Ashcroft Alliance Will Press For GOB to Pay Up
Last night, we told you about yesterday's big ruling from the Caribbean Court of Justice against the Barrow Administration.
The highest court in the land has found that the Barrow Government violated the rule of law when it forcibly took control of the IMMARBE and the International Business Companies IBC Registries. The court has ordered that the case go back to the Supreme Court for an assessment of damages, which the Government has to pay to the Ashcroft company, Belize International Services Limited. Preliminary estimates indicate that Belize could be staring down another judgment debt in the vicinity of 50 million dollars
As we told you, in 2013, the Barrow Government nationalized these registries on the premise that the previous PUP administration entered into an illegal contract to extend Alliance's statutory management of these 2 registries.
3 courts have adjudicated this matter, and even though the Barrow Government won this fight over the registries at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the final court has found that an injustice was committed against BISL.
But, you'll remember how the Prime Minister said last week that even if the CCJ was to rule in favor of the Ashcroft Alliance, Belize, quote, "won't pay, can't pay."
Well, at the end of yesterday's hearing with the CCJ, Eamon Courtenay, attorney for BISL, drew the judges' attention to the PM's publicly-declared position. He told us that the PM has already shown a pattern of disregard for court judgments against his government. Here are those comments:
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for BISL
"I wanted the court to be aware that the Prime Minister of Belize has utter and complete disrespect and contempt for the Caribbean Court of Justice. Before the court even gave its decision, he told the Belizean public two things, that he won't, and he can't pay. One is when you say I won't pay, that's like a "Rude Boy". Now, something is radically wrong in a democracy, that is governed by the rule of law when the Prime Minister of the country and the Minister of Finance can go to court, and when he won in the Supreme Court, he accepted that verdict. When he won in the Court of Appeal, he accepted that verdict. But when he loses, he says he will not pay. That type of behavior is what the court severely criticized. And what I asked the court to do was to ensure that we do not allow him to undermine the effectiveness of this judgment. What do I mean by that? Well, this government has a consistent pattern of CCJ ruling, Cruise Solutions, being one, where they said pay back the taxes that Cruise Solutions has paid. Up to this day, we have not gotten a dollar. The other one would be Belize Bank. The UHS debt, do you remember? They had that circus in the National Assembly, where they tendered a bill to authorize the payment, and then they voted against it? Not a dollar has been paid. Interest continues to accrue on both of these things. The people of Belize are paying more because of the circus that Mr. Barrow is performing. And I pointed out to the court, which we will put in evidence later this week, that here it is, even before he gets the judgment, if he loses, he is going to disrespect it. So, I'm asking the court to order that this be done on the evidence already filed so that we don't have a whole new trial, and secondly, that the matter be done in an expeditious manner, as quickly as possible, so that my clients can get the money that is rightly due to them."
But, at this time, the Government and the general public are already suffering financially due to the economic crisis created by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
We asked Courtenay about these very real cashflow problems that the Government must attempt to navigate around to keep the economy from completely crashing:
"In the context of the entire rest of the world, and the pandemic that we're currently going through, this government, and the Belizean people are already going through hardship. It seems unlikely that Belize will be able to pay this debt any time soon. What are your thoughts on that?"
Eamon Courtenay, SC
"Well, I think what is interesting is that the law has always recognized that whether you be a member of the private sector or the public sector, if a judgment is issued against you, and you can't pay, you don't behave like a criminal. You come to court and say I cannot pay, but here are my accounts. Here is my income, here are my liabilities. And, the court goes through it, you're cross-examined, and the court says, okay, I will allow you to pay in installment because the judgment has to be respected. If you can't pay, then your goods are seized and sold. But, come to court. Show respect, and act under the rule of law. I would hope that good sense would prevail."
"I hope that Mr. Barrow will get off the cool-aid that he is drinking, and come in a proper and decent way, and try to resolve this issue because he has lost already. It's only Belizeans that suffer as he continues to fight."
We also asked the Attorney General about the prospect of collecting on this judgment debt against the Government of Belize:
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - Attorney General
"The CCJ did not say pay 10 million dollars. The CCJ said it very clearly. Go back to the Supreme Court to have the Supreme Court assess whatever damages the Government is to pay. How can you pay before the Supreme Court has assessed that damage? I am sure that the Ashcroft people, the Ashcroft Crowd, will no doubt apply to the Supreme Court for the Supreme Court to assess those damages. We certainly will have our representation there, and we will either agree with what they're proposing or not agree with what they are proposing. And I imagine that experts will come in, and give their take on what the assessment should be. That has to be played out to the fullest, and if either party is not satisfied at the Supreme Court level, then you go to the Court of Appeal level. If you're not satisfied at the Court of Appeal, then you go to the CCJ. The Ashcroft people know that all too well. So, how can one say that the Prime Minister is blocking it when there hasn't even been an assessment as to how much is to be paid?"
