Land Scandal; Chamber, BNTU outraged!

By Marion Ali, Assistant Editor

Last week’s revelations about the Vega family’s land scandal, involving persons who purportedly sold them private lands already owned by other people, has raised the ire of Amy Forte and various organizations.

Forte’s name appeared as one of the persons who sold land to one of Vega’s family members. This week she asked the Prime Minister, via a letter written by her attorney, Deshawn Arzu Torres, to conduct an investigation. Forte denied any knowledge of the Minister’s Fiat, Grant no. 175 of 2009 on which her name appears. Forte maintains she did not sign any conveyance to any one of the parcels of land which the Grant referred to. In addition, Forte and her attorney have provided a preliminary certificate of a handwriting expert, asserting that the signature purporting to be hers on a Deed of Conveyance of the land sold to Andre Vega, is not genuine.

A press release from the Prime Minister’s office states in part: “In the circumstances, the Prime Minister has concluded that the charge of fraud raised by Ms. Forte is credible and must be taken extremely seriously and acted upon.”

The Prime Minister’s office has since said it has asked the Belize Police Department to conduct an immediate investigation into the matter, with a view to bring criminal charges against anyone responsible for forgery. It has also instructed the Lands Department to cancel Grant no. 175 of 2009 and the Deed of Conveyance to Andre Vega dated 17th February 2010. The Lands Department will also move to cancel the title for 7 acres on Mosquito Caye granted to Andre Vega as compensation for the land privately owned by someone else, sold under under Grant no. 175 of 2009. The press release from the Prime Minister’s office states that compensation cannot stand since the Deed of Conveyance that triggered the compensation was fraudulently executed and is therefore, legally invalid.

The Police Department issued a press release of its own, announcing that the Major Crimes Unit has commenced an investigation into the allegation of fraud. The Unit assured that the investigation will be prompt and thorough, and that the file will be forwarded to the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for a directive.

Another development is that Andre Vega, whose name has surfaced in more land scandals, has reportedly said he used a land agent to conduct the transaction, that he did not know about the forgery involved, and that he is willing to give back the substitute land on Mosquito Caye, to prevent further issues.

Andre Vega had his attorney, Steve Perrera, write a statement on Wednesday evening, saying that Vega “received the original land title and executed conveyance (which to the knowledge of our client, contained the signatures of both Ms. Forte and that of the Justice of the Peace) from the Land Agent, and in exchange he provided the agent with the purchase price. Since the Deed of Conveyance contained the signature of a Justice of the Peace, our client had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the document.”

The Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), and the Public Service Union (PSU) have all issued statements of their own, denouncing the level of corruption that has been brought to light.

The BCCI, in its release, stated that the schemes unearthed at the Ministry of Natural Resources are appalling. The Chamber referred specifically to a comment Prime Minister Dean Barrow made previously on the fraudulent transactions when he said he did not think any “actionable illegality” occurred. “With due respect to the Office, it is not for any Prime Minister to make that determination. Corrupt accusations must be subjected to the same judicial scrutiny to which any other criminal accusation would be subjected,” the BCCI said. It called on the relevant authorities to investigate the allegations.

The PSU, in its release, urged public officers to adhere to the regulations that govern their code of conduct, and to not compromise their integrity. It also reminded that no member of the House of Representative should give direct instruction to any public officer, but should communicate through their Accounting Officer.

The BNTU also joined the PSU in calling for the reactivation of the Public Accounts Committee and the Integrity Commission and that those bodies be allowed to work without political interference. And they, along with the Belize Network of Non-Governmental Organizations called for the implementation of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), to prevent ministers of government from engaging in corruption.

The People’s United Party (PUP), called a press conference on Wednesday afternoon to make its own set of demands. Its Leader, John Briceno, demanded the PM Barrow do five things: Instruct a police investigation; cancel all land titles issued since 2008 to the Vega family; establish a Commission of Inquiry into the “hot bed of corruption” at the Lands Department between 2008 and 2015; Instruct the Attorney General to initiate a Claim for Misfeasance in Public Office against former Minister Gaspar Vega; and ensure the recovery of all the ill-gotten gains by his family and associates. Briceno also demands that an investigation be done on all the documents that Justice of the Peace, Darlene Padron has signed. Her signature appeared on the Vega land documents, and she worked in the Ministry of Natural Resources while Gaspar Vega was Minister. Padron was later moved from that Ministry and is now at the Department of the Environment.”

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