Getting to the Bottom of the Visa Foils Saga
Are you scratching your head about the many twists and turns in the Senate Special Select Committee’s public hearings over the last month or so with regard to eight visa foils that disappeared in December of 2012? We are, too even though the missing foils pale to the illegal issuance of nationalities and passports. The several public officers who have spoken to the inquiry panel all maintain that they were acting in accordance with their job titles, but the result is a mess that has taken up most of the Senate panel’s time – indeed, some say that it is distracting from the larger issue of the “entrenched culture of corruption and hustling” within the Immigration Department as enumerated by former finance officer Teresita Castellanos a few weeks ago. Tonight, reporter Aaron Humes reviews past testimony in an attempt to sort out what happened and who is to blame – though that is easier said than determined.
Aaron Humes, Reporting
‘Twas the morning after Christmas, 2012, and at the Western Border Station’s Immigration office, not much was stirring, not even a mouse. But there was trouble afoot – trouble that would land no less than ten Immigration Department officers, not to mention two municipal-level officials, in all kinds of boiling water – all over eight visa foils that went “walk about” until supervisor Mark Tench made the discovery.
Mark Tench, Former Supervisor of Immigration, Western Border [File: March 2, 2017]
“The visas were kept in a folder, the folder that can just open like this – the brown ones. And they were just in there with a Treasury tag. So once the supervisor would have them on the desk – because we’re doing work in there; they have come into the office; it’s a small office, you have people in there coming to do different things; maybe some to come buy permits, do visas. Sometimes officers would keep the visas on the desk, the supervisors, with the office stamps, and then at the end of their shift or when it’s not as busy, they would take it back into the Cabinet and put it in there.”
Aldo Salazar, Chair, Senate Special Select Committee
“So, it would have been easy for somebody who is minded to steal the visas to have access to them, because they weren’t kept…”
“Yes, it wasn’t as like how – we changed all of those procedures after – but at the time, nobody would have assumed that somebody from our Department would do that.”
But somebody did – and the trail led to former deputy Mayor Eric Chang and financial controller Patrick Tillett, who bought the foils, allegedly, for five thousand dollars each – thousands of percentages in mark up greater than their original cost of one hundred dollars. But back in the West, a scheme was hatched that would, hopefully, leave none the wiser. The man who conceived it, said he thought he had his boss’s approval. The boss says he didn’t.
Vernon Leslie, Former Immigration Assistant, Western Border Station [File: March 2nd, 2017]
“After having hindsight, looking in hindsight now, you’re right. We should have ensured that the report was received by the Director. But it was not a failure on my behalf, because I did what I was paid to do; I did what I was trained to do. I passed the report to the superior officer at the Border, which was Mr. Cano. I did my job; he didn’t do his.”
Edgar Cano, Former Head of Services, Immigration Department [File: February 8th, 2017]
“Sir, I gave no approval to Vernon Leslie; I gave nothing in writing to him; I was on vacation leave. And that is his statement and his whatever, declaration; but I gave none to Vernon Leslie. I was out of the office.”
And then-Director, Ruth Meighan, she says she would not have approved of the plan anyway.
Aldo Salazar, Chair, Senate Special Select Committee [File: January 18th, 2017]
“If eight visa stickers went missing—this is on page fourteen—went missing on twenty-sixth December 2012, why was it not until the twenty-ninth December 2012 that Cano gave approval for the eight visa numbers to be issued to applicants? So the numbers were issued because they could ascertain what numbers were missing, but the foils were not issued along with the visa. That is the understanding that I have. So was Mister Cano authorized to issue government of Belize receipts for visas, with those visa numbers, without the attendant visa foils?”
Ruth Meighan, Former Director of Immigration
“I don’t believe so.”
Back to Chang and Tillett, who visited George Reynolds seeking a fix…
George Reynolds [File: February 15th, 2017]
He asked me if I could fix this for him, because he thought the officer did not do it properly, and he assumed that it was issued in my office; which in return I told him, yes, these were legitimate foils, because I saw the security features and thing on it, and I told him these were not issued here, so you need to take it back to the office where you got it issued. Being that I don’t expect that he was stealing anything; we did for more than one people came with different issues and we asked them to go back to the office where it was issued to get it completed. And that was it; it was just two minutes the most, because I was coming out of my office when he met me, and it was right in there I spoke to him briefly, and he left.”
Ultimately, it was Mark Tench who was blamed and charged for the value of the visas, but was any lesson learned? Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.