.C.I. says it holds the same position as it did in 2015, when it was alarmed that the government retroactively validated what were clear violations of the FARA. So now, it welcomes the confirmation provided by the Judiciary. According to B.C.C.I., “Government’s cavalier treatment of the foundational principles of Rule of Law is completely unacceptable as this encourages both individual and institutional corruption. This also further diminishes any credibility that the Government is committed to the implementation of the framework of the UN Convention against Corruption.”

The B.C.C.I. also urges government, not only to address this specific instance in which it has violated the Constitution, but also past and current instances of individual and institutional corruption, and to do so with the urgency required.

Channel 5