Yesterday's conversation with the Auditor General allowed the press the opportunity to ask about an audit that her office was conducting into the huge and possibly questionable payouts that the Ministry of Natural Resources made to individuals in compensation of supposed "screw-ups" that the Lands Department made.
The hustle was unmasked back in October 2016 when news broke that Andre Vega, son of the former UDP "lands" minister, Gaspar Vega, and Sharon Pitts were both paid $400,000 each by the then Government. That was payment for compensation was made because the Ministry of Natural Resources sold them a prime piece of private land near the Haulover Bridge, just outside the boundary of Belize City.
Documents we saw back in October 2016 indicated that the Ministry should have known at it was private land. But, the Ministry, under Gaspar Vega's then leadership, sold it to a third party close to his political camp, who then sold it to Vega's son, Andre.
That paper ownership then triggered the Ministry's compensation mechanism in which Vega was paid $400,000 as an out-of-court settlement of his supposed claim on the already-private land. It was a quick come-up, and a Supreme Court judge has ruled that Vega was unjustly enriched at the expense of the Belizean people and that he must pay it back. Super-patriot Sharon Pitts was compensated in a similar manner on the same parcel of land.
Back when former Prime Minister Dean Barrow was under public pressure for this scandal, he announced that Vega had resigned from his Cabinet and that a Lands Compensation audit was supposedly being conducted.
The Lands Ministry's compensation portfolio was rumored to amount in the 10s of millions of dollars, and so, the press asked the Auditor General yesterday, if her office had completed its investigation into those transactions. She revealed that although the audit was completed, lethal missteps occurred and that she couldn't sign off on it because it did meet her threshold of scrutiny. Here's that conversation:
Dorothy Bradley - Auditor General
"The truth is that we spent almost 2 and a half years at Lands, trying to gather information, and they had to go out in the fields. Except, that when the draft report was prepared, it had a lot of information that could not be verified. And when the quality assurance officer had an interview with the responsible officer supervisor, what he did was he got information from the Lands management system, and when he could not get enough information from there, he used the manual system. And when we started to reconcile that information, we could not because the information was terribly distorted. And then, luckily for me, a client called asking about information regarding the Ministry of Finance and a payment that was outstanding. And that person, I remember seeing his name in the report, and I said, 'Can you explain what had happened with' - I was looking at old reports. I did not say that we had a report in front of me. I said, 'Can you explain what had happened with you and the government regarding x y z. And he said, 'Oh Mrs. Bradley, you're all the way back looking at reports because that's something we settled years ago.' And I think that was the nail in the coffin for that report because then when we started investigating other instances, the cases were settled a long time ago. So, it wasn't credible for us to put out there."
"But if youâ€¦ I'm trying to understand. Even if you get a report that something's been settled eons ago, isn't it still important to find out and to explain to the public what happened in every instance?"
"No no, actually, it would mean us going through the entire process, and it was a lot of information. During that process, the officer who was responsible for that audit retired. Then, when he retired, the quality assurance officer brought to my attention [that] we just received a box of information from him that he had at his house. Now, that's a no-no for audit. Nobody takes home information. So, at that point, it would have meant going over, starting from scratch. And so, I decided that information, the way it is, because if you can recall in the past, what some people were trying to do was to create a doubt on the credibility of what we were putting out there. And so, I wasn't prepared to take that chance and do that."
"So, we're not going to have an audit on the lands compensations?"
"We will have an audit-."
"But you have to start over."
"But we have to start over. I have to make a new assignment."
The Auditor-General says that there is still an intention to audit the list of compensations carried out by the Ministry of Natural Resources.