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Penner should face criminal charges, says PSU presdient

The former minister of state with responsibility for the Immigration and Nationality Department Hon. Elvin Penner should face criminal charges, the Public Service Union (PSU) president Marvin Blades said Thursday.

Penner, who apparently violated sections of the Immigration Act and the criminal code,  was “asked to resign” from cabinet last Thursday for his role in the recent passport scandal involving Taiwanese national Kim Won Hong, an accused criminal who is currently being held in a Taiwanese prison.

Reporter, however, was unable to confirm whether or not the Director of Public Prosecution has requested a police investigation into the scandal. We were told that DPP Cheryl-Lynn Vidal is out of the country and will be back in office next week.

At the same time, government continues to be relatively tight-lipped about its investigation into the incident, and there are no indications that anyone, including Penner, will be held criminally responsible for using their offices for alleged monetary gain.

On Monday, government issued a terse press release, only saying that the Immigration Ministry “has recommended the immediate suspension of three officers pending the submission of the findings of (Public Service) Commission’s decision.”

PSU President Blades, however, said that the three officers that have been recommended for immediate suspension are still at work, but are at other locations.

They have to be available to the Public Service Commission, Blades said, and they will have two weeks to respond to the suspension recommendations. He noted that two of the officers are junior data entry