The Commission of Inquiry will commence its proceedings into the sale of government assets on Monday, February 15, 2021, at 9:00 a.m. The first meeting will be held at the House of Culture in Belize City in accordance with and subject to all applicable health regulations.
The Commission has summoned the attendance before it of former Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow; Mr. Joseph Waight, Financial Secretary; and Mr. Ruperto Vicente, head of the Vehicle Care Unit.
In light of the existing regulations, members of the public and the media will not be permitted to attend the proceedings, which will be live-streamed by the Government of Belize Press Office via its Facebook page and YouTube pages.
Re: Government of Belize Commission of Inquiry
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In political news...
9 days ago, we showed you the official swearing-in of the Commission of Inquiry. This is the investigative team that Prime Minister John Briceno has tasked to look into the disposal of government assets by the Barrow Administration between October 2019 to November 2020, their last month in office.
This inquiry was commissioned by the Prime Minister because the Public Service Union sounded the alarm shortly after the General Elections alleging that government assets, including vehicles and other equipment, were allegedly being sold off for a fraction of their value.
The Commission of Inquiry has scheduled its first meeting for next Monday, February 15th. And who is their first witness? Well, no other than the previous Minister of Finance, basically the only man who can authorise the sale fo a government asset, former Prime Minister Dean Barrow.
On that same day, the Commissioners also want to hear from Joseph Waight, the Financial Secretary; and Ruperto Vicente, the head of the Vehicle Care Unit.
This afternoon, the press had an opportunity to speak to Senator Michael Peyrefitte, the UDP Chairman, and former Attorney General who served in Prime Minister Barrow's Cabinet. Here's what Peyrefitte had to say about the Commission's summons to his former boss:
Michael Peyrefitte, Senator "He has to show up, Commission of Inquiry has summoned you to appear, he will appear and I am sure that they will probably be sorry they asked him to appear. I think you know that the RT Hon Dean Barrow is more than capable of handling himself so we look forward to that dog and pony show because I can't understand why a Commission of Inquiry would want to summon a former prime minister to explain something that you can easily get the record for from the financial secretary. If you want to find out what happened in ministry, the minister is not the person that you summon or ask, there is a management team that's comprised of the minister, the CEO who is the appointed officer, the finance officer and the administrative officer. If you want to find out what happened in the Ministry of Finance the person you summon is the financial secretary, he has all the record. But what the PUP wants to do is to create a distraction, they're all about creating distractions at this point because they want to change the conversation, they want us to not talk about the people they're firing, they want us to not talk about more people they're going to fire, salaries are going to be cut for government officers, they cannot figure out a way to grow the economy, they cannot pro ide for free education and none of the things they said they were going to do they can't do, they cannot do a simple thing as to raise the minimum wage to $5 an hour, none of that they can't do, so what do they do? They have to create a distraction, they have to create red herrings for us to forget about the fact that they are already doing a terrible job at governing this nation."
Today, we asked former Prime Minister Barrow for a comment on his summons before the Commission and via WhatsApp, he told us, quote, "I absolutely will attend. Indeed, I will be happy to do so. I don't know where all this talk about wholesale, fire-sale disposition of assets came from. If things happened without my knowledge and approval, I too would like to find out. To repeat, I absolutely look forward to Monday." End quote.
The first meeting will take place at the House of Culture, and because the public or the press cannot attend, the session will be live-streamed by the Government Press Office via its Facebook and YouTube pages. 7News will be following it closely, and we'll share the highlights with you on our Monday newscast.
PM Briceño Says Former PM Dean Barrow Has a Lot to Answer For
According to Prime Minister John Briceño, his predecessor has a lot to answer to. The former Prime Minister Dean Barrow was the Minister of Finance, and he, according to Briceño, approved the sale of the assets. Briceño says if Barrow has nothing to hide, then he will make an appearance on Monday.
“Political drama, that is what Michael Peyrefitte said this morning that the P.U.P. government is trying to achieve Monday by summoning the former Prime Minister. What would you hope would come out of that interrogation?”
Prime Minister John Briceño
“Well I don’t think it is a matter of political drama. He was the Minister of Finance. In many instances he was the one who had to approve the selloff of these assets pretty much at give away prices. He is the one who approved it. Obvioolsu he has to go. I hope he will show up. What is he afraid for if they didn’t do anything wrong then he should show up. As they say, “el que debe teme.”
Briceño did not mince any words in responding to Senator Peyrefitte’s comments. He called Peyrefitte a “fool” for not realizing the reality in the country.
