BTL Rattles On

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 15, No. 38            September 22, 2005

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Much talk has revolved around the movements being made within the Belize Telecommunications Limited board. What is certain is that at the end of this month, September, much will be questioned regarding missing funds totaling $7.6 million, which is undergoing an extensive investigation. This was revealed after financial statements were released. However, what has stirred up much interest is the $20 million loan that Social Security has approved for Sunshine Holding Company.

   Swirling beneath the pool of missing money, BTL is still wrangling with yet another longstanding problem - the disposition of its ownership. The latest news coming out from this corner is the controversy surrounding the creation of Sunshine Holdings. Sunshine Holdings was created as a trust company which will purchase forty million dollars worth of shares in trust for the BTL employees until they are ready to take them over. But, Sunshine Holdings is a Michael Ashcroft company, registered at his North Front Street headquarters and the memorandum is signed by Ashcroft's employees. And, who gets the rights to those shares? Well, according to their memorandum of association, Sunshine would exercise and enforce all rights associated with those shares. Over the past few days, however, the acquisition of funds to purchase these shares from government has really sparked public heat.

   Why have so many people opposed to this acquisition of funds? Because, Social Security has agreed to loan Sunshine Holdings $10 million dollars, 25% of what is needed to purchase those shares. In a letter from Social Security Attorney Michel Chebat, serious concerns were listed about the loan. According to his letter, the loan is unsecured, meaning that there is no collateral to guarantee it - not even the shares to be purchased will be pledged as security. Chebat continued that the interest in the loan will not be paid until October 31st, 2010, after which the full principal will be paid in a single payment. The term of loan is 15 years at a rate of 8.5%, far less than the current market rate for mortgages which lie at 12 to 14%. In a press release issued on September 19th, 2005 by Social Security Board, "[…]This investment is intended to provide BTL workers with the opportunity to acquire ownership of shares in the Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL), in view of the fact that they currently lack the financing mechanism to directly purchase the shares."

   But, what do the BTL workers believe? On September 19th, 2005, Monday, BTL workers held a press conference in conjunction with the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) where they spoke candidly about their position on Sunshine Holdings. President of the Belize Communications Workers Union (BCWU) Paul Perriot stated, "We view with utter distaste the decision of a majority of the members of the Board of the Social Security Board to provide a loan of BZ $10 million of workers' money to Sunshine Holdings, a so-called trust company that purports to be the 'trust' representing the workers of Belize Telecommunications Limited. We state categorically that Sunshine cannot claim to represent the workers of BTL. No one in Sunshine is affiliated to the BTL workers and none of the workers are affiliated with or has anything to do with this trust company. […] What kind of 'trust' company is the Sunshine Trust? The Union is fully aware that there are several kinds of trust and depending on the type of trust Sunshine is, the workers, as beneficiaries, may not see any benefit arising from this trust. In fact, Sunshine may never repay the SSB loan. Who are the trustees of Sunshine and how do we know the trustees can be trusted? Why can't the trustees be members of the workers' body? […] We want to use our own vehicle, the BTL workers Trust Limited, we have our financial plans and need to know what we getting into before we agree to have any loan in our name."

   The Senate Special Select Committee, which is currently investigating Social Security's financial history, found the board's decision to be, "an insult to its work." The Select Committee is presently investigating questionable loans that Social Security has approved in the past, which are similarly questionable, such as the Sunshine Holdings one. The statement pointed out that Prime Minister Said Musa gave a commitment that, "no loans would be considered by the board until the work of the select committee is completed and the recommendation tabled in the senate." However, Right Honorable Said Musa explained to the board that the BTL shares were tied up and that nothing could be done with them until Social Security released the money, which government needs to meet its obligations, according to Social Security Chairman Yasin Shoman.

   The balance of the money needed to purchase the shares will come courtesy of several loans: 50% from the Belize Bank, 25% from the government and the loan from Social Security, according to Honorable Said Musa.

   On September 6th, 2005, BTL employees received a bulletin stating, "The employment of Gaspar Aguilar, Head of Finance and Human Resources has today been terminated for good and sufficient cause." At the time Aguilar was Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, and had been employed by BTL for the past 25 years.

   On September 9th, 2005, the BTL financials were released and what was discovered was certainly not pretty. Gaspar Aguilar was blamed for exercising poor judgment that ultimately led to the loss of $6.2 million. However further investigations revealed that another transaction "gone bad" also led to the loss of another $1.5 million. Aguilar wrote to the Board of Management and in three pages outlined the history of the BTL finances, concluding in the company's loss while trying to change money on the parallel market.

   Aguilar stated that for the past four years, the board authorized him to make huge currency transactions on the parallel market, commenting, "I was instructed to (purchase) US dollars on the parallel market by the highest echelons in BTL (in) 2001." It continues: "The parallel market involves significant risks but the company, through my superiors, decided to take the risks…therefore they too must share the responsibility for what took place…because over the past four and a half years this assignment…involved hundreds of occasions to exchange tens of millions of dollars, I only dealt with…established individuals and never would I have expected that one of these individuals would not have purchased and delivered the United States dollars."

   The individual Aguilar refers to is broker Dion Zabaneh. The $6.2 million dollar cheque was handed to Aguilar and recorded in BTL books as "cash on hand." Allegedly, Aguilar handed the cheque to Zabaneh who was supposed to convert the money in US currency. Whether it was converted or not still remains unknown; however, what is known is that the money was never deposited in BTL's bank account.

   The missing $1.5 million was also part of an exchange in currency transaction which occurred on March 31st, 2005. This time, the money to be converted in US dollars was handed over to Hassan El Sayed, who has in the past been charged with forging official documents and was a defendant in the long time running passport scandal. Allegedly El Sayed had recently traveled to Lebanon and was supposed to deliver the money upon his return. However, his whereabouts are unknown.

   Senior Superintendent Mario Vernon was appointed as lead investigator.

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