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Jul 16, 2020

A Deeper Look into the Senate Report

On Wednesday, we were in the Senate hearings where the report from the Senate Special Select Committee on the Immigration Department was finally presented for adoption. The hearings concluded back in 2017 and for about a year Belizeans were glued to their television sets as witnesses appeared before the Committee. The debate on Wednesday provoked heated and pointed debate among the senators. The report confirms a long list of illegalities in the issuance of visas, nationality certificates and passports in a two year period, 2011-2013.  During the one-year of hearings, a number of ministers and U.D.P. operatives gave testimony mostly denying their role but there was substantive information which showed a thriving immigration hustle that highlighted deep seated corruption inside the department.  In tonight’s report, we look at the recommendations made by the committee. We also note that except for former Minister Elvin Penner, no one else has faced the music for their sordid role in the fire sale of the Belizean birthright. Here is News Five’s Hipolito Novelo.

 

 

Hipolito Novelo, Reporting

After a year of televised hearings of dozens of key witnesses, hundreds of hours of testimonies and revision of one thousand eight hundred and forty four pages of transcript, a one hundred and sixty page majority report from the Senate Special Select Committee was finally completed and on Wednesday it was tabled in the Senate for adoption. The report summarizes the committee’s investigations into the Auditor General special report into the Immigration and Nationality Department for the period 2011-2013.

The Committee sat for more than a year over the course of forty-two sessions which included thirty public hearings. The audit report was triggered after eight visas disappeared from the Western Border Station.

 

Michel Chebat

Michel Chebat, Lead P.U.P. Senator

“The investigation was triggered by these eight missing visas and Mister Mark Tench of the Immigration Department was actually in charge of this investigation and his investigation Mister President led to two individuals in particular. This is all in the report. It led him to Mister Patrick Tillett and Mister Eric Chang who both at the time admitted to him that they had five thousand dollars for these visas.”

 

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. While the Auditor General’s report only covered about twenty five percent of that time period, it revealed illegalities, irregularities and a culture of corruption that permeated in the department.

 

Michel Chebat

“What this report shows Mister President is that there was rampant interference by ministers in the issuance of visas and in this regard Mister President the Auditor General in her report made the following conclusion she said since the law does not provide for ministers to interview for the visa process it was illegal to have done so.”

 

And former U.D.P. Minister Elvin Penner did so and he was the first and only individual to get the chop. The disgraced Penner facilitated infamous South Korean criminal Wong Hong Kim with a Belizean passport. From there, the department had been blanketed by a stench of corruption. The culture of corruption was evident and one by one the ministers were named in the report.

 

Michel Chebat

“Minister Erwin Contreras it was found requested visas for persons who obtained Belizean nationality and passports shortly after their arrival in Belize.  The names that are recorded in this report include the honorable Edmond Castro, it includes the honorable Manuel Heredia, the honorable Rene Montero, it includes the then honorable Elvin Penner, it includes the then honorable Santiago Castillo, Ramon Witz, Carlos Perdomo, Eden Martinez and it goes on and on and on. And so Mister President the name of the Honorable Pablo Marin is called at least ten different times here.”

 

The Committee’s report focused on several key testimonies such as Mark Tench, Vernon Leslie, Edgar Cano, Patrick Tillett, Eric Chang, Lindsey Wade and Barton Middleton.

The committee has made several recommendations. When it comes to the discontinued Economic Citizenship Programme, the committee states that the programme seems to have been utilized as a ‘’fountain for continued illegality, records have not been properly reconciled and that applications for passports are presented on the basis of nonexistent economic citizenship.’’ The committee concludes that the situation is unacceptable and must be remedied by the Department without delay.  The committee was satisfied that several persons received nationality illegally and recommends that the Minister revokes those nationality documents.

 

Louis Zabaneh

Dr. Louis Zabaneh, P.U.P. Senator

“It says given the nature of what we have seen from the Auditor General’s Report and the testimony before the Committee we are left with no doubt that there were corrupt forces operating within and around the immigration department. It is undeniable that the Department was in serious need of attention. There is evidence that this situation was allowed or perhaps encouraged to fester under the period of stewardship of Minister Elvin Penner.”

 

Mark Lizarraga

Mark Lizarraga, Senator for Private Sector

“There is culture of intimidation. There is culture of bullying which is in testimony. People were afraid to tell the ministers no because they bullied them. I am saying we have testimony. Read the report Senator. Have you read it? Well then you didn’t read it good.”

 

Michael Peyrefitte

Michael Peyrefitte, U.D.P. Senator

“All of a sudden you love the Auditor General. You all claim to love her now because he saying that something that you think will further your political agenda not because you love the report. We have a report. The report has been done. The report has been compiled and it will be produced for the public. Let the DPP at look at it there and stop trying to quote from the report thinking that you are revealing some big great secret. It will be made for the public. Let the DPP and the police investigate it.”

 

And that is probably the only thing that all senators agree on:  for the relevant authorities to review the report and investigate. According to the committee, the message should be clear, that any future inquiry before the Senate should be taken very seriously as it will have the full weight of the law behind it.

 

Osmany Salas

Osmany Salas, Senator of N.G.O.s

There is some reference made to perjury and it was clear in that report that several people lied to the Special Select Committee. Several people lied because there were several instances where we got different responses pertaining to the same matter.”

 

Michel Chebat

“Indeed Mister President the Belizean public is asking for justice and it is my sincere hope that the contents of this report as well as the minutes of the meetings will be transferred to the Commissioner of Police to take correct actions in this matter.”

 

Mark Lizarraga

“So now we’ve made our report. The police said they were waiting on our report to act. Hopeful y now we will see some action.”

 

Aldo Salazar

Aldo Salazar, U.D.P. Senator

“I would want us to focus on what we can do in government to improve what we have because if all we are going to get from this three year plus long process is going to be tidbits and highlights for the political campaign  we have achieve nothing. We have achieved absolutely nothing.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I am Hipolito Novelo.


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