“The chairman of the U.D.P. this morning, Michael Peyrefitte, said that your administration inherited a healthy economy and that you were warned about what you are supposed to deal with.”
Prime Minister John Briceño
“I don’t usually like to call names to people, but he is a fool to say something like that. Everybody can tell you that we are suffering, that we are going through a difficult time. His former prime minister pointed out in a lengthy interview on one of his press conferences saying that he weeps for the government to come. So how can the chairman of the U.D.P. say something so stupid, so ludicrous that we have a healthy economy? Doesn’t he walks, well I don’t think he can walk the street. If he would only look around and see how people are living he would understand that there is a financial crisis, there is an economic crisis, that people are suffering. Even the representative of Albert on the House on Friday said that she was visiting the people of her constituency and saying that things are really, really bad. So what planet is this man living in? What, he wants so much attention that he will say things like that because he is really making a fool of himself and I really don’t like talking about people like that. But how dare him say something like that. How dare him?”
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."
Luis Martinez "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."
Luis Martinez "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."
Luis Martinez "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."
Luis Martinez "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."
Reporter "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."
Reporter "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."
Former DPM Dragged Before COI, Many Land Deals Revealed
The Commission of Inquiry into the sale of government assets continued today with its second public hearing. And this one was full of revelations - because it brought to the fore all the players who participated in the sale of a single Toyota Tacoma - formerly Deputy PM's Hugo Patt's Ministerial ride.
The former Prime Minister Dean Barrow agreed to sell him the government vehicle, but the sale ended up involving six different hands, and never got back to Patt.
So, today the public heard testimony from four of those six hands: Patt himself, as the man who bought it, Juvencio Herrera, the man who financed it, Kelvin Li, and the man who ended up re-selling it, Said Perdomo. Here's how it went:
Juvencio Herrera - who asked for time to consult with his lawyer - will appear on March 10th.
OF curse all that was only this morning's session - it continued this afternoon - and we'll have that for you later on in the news.
UDP And The Trail of Corruption
But, just the morning session alone was bad news for the UDP - because its Deputy Leader was on the stand - denying any knowledge of a man he signed very many land documents for within a short span of time.
Not a good look, particularly going into an election next week - and at a press conference this afternoon, we asked the party brass about the perception of corruption trailing the red party.
Jules Vasquez, reporter "Sir, this points to corruption within the ministry of natural resources. This he eventually finance the purchase as contracted by your deputy leader in concert with the prime minister, an agreement with the prime minister. Isn't that reason for great concern on your behalf of: a) the integrity of the deputy leader of your party?"
Hon. Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition "You've said a mouthful in your question that it is perception and that is..."
Jules Vasquez, reporter "In politics perception is reality."
Hon. Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition "That is true. You have agreed that this is not anything that is proven. Like you, I heard some of these things for the very first time this morning and in fact many of the issues were inconclusive."
Jules Vasquez, reporter "When you heard it were you surprise at the quantum of transactions of the parcels that..."
Hon. Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition "Well anything that you hear, but if it's not the case and there is some kind of explanation or some kind of disputing what has really been presented, then you cannot be alarmed by it and that is clearly what my position has to be this afternoon. If it is what they say then yes we would have to be alarmed, but we don't know that that is necessarily the case and we will do our own internal investigation in the party to see if that was in deed the case. But we must not lose focus as to what the intent of that commission is. They intended to try to prove that there was some fire sale of government assets and to date there have only been 3 serviceable vehicles which doesn't quite constitute a fire sale now does it?"
Jules Vasquez, reporter "Yes, indeed there are to investigate the same of assets, but if there are contaminated enterprises where lands are involved and then a third party financing is involved. I'm saying that isn't it indicative of how complex the corruption within your government or the government you were a part had become that in fact an investigation into a single transaction immediately involves just on the face of it, immediately involves at least 4 different parties, 5 if you include Mr. Patt. Mr. Patt, Mr. Herrera, Mr. Emil Torres, Mr. Belize Marine and Services and the financier Mr. Kelvin Lee. Isn't that indicative sir that...?"
Hon. Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition "You jumped to a lot of conclusions. Firstly, you want us to believe that in all that happened there that there was some concrete evidence presented to show that those land transactions were used to pay for the vehicle, whether it is for Mr. Patt or Mr. Herrera of whoever and there was no such connection made."
Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, UDP Chairman "It seems that this morning the commission of inquiry was all about land. I think they mentioned Tacoma about 2 times. Clearly they could not find what they were looking for and they are hoping that they could create enough mess that some of the impression would be given that there was some corrupt activities going on. They have shown none of that."
