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May 31, 2018

1 Year On, Alvarene Burgess’ Explosive Appearance before Senate

After thirteen months of testimony from over forty witnesses, close to half a million dollars spent and many Wednesdays full of drama and intrigue broadcast live to a captive nationwide television audience, the Senate Special Select Committee on Immigration has yet to release its report. The last we were told was that the draft was being prepared, but that was at least a month or two ago. Tonight, we look back at a particularly memorable moment from the hours of testimony. Exactly a year ago today, a bomb was dropped in the middle of the National Assembly in Belmopan.  The impact of whistleblower Alvarene Burgess’ appearance was electric to say the least.  She had come forward in the wake of Elvin Penner’s dismissal in 2013 to accuse other ministers, most notably Edmond Castro, of taking payment for providing visa recommendations to Asian nationals. It was the first time government ministers’ names were called in detail before the Committee, and in the following weeks several would appear to counter her charges. We review the critical parts of her testimony in this report from Aaron Humes.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Her name never appeared in the original Auditor General’s Special Report, but the imprint of Alvarene Burgess, a housewife from the River Valley, was irrevocably stamped on the Senate Special Select Committee’s deliberations when she appeared on May thirty-first, 2017. First, she named a senior police officer, now Assistant Superintendent of Police, Rochelle Chan, as masterminding a ring of Cabinet officials and others to make big money.

 

Alvarene Burgess

Alvarene Burgess, Whistleblower [File: June 1st, 2017]

“We were in Mr. Chan’s vehicle and he mentioned to me if I know anybody in immigration department because he heard when I mentioned to my cousin what I came here to do, and I asked him what he meant, and he said, “I heard you mentioning to your cousin that you were helping your neighbour get her nationality,” and I told him I do not know anybody in the Immigration Department. Mr. Chan mentioned to me that even if I know people up higher or something like that, I told him yes. I know Minister Castro, I know Minister John Saldivar because we went to high school together and I know Minister Contreras because my husband used to play football with him. He said, well, you want to make some money, and I asked him what you mean.   So when I was formally introduced to Mr. Chan, Rochelle Chan, he asked me if I wanted to make some money, because if I know people with visas, but I would need to get some help from the people that I know in the higher up, because he, Rochelle Chan, used to do the visa thing for his brother in law Mr. Elvin Penner but Mr. Penner got greedy on him so he backed out.”

 

So began Alvarene’s saga of trips back and forth to the Immigration Department in Belmopan as self-described go-between for Chan, a relative of then-Minister of State for Immigration and Nationality Elvin Penner, and his colleague, Castro. She said it was to help her now deceased husband with various medications.

 

Alvarene Burgess [File: May 31st, 2017]

“I went to the Minister’s office; paid him what he requested him to pay him first – he was the first one who collected. If I took six passports and the application forms with the necessary requirements, I had to take twelve thousand dollars to him; if I took four, I had to take eight thousand dollars to him for that recommendation letter. Which his secretary would – they have it in their computer system; they only had to change the name, because the recommendation letter was already posted in the computer – ‘I, Minister Castro is recommending…’ and the names go on that letter; and he would take everything, all the applications except the passports, the Chinese passports, give it to his secretary, who would then get it to the Immigration office. In a day or two, I would be called by the secretary to tell me that the applications were approved, and I had to get back to [Rochelle] Chan, and tell him they were approved; and he would get to me with the money, the two thousand dollars per approved visa, and I would take the books, be it four or six, with the money to the Immigration Department.”

 

Burgess also named Anthony “Boots” Martinez and Erwin Contreras as other ministers she worked with, though far less often than Castro. The hustle continued until Burgess learned of recordings made by the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan, to whom she later spoke, and the Prime Minister’s famous admonition to his Cabinet colleagues – to stop any hustling lest the Government fall. But did they stop? Burgess said she knew of some who didn’t.

 

Alvarene Burgess [File: June 1st, 2017]

 “I have met people who aren’t my friends, but I know – that I am not saying they were doing it with Edmond, with whoever; I don’t know who they were doing it with, but I know they were doing it. And I have met maybe two or three of them – don’t know their names, and maybe they only know my name by what they saw on the media; and they have said, well, I’m still there. But I don’t know their names and since I stopped doing it, I am not interested in whoever is doing it.”

 

Of course, all the prominent names called above deny the allegations. But the coming Senate report will reveal who was right, and who was wrong. Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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