Commission of Inquiry recommends criminal investigation

The content originally appeared on: Amandala Newspaper

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 13, 2022– The Commission of Inquiry established by Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño on January 19, 2021 to investigate the apparent fire sale of government assets in the months prior to the 2020 general elections, delivered its report to Cabinet yesterday. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Sale of Government Assets presents the conclusions that the commission has reached after interviewing 22 witnesses during five public sessions, held between February 22 and August 16. Included among these is a recommendation that transactions between Hon. Hugo Patt and Zhourong Li be investigated, followed by prosecution of those two persons if such an investigation uncovers illegal actions on their part. Additionally, the report recommends that the government assess the eligibility of Hon. Patt and Hon. Michael Peyrefitte to sit in the National Assembly at this time, given their involvement in the purchase of government assets while they were members of the Cabinet during the Barrow administration.  Peyrefitte has called the release of the report at this time a red herring, due to his recent queries concerning the payment of fees for negotiations leading to the buyback of the Superbond. Hon. Hugo Patt, for his part, has retained the legal services of former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, since he plans to bring a lawsuit against those who made the allegations against him..

According to the report, drafted by the members of the commission, E. Andrew Marshalleck, Luke Martinez, and Marcello Blake, neither the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow, nor the Financial Secretary, Joe Waight, made reference during the process preceding the sales to the relevant laws governing the sale of government assets. These laws are laid out in the Finance and Audit Reform Act and the Financial and Stores Orders — the contents of which are thoroughly known by both these persons. The report states, however, that they attempted to instead offer a rationalization for an informal process used by the Ministry of Finance in handling the sales of assets.

According to local reports, Rt. Hon. Barrow believes that the claims in the report were manufactured by Marshalleck (the commission’s chairman) and are biased. He told 7News that he is certain that the report will not “pass judicial muster.” While Hugo Patt has lawyered up, the Government of Belize, in a Cabinet release issued today, also indicated that they have “instructed that the report be submitted to the Office of the Attorney General”.

The report states, in reference to the responses given by former PM Barrow and Mr. Joe Waight when they were questioned during the inquiry, “It was clear to the Commission that the explanation sought to obscure what was a completely unbridled exercise of power by the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. The ignorance of applicable regulations demonstrated by the public officers at the very top of the Government’s organization structure easily led to the conclusion that the execution of government assets during the relevant period were ALL in breach of applicable regulations and well-known tendering procedures.”

The report goes on to note that, in addition to the absence of any effort to follow the applicable regulations, almost all the sales in question resulted from single bids, and no competitive bidding ever took place. In fact, the report states, “most purchasers were simply handpicked by the Minister of Finance after, in many instances, approaching the Minister to ask for favorable consideration.”

Another key finding of the report is that most of the vehicles which were listed as unserviceable prior to their being sold for negligible amounts, were actually fully functional. The commissioners further stated that Customs officers had noted that the prices were fixed ahead of time and no valuation was done to assess the accuracy of the estimated value. The report further points out that various persons with political connections to the government bought vehicles in the name of others in an attempt to mask their involvement in the transactions.

The report states, “This may possibly have facilitated the use of the sale of a motor vehicle to former Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Hugo Patt to launder the proceeds of a bribe arising from the sale of Government lands authorized and executed by him in favor of Zhourong (Kelvin) Li.”

As mentioned, one of the report’s recommendations is that criminal investigations be launched into relations between Hon. Hugo Patt and Zhourong Li — specifically Li’s role in financing the purchase of a Toyota Tacoma on behalf of Patt, and the land documents allegedly signed over to Li, which could appear to be compensation for his purchase of the vehicle.

“The Commission further recommends that any connection between, on the one hand, the sale of the motor vehicle to Hon. Hugo Patt and, on the other hand, the sales to Zhourong Li be further investigated with a view of prosecution (if necessary in court),” the report goes on to say.

The report states that issues surrounding the purchases of government assets by Hon. Hugo Patt and Hon. Michael Peyrefitte require particular scrutiny, since those purchases were made while the two were members of the House of Representatives/Cabinet. Provisions in our law mandate that members of the National Assembly who enter into any contract with the government vacate their seats upon the dissolution of the House. What remains in question is whether these laws apply to Hon. Hugo Patt, a current area representative, and Hon. Michael Peyrefitte, the current Lead Government Senator. It must be noted that the former National Assembly was dissolved and these contracts in question were both executed before this current National Assembly was formed.

Nonetheless, this report will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Office of the Attorney General for advice on what the next steps should be.

The report additionally recommends an amendment to the Finance and Audit Reform Act to expand the laws regarding the handling of government assets, mandate the keeping of an assets register, and expand the role of the Auditor General in appraising government assets.