"The point they make is that even before the Prime Minister knew what the decision would have been today, he was already announcing that Belize can't pay, wouldn't pay."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"Well, I think that it is clear by the constitution, that no matter what, Dean Barrow won't be Prime Minister beyond November 2020. I highly doubt that the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and the CCJ would decide on an assessment of damages before November 1st, 2020. It's just a wild guess. So, that's the position of the Prime Minister, that he won't pay as long as he is Prime Minister. But, I think that's a moot point because I don't think there would be a final adjudication as to how much you will pay until long after Dean Barrow is not Prime Minister."
AG Says CCJ Judgement Was Emotional
We also asked the Attorney General for his take on the potential political consequences of this major loss at the CCJ by the Barrow Administration.
The next general election is due in a few months, and the judgement can politically haemorrhage the UDP. And with the the CCJ calling the registries nationalization an "abuse of state power", there is much political mileage to be made.
When we asked the AG about that, he said that this judgment is a double-edged blade, or a sort of "pania machete", that can hurt both political parties. Here's that part of the conversation, where we challenged him on the CCJ's rebuke of the nationalization:
"The decision to nationalize was "unilateral, high-handed, contextually arbitrary, inconsistent with the good standards of governance, a breach of the duty of good faith, contractually unreasonable, fundamentally unfair, an abuse of â€¦power" - many different, other negative interpretations of the nationalization."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte - Attorney General
"Well, Like I said, very emotional judgment, and we won't stoop to that level. Clearly, the court of the first instance did not feel that way. The Court of Appeal did not feel that way, and the CCJ, they have a right to feel that way. We don't agree, but they are the CCJ. And let - if the PUP tries to use this, I'm sure the public will remind them, that this judgment also says that that arrangement with Michael Ashcroft, which they entered into in 1993, and extended from 2005 to 2020, was an illegal contract. This very same judgment states very clearly, that this contract is tainted with illegality. So, how can the PUP use that as a weapon, when the foundation of the entire situation stems from the fact that they entered into an illegal contract with Michael Ashcroft?"
"But the fact of the matter remains, sir. Perception is important, and they can spin this to say well, see, the high court says that they abused their authority, and their executive powers and you were referring to us in the last election cycle as malignant tumors, what do you say for yourself?"
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte
"I will say that's the only victory the PUP will have for the next couple of months."
Senior Counsel Scolds PM
Earlier in the newscast, we showed you our interviews with the attorney Eamon Courtenay and Attorney General Michael Peyrefitte in which they discuss yesterday's big judgment coming out of the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Our conversation with Courtenay allowed us to ask him for his take on the Prime Minister's comments from last Friday's House Meeting. You'll remember how the Prime Minister publicly declared that the PUP's lawsuit against him has no effect because former Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin did not give a written judgment before he went into retirement.
That's the case where the PUP was complaining that the PM misused what are known as "Special warrants" in the Ministry of Finance to authorize the public spending of 1.5 billion dollars, without prior parliamentary approval.
For context, here are the PM's comments, followed by Courtenay's comments as the attorney who led arguments before the Chief Justice against him:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow - Prime Minister
"There is no judgment of the Chief Justice with respect to the case they took before him. He gave some oral decision, which is a non-decision because it has not been reduced to writing. It cannot now be reduced to writing because the Chief Justice is Functus. So, for them to talk about a lesson to be derived."
Eamon Courtenay, SC - Attorney for Claimants
"I think it is sad that Mr. Barrow would stoop that low to mislead the Belizean people and tell them that because the Chief Justice did not sign off on the judgment formally - perfect the judgment, in the language that we use - that it is a, quote, as he said, a 'non-decision'. Daniel, there is a case from the Caribbean Court of Justice, which comes from Belize, called the Queen against Henry 2018, paragraph 23, which says that the minute a judge pronounces an oral judgment, it takes effect, it's binding, and people have rights flowing from that, the complete opposite of what the Prime Minister said this country on Friday. Mr. Barrow knows that the rules of the Supreme Court say that once an order is pronounced, it is binding on the parties. He is trying to distract people away from what the Chief Justice held. The Chief Justice found that he spent 1.5 billion dollars, contrary to the constitution. He found that Mr. Barrow spent 1.5 billion contrary to the Finance and Audit Reform Act, which constitutes a criminal offense. That is what he wants us to forget."