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Dec 11, 2017

A Final Look Back at Senate Special Select Committee’s Wild Ride

After more than three hundred thousand dollars spent in the course of twelve months and forty-plus sessions, the Senate Special Select Committee’s work, at least publicly, is done. It has been a wild ride as News Five has been there from start to finish for all the heartfelt confessions, helpful recommendations and occasional drama as the maelstrom of public disdain clashed with the government’s desperate efforts to play down the Committee’s importance. As the six-member Committee begins to put forward its recommendations, we have tried to distill everything you have seen live and on our newscasts to the broadest possible summary of events. Aaron Humes has that report.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Former administrative officer in the Immigration Department, Teresita Castellanos, in her appearance in February, aptly summed up the reason the Senate Special Select Committee is the talk of the nation.

 

Teresita Castellanos

Teresita Castellanos, Former Administrative Officer, Immigration Department [File: February 15th, 2017]

“The Immigration Department has an entrenched culture of corruption and hustling; milking the cow we say, from the very top to the very bottom of the ladder. No politician can force any public officer to do illegal acts when performing our job. And if we do, then we have to face the same consequences as the politicians, for the Belizean people are demanding justice. There are a few good honest and dedicated Immigration officers, but there were not enough trusted staff to oversee the daily operations of the sections and at the district offices and border stations. The call for help was not answered and this inquiry is the result.”

 

On a near-weekly basis, Belizeans tuned in as the mud flew back and forth – oversight, ignorance and occasional deliberate blindness to law and principle; a department so stuck in the morass that it was a wonder anything got done. But as the inquiry reached the very top, the memories got shorter, especially for former Minister Elvin Penner about his special relationship with Won Hong Kim.

 

Eamon Courtenay, P.U.P. Senator [File: May 10th, 2017]

“Mr. Kim. How and when did you meet Mr. Kim?”

 

Elvin Penner

Elvin Penner, Former Minister of State, Immigration and Nationality [File: May 10th, 2017]

“Again, that’s a question that I will not answer.”

 

Eamon Courtenay

“Mr. Penner, can you tell the Committee why you are not answering that question?”

 

Elvin Penner

“I made my statement and my reasons why in my opening statement, you can refer to that; and like I said, if that is not sufficient for you to excuse to not answer that question, then the Senate has the full right to do and take whatever actions you all feel is necessary to take.”

 

Penner’s former colleagues – Anthony “Boots” Martinez and especially Edmond Castro, and to a lesser extent Manuel Heredia, Carlos Perdomo and Rene Montero – often tried to evade or belittle their questioners, as when Castro was confronted with the infamous statement by P.M. Barrow about how ministerial procuration of visas would cause the government to fall. He denied it and tried to change the topic.

 

Mark Lizarraga, Senator, Business Community [File: July 6th, 2017]

“And the question was posed to you, do you remember that statement?”

 

Edmond Castro

Edmond Castro

“No, sir.”

 

Mark Lizarraga

“Don’t you? But in court documents, Minister, you said yes.”

 

Edmond Castro

“We in a court right now, true?”

 

Mark Lizarraga

“No.”

 

Edmond Castro

“Let me tell you something: I don’t remember.”

 

Mark Lizarraga

“You referred us to the statement, and I am reminding you that you are under oath, and that you run the risk of perjury.”

 

Edmond Castro

“Mek a tell you something; we deh ina wah Senate hearing fi deal with this issue of thee recommendation – mek wi stick to it, noh? We no di go da court, man; we no deh ina that.”

 

Mark Lizarraga

“So your answer remains that you have never heard that statement from the prime Minister?”

 

Edmond Castro

“Where is this visa hustle evidence that you guys are talking about? Where is it?”

 

Defiance of the top dogs aside, the questions later turned to how to fix Immigration’s many woes. It won’t be easy, as up to the present day, Director of Immigration Diana Locke testified that some will stop at nothing to circumvent the system, even for something as innocuous as cueing up.

 

Diana Locke

Diana Locke, Director of Immigration [File: September 27th, 2017]

“I have had occasions where I have had to go in – I had a complaint from someone where they went there at – I think it was four-thirty in the morning – and they got number sixteen. And we reviewed the camera and we were able to see that not that many people had gone there. What had been happening – the security were making entries into that diary for people who had contacted them – I have no proof whether or not there was a fee paid – but we do know that there were entries being made into the book for people; so if you came at four in the morning, you may have well gotten number fifteen. We took steps to address that and we told them that the numbers would not be issued.”

 

At its core, the inquiry is about getting to the bottom of the corruption and hustling – not just who did it, but who will do something, anything, about it. Business Community Senator and Committee member Mark Lizarraga made clear that it is a team effort.

 

Mark Lizarraga

Mark Lizarraga, Senator, Business Community [File: December 6th, 2017]

“We will have to wait and see what the majority of the members say but I certainly believe at this point that it is speaking to a deficiency at the ministry level to properly addressing these things, because we’ve heard people say in testimony that ‘they knew, from the very top to the very bottom,’ they knew what was happening. You’ve heard that testimony too. So, we need to see now where the will is to fix it.”

 

Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

 

The Committee meets again in private in January to begin the process of planning and writing the report.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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