Jules Vasquez, reporter "The appearance was made today that you are somehow in concert with Mr. Lee and that the coincidence that he finance the purchase of the Tacoma whose price you negotiated and then second, he becomes the owner of dozens of parcels of land, all of which signed by you transfers and sales and at least 20 of those parcels were transacted either privately or publicly within the month leading up to elections. The perception then becomes that you are in cahoots or some type of enterprise with Mr. Lee. Your comments, sir?"
Hon. Hugo Patt, Corozal North Area Rep. "I would rather wait until the commission has made its conclusions and then I can comment on that."
And while Patt didn't want to talk just yet - for the PUP, the political timing is exquisite. The UDP party leader conceded that today, but said it is a distraction:
Jules Vasquez, reporter "Is the timing in auspicious in so far as we are days away from an election and while in deed some of the public sentiment against the ruling party may have soured when the public perceptually see something like this, it says same old UDP, rotten to the core."
Hon. Patrick Faber, Leader of the Opposition "I agree with you. The government as we have all gone on the record to say already is looking for a red herring. So much is going wrong in terms of their first 100 days. They have not been able to live up to these things. They are trying to say alright don't focus on what we have not done and our failures in such a short period of time, hey look at this; the government had a fire sale of 3 vehicles. That's what they are doing."
Auditor General Appears Before COI
At the top of the news, we gave you a detailed analysis about what happened and possibly shouldn't have happened with the UDP government's disposal of the 2020 Toyota Tacoma pick-up that was assigned to former Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt. That was the focus of this morning's session of the Commission of Inquiry.
But in, the afternoon, the Commissioners were interested to find out from the public service professionals about what the proper procedure should be when government assets, such as that Tacoma, are to be disposed of.
One of their first technical witnesses for the afternoon was Auditor General Dorothy Bradley. She told the panel that she and her team have just concluded an audit on the purchase of Government vehicles. And so, they wanted to know if she had encountered any sort of provisions under the law that the Ministry of Finance needs to follow for the sale of these vehicles. Here's the conversation she had with the Chairman about a Cabinet circular she found on this particular issue:
One of the most interesting reveals from the Auditor General's testimony was that although the Ministry of Finance was reporting that documents about the sale of government vehicles were being sent to her office, she has none on file. Here's that part of the inquiry:
Customs Before COI
Taking the stand after the Auditor General was Francis Alfaro, a Customs Examiner at the Customs and Excise Department.
The Commissioners questioned him about the procedures that should take place when assessing the import duties that the Government should be paid when assets were being disposed of. He gave them a walk-through of that procedure, and then, Chairman asked him about a tax assessment that was attached as part of the sale of former Deputy PM Patt's Toyota Tacoma. When Alfaro was asked about this assessment, he made it clear, that it wasn't produced by the Customs and Excise Department. Here's that conversation:
As viewers may be aware, Ruperto Vicente, the Manager of the Vehicle Care Unit, has admitted to the Commissioners that he prepared this assessment because Customs would not.
Chairman Speaks About Day's Hearings
Shortly after the afternoon session closed, Chairman Marshalleck, hosted a virtual press conference to answer a few questions from the media. We asked him to discuss today's reveals from the witnesses about the 2020 Toyota Tacoma that was assigned to former Deputy PM Patt:
Yesterday morning, after a 3-month pause, the Commission of Inquiry into the sale of government assets continued with the summoning of 4 witnesses.
The panel wanted to find out about the disposal of 5 government vehicles, and whether or not the purchasers paid a fair price to the public purse for those assets. But, the most controversial back and forth from yesterday's inquiry happened during the testimony of Alpheus Gillett. He's the current chairman of Biscayne Village and the former Rural Coordinator for NEMO.
Records in the hands of the commissioners say that he bought 2 vehicles: a 2010 Great Wall Wingle truck, which he paid $1,000 for, and a 2017 Great Wall Wingle, which government records suggest that he paid $500 dollars for.
During his testimony, Gillett told the commissioners that he only knows about the 2010 truck. As to the 2017 vehicle, he insisted that he never paid for it, and neither did he collect it from the Government's Vehicle Care Unit.
We start first with the conversation about the 2010 vehicle. Here's what he had to say on that:
Thereafter, the Commissioners pressed him to explain the 2017 vehicle, for which he paid $500. During that back and forth, Gillett insisted to the panel that he doesn't know anything about that: