Former PM Dean Barrow Appears before Commission of Inquiry
And, changing gears now from local to national politics, former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow today appeared before the Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the sale of government assets between October 2019 and November 2020 - basically in the year preceding the election.
In that time government sold 112 vehicles for about 300 thousand dollars - and Prime Minister Barrow would have had to sign off on most of them. But, he did this after the paperwork came up from the vehicle care unit and through the financial secretary.
Today as the very first witness. in the the first day of hearings at the Government House Compound in Belize City, Barrow volunteered his involvement in the sale of three vehicles to outgoing senior government officials - but said that he also put up a firewall to prevent a mass sale of assets, mainly vehicles:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow- Former Minister of Finance
"Whenever though, an election, a general election was imminent there would be a number of requests coming from Ministers who did not feel for one reason or another or were not sure that they would be returning, so there would be, not a stampede but certainly an accelerated pace of requests from outgoing ministers to be allowed to purchase their vehicles. Because we were aware that it was more likely than not that people would be making these requests, the financial secretary and I discussed this and we thought we'd better launch a preemptive strike. Because we were talking about especially unusual circumstances, especially critical circumstances where the finances and pretty much everything else of the country had been ravaged by Covid, the Financial Secretary therefore wrote a letter with my endorsement and blessing to the Cabinet secretary to say: let Ministers, Chief Executive Officers all know whoever comes next there will be no money for replacement vehicles so we will sell to outgoing Ministers and Chief Executive Officers no vehicles."
But despite that pre-emptive strike, former PM Barrow outlined the exceptions that he was directly involved in. One was for retiring President of the Court of Appeal Manuel Sosa, the other was for outgoing UDP Minister Dr. Carla Barnett and the other for Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt. He started with Justice of Appeal Sosa - who asked to buy his Government - supplied Toyota Land Cruiser after 12 years of use:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow- Former Prime Minister
"The government vehicle that had been assigned to him he had been driving for 12 years. He asked Mr. Chairman and Commissioners whether he would be allowed to purchase that vehicle. But he made the request of the Financial Secretary who did come to me. I will say and stand foursquare behind this, I had absolutely no difficulty in telling Mr. Waight that as far as I was concerned that was a request we needed to honor. Mr. Justice Sosa, during his entire tenure on the court of appeal refused to have any policeman assigned to him as security and refused the offer of a driver to be paid for by the government. Those two things over that 21 year period saved the government a great deal of money. In my view it would be churnish, mean spirited in the extreme not to have acceded to the request of Mr. Justice Sosa. Dr. Carla Barnett, who as you know a Senator, and who was not coming back into government no matter what, regardless of the results of the election, which results people like you knew to be a foregone conclusion. But it didn't matter. Whichever way it went Carla Barnett was not coming back. She spoke to Joe and then spoke to me and said listen I have been a consultant, well she has served as you know all over the place. Vice president of CDB, Assistant Deputy Secretary General at CARICOM. She said: look I am going back out and I'll be on, in effect- my words not hers- the mercy of the world. I won't have the money to buy another vehicle in a better condition than the one I am currently driving, I would wish for you to make an exception to the policy that you have laid down and allow me to purchase my vehicle. Again, I thought her circumstances were exceptional and that she should be allowed to purchase the vehicle. Mr. Waight, the Financial Secretary, Joe Waight, had Customs do a valuation and came to me and said: I think this valuation is too low and Joe recommended that we sell to Dr. Barnett for more than the Customs valuation. The only other exception in the run up to the general election came by way of a request from the then Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Hugo Patt. Again, the Deputy Prime Minister went directly to the Financial Secretary who came to me. I spoke to the DPM and said but you know the policy. I thought that also as a special favor I would agree and I so indicated to Joe Waight. What happened thereafter though, was that the usual requirement, from me that there be a Customs valuation so that we could document that we were not selling for any under value did not happen. And I don't know whether it was because that didn't happen or whether there was some other reason, whether it just fell through the cracks but that one did not come to me for my formal approval."
And from the sale of vehicles to the sale of customised furniture and a laptop plus iPad to the former Attorney General Michael Peyrefitteâ€¦the former Prime Minister said he learned about this matter after the sale was completed - and got a sharp response from the PSU rep. Luke Martinez:
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow- Former Prime Minister
"He either wrote to or called Joe Waight about the purchase of furniture that for the most part, he tells me, was forniture specially treated. I will need to be delicate. Furniture consisting of a couch and some chairs that had to be acquired with certain dimensions and size specifications in mind and in addition had to be reinforced because of senator Peyrefitte's size and weight. His finance officer said to him: why don't you apply to buy these things off of them? Nobody else can use it. They were specially adjusted for you. And so, in that context he spoke to the Financial Secretary but a letter did come from the vehicle care unit saying that these pieces of furniture he was advising needed to be disposed of. Now, I know that included in what was sold to Senator Peyrefitte was a laptop."
"And an ipad I believe."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow- Former Prime Minister
"And an ipad. Now I don't think the same argument can be made as is made with respect to the furniture. The FF will tell you that a number of Chief Executive Officers applied to be able to purchase their laptops. But he said that in his view, people had their own, a la Hillary Clinton, their personal emails and stuff on these devices unrelated to work and he just thought that these were fairly small items. I will tell you that except for the Peyrefitte lot, the furniture and the two devices, I was never approached to approve the sale of laptops to Chief Executive Officers or to any other Minister."
