Commission of Inquiry final report approved by Cabinet; highlights irregularities by ministers of previous administration
Thursday, January 13th, 2022
The report from the Commission of Inquiry into the sale of government assets has been completed and submitted to Cabinet. The report was to determine whether proper procedures, practices, applicable rules, and regulations were duly observed in the sale of government assets by the previous administration under the United Democratic Party from October 2019 to November 2020. The government announced on Tuesday, January 11th they will submit the findings to the Office of the Attorney General and Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for advice and action deemed appropriate.
The Commission was established by Prime Minister Honorable John Briceño on January 19, 2021. It consisted of Senior Counsel Andrew Marshalleck as chairman, a representative of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, and Luke Martinez and Marcello Blake representing the private sector. The Commission of Inquiry conducted five public hearings and questioned 22 persons. One of these included San Pedro businessman Kevin (Zhourong) Li, who was asked about his relationship with the former Minister in charge of the Lands Department, Hugo Patt. He was further questioned on how he was able to obtain multiple properties within a short time. Li was careful in answering the questions and said some of the properties he purchased were from third parties in need of funds because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regarding the expedited processes, Li said he was not aware that some titles were issued on the same day. Li, however, refused to name the parties he did business with by saying he did not remember most of these persons’ names.
Findings of the Commission
The Commission presented in its report six key findings highlighting the following:
- “It was manifest from the very beginning of the inquiry that neither the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance (Right Honourable Dean O. Barrow) nor the Financial Secretary could identify any applicable regulations governing the entry into sales contracts by the Government for the sale of government assets. It was clear to the Commission that the explanations sought to obscure a completely unbridled exercise of power by the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. The ignorance of applicable regulations at the very top of the Government’s organizational structure easily led to the conclusion that the executions of sales of government assets during the relevant period were all in breach of applicable regulations and well-known tendering procedures.”
- “The overall result was that the Ministry of Finance routinely sold motor vehicles to favoured persons at less than market value and at losses to the Consolidated Revenue Fund. There was simply no regard for any lawful process to secure the best value for assets sold or to identify purchasers in any open or transparent way.”
- “The sales all reflected the mismanagement of public resources and clearly involved waste and abuse. Of further concern is that persons with obvious political connections to the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and his Government bought vehicles in the name of others to mask their involvement with acquisitions, and the Ministry of Finance willingly facilitated them in so doing. This may possibly have facilitated the use of the sale of a motor vehicle to former Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt to launder the proceeds of a bribe arising from the sale of Government lands authorized and executed by him in favour of one Zhourong Li.”
- “A number of the sales also involved the Government entering contracts with members of the National Assembly on account of the public service without any repercussions on their qualification to continue to sit in the assembly by virtue of relevant provisions of the Belize Constitution and without regard to the obvious heightened need for transparency in transactions approved by the Prime Minister in favour of members of his own Cabinet. The Hon. Hugo Patt and the Hon. Michael Peyrefitte both continue to sit in the National Assembly notwithstanding having entered into and performed contracts with the government for the purchase of government assets.”
- “The violations of financial laws in the sale of government assets were so routine that the former Prime Minister and Minister of Finance and the Financial Secretary were candid in describing in detail an informal practice of selling motor vehicles belonging to the government that not only constituted flagrant violations of the law but which also very likely constituted actionable criminal offenses at the material times.”
- “The Commission recommends the amendment of the Finance and Audit Reform Act to expand the regulations governing the sale of Government assets and that any connection between, on the one hand, the sale of the motor vehicle to Hugo Patt and, on the other hand, the land sales to Zhourong Li be further investigated with a view to prosecution, and that action be taken by the Clerk of the National Assembly, (if necessary in court), to determine the qualification of Hugo Patt and Michael Peyrefitte to continue to sit in the National Assembly in light of the contracts to purchase government assets disclosed to the Commission.”
The report was reviewed and approved by Cabinet. The government noted the highlights of the report and condemns in the strongest possible terms its details, particularly in mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse and corruption. Chairman Marshalleck and his team were commended for the thorough and comprehensive report, and the government now awaits, if any, recommendations/directives regarding the findings from the inquiry.
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