GOB demands compensation money from Sharon Pitts and Andre Vega
Wednesday, November 9th, 2016
After being compensated nearly $1 million dollars jointly, Andre Vega, son of former Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, and Attorney Sharon Pitts are being asked by the Government of Belize (GOB) to return the funds. Both Vega and Pitts were paid by the Lands Department $400,000 each in what has been declared a shady land transaction deal.
The compensation stems from Vega’s and Pitts’ acquisition of the land even though it was privately owned. Located at Mile 5 near the Haulover Bridge in the Belize District, the property was first parcelled between Pitts and Hilmar Alamilla. Alamilla, Gaspar Vega’s campaign manager at the time, quickly sold his piece of land to Andre Vega for $15,000, while Pitts obtained permission to survey 1.5 acres at the same location for $10,569. In an attempt to re-acquire the land, GOB paid both parties a hefty amount of money, which by far exceeded the price paid for the properties in the first place.
The chronicles of how the monies were paid to Vega and Pitts revealed the many discrepancies in the Lands Department. The property in controversy had been sold for $50,000 to a Miguel Valencia on June 8, 1988 by a Carlton Russell. According to official documents, the sale was legitimate. Then 23 years later, on August 25, 2011 Attorney Pitts applied to lease 2.75 acres of the land. The request to survey the land was granted on August 31, 2011, giving Pitts permission to survey 1.5 acres. On October of that same year, the Lands Commissioner was provided with information suggesting that the land was owned by someone else. The documents presented to the Commissioner proved that the land had previously been surveyed. As a result, instructions were given by the Land Commissioner to the National Estate Officer to revoke the permission to survey, which had been granted to Pitts.
In a letter dating to November 3, 2011, Pitts was officially informed that her permission to survey the land was revoked, because the land was unavailable. However, Pitts went ahead and surveyed the land. The survey was examined, approved and authenticated by the Lands Department five days after on November 8, 2011. Consequently, it was also recorded in the survey register. Concerns about the availability of the land were made by the Lands Commissioner via a letter on November 25, 2011, but according to persons in the mapping department of the Lands Department, the parcel was considered national property. A few days after, on November 30, 2011, the then Minister of Natural Resources, Honourable Gaspar Vega approved the sale of the said land to Pitts for $10,569. According to the investigation, the Commissioner did not provide any details or recommendations in regards to the sale of the land. The process of the sale proceeded and by September 24, 2012, the property was owned by Pitts.
Then on October 22, 2014 a revocation of land from Pitts and Alamilla was instructed. It was later revealed that the land legitimately belonged to Valencia. By December 15, 2014 the correct and legal ownership of the property was confirmed by the then acting principal surveyor. The previous surveys done for Pitts had been cancelled. Chief Value Auditor Herman Castillo evaluated the property and stated that the compensation to Pitts should be $400,000 plus .63 acres of land. GOB agreed to this and made an initial payment of $100,000 on March 11, 2015. The rest of the money was paid in monthly instalments of $50,000 until September 11, 2011 when the payment was completed.
On the other hand, Alamilla who had been parcelling the land with Pitts, on January 17, 2012 had received permission to survey 1.124 acres of the land. At the end of that year on December 12, 2012, Alamilla applied to lease the land. In early 2013, Minister Vega received a recommendation from the Commissioner of Lands and Survey to sell the land to Alamilla for $6,171. But instead, on January 16, 2013, Minister Vega issued and approved the sale of the land to Alamilla for $2,500. Alamilla paid that full amount a few days after.
However, Alamilla did not cling to the property and by the end of 2013 he transferred the title to Andre Vega for $15,000. Almost two years later, the Commissioner of Lands indicated that there was a duplication to Vega’s land ownership. He reported that the young Vega had agreed to surrender the land to GOB for $400,000. This petition was accepted by GOB and on September 14, 2015 they made the first payment of $100,000. After that, monthly payments of $50,000 were made until March 8, 2016 when the full amount was finally covered.
Now the Government argues that those processes in land transactions were done in massive error. GOB announced that steps will be taken to recover the monies, which were discovered to be wrongfully paid out. Vega and Pitts were served with a letter from the Government on October 31st demanding the repayment. Both Vega and Pitts have been given 30 days within which to respond to GOB’s demand.