"To sell off the national assets for, I don't have the figures, but you could imagine for remittance, is not acceptable. And so, we would want to hear why it was impossible to get some of these procedures in black and white, in regulations. So, our concern is why didn't we follow the regulations. The procedures were not followed through all the way. Let's say the practice, because the procedures are difficult to find."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow
"Well if there are no procedures then you can say that successive governments ought to have done more to put procedures in place. But I must take issue with the way you frame your remarks, sir. You are suggesting that people who were retiring were gifted these vehicles. Nobody was gifted anything, sir. They were allowed to purchase at the proper value."
"So now you allow one to carry home serviceable furniture, I imagine these furniture are not cheap, for we don't know what's the amount, we will get that figure from the FinSec, the ipads and the laptops, man Coronavirus has closed schools down and so why couldn't we then gift those equipments to the schools? Meanwhile we wait for the promised equipment that was supposed to come for the schools, so you can't give away the things."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow
"Mr. Martinez, I have told you sir. That I had nothing to do with the sale of the laptops, except in the one instance of Peyrefitte where it was bundled up together with the furniture. So listen, so you reserve, respectfully, you reserve those questions and those comments for the Financial Secretary. But in terms of furniture that had been specially adjusted for him, given his dimensions, again sir, I have to repeat my term, it is churlish to say that there is something wrong or something malodorous about allowing the man to purchase, what I was told for the most part was furniture that basically was purpose built for him."
"Okay, that isn't justifiable."
Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow
"Well then that's your view sir and when you come to write your report you can say that. As far as I am concerned it was entirely justifiable."
"It is not justifiable for the public officers."
Vehicle Unit Manager Serially Mis-Represented Write-Off’s
And after the former Prime Minister testified for one hour and 15 minutes, he was followed by the Financial Secretary Joe Waight who testified for one hour and ten minutes.
With that the morning session was done giving way to the day's final witness, the manager of the vehicle care unit, Ruperto Vicente. He's the one on the ground who fed the information up to the Fin. Sec. and the PM - and it turned out that many of his declarations and findings to them in writing were just plain wrong, or untrue.
That's because he classified vehicles, and furniture as unserviceable when they were, in fact, very serviceable. Here's how he 'fessed up to it:
Faber Says Commission Has Come Up With Nothing
Vicente testified for less than 40 minutes, and with that - the three man Commission has gotten the bulk of its initial evidence. It will review the testimony and a big box of documents from the Financial Secretary and re-convene publicly on February 26th.
This afternoon the leader of the opposition gave his review of the first day and basically said "where's the beef?":
Hon. Patrick Faber - Leader of the Opposition
"From what we saw this morning there was in fact no fire sale of government assets which brings to mind and we have to question what is the agenda of this administration? How much are they paying for this circus that has begun this morning? It is clear that there is nothing in terms of government assets firesold if you are using the term that you brought to me. It is clear that that is not the case."
"Sir, the UDP chairman was giving the privilege to purchase, I believe the word used is reinforced furniture and laptops. Can you comment on this?"
Hon. Patrick Faber
"Well that is what we are hearing but I will tell you that from very early after the elections, the Chairman, Senator Peyrefitte brought to us in the party his documentation exactly that the Financial Secretary's office had approved him purchasing the couches and some reinforced chairs. You know that the chairman is a very strong fellow, big fellow. So, he had some custom made furniture for his office at the time and his Ministry felt that there was no use leaving that behind if he could purchase it. And as to the laptop and the ipad, as I am told you heard the Prime Minister say that he was not aware. Certainly as a senior member of Cabinet at the time I was not aware. But there is nothing wrong with that. When you utilize computers, personal computers or ipads you put your personal information on there sometimes and for those computers to be used again they would have to be wiped clean you'd have to employ a whole lot of tactics to get them ready again for some other use. In fact, I don't think that that is a very wise or common practice in terms of personal laptops. Desktops are a different thing. So, I don't know. I'm not defending any of that but even if that is the case, that is one Minister. The way the PUPs talk you would have thought that they could not find any vehicles for CEOs and Ministers."
Hon. Kareem On The Colossal Couch
And while the UDP Leader says the Commission of Inquiry is a big nothing, Minister of Home Affairs Kareem Musa said he was surprised, about Senator Michael Peyrefitte saying - on one hand - that the PUP inherited a healthy economy while leaving his office by purchasing the furniture from it:
Hon. Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries
"I was not in the least bit surprised by what came out this morning, but at the same time it just goes to show you how heartless the last administration was. We were actually going through the most severe time in our country in terms of our economy, we are going through a pandemic, 132% of GDP and they had time to facilitate special deals for themselves, for their ministers, for their CEOs, for comptrollers - all of these people getting very special sweetheart deals and to me its a very heartless and absurd move on their part and shows how out of touch they were. It clearly shows they knew they were about to lose and election, that is what it says to me and then to see the former attorney general, the former minister of police say that he left behind a healthy economy for us. When he himself is directly contributing to the financial losses of this country by purchasing the equipment of this government. We are talking laptops and reinforced chairs that were made specially for him. He is not the only big person in Belizem so why does he get that deal? Why is he the one that's going to get this special deal. So it's absolutely incredible that they have the nerve to then come on national TV and say they left us in good economic position when we all know that is a lie."
"So charges left, right and center for those who are involved?"
Hon. Kareem Musa
"We will have to see the outcome of the commission of inquiry and the recommendations, but certainly at the very least, they are heartless, they are absurd and I would want to venture to say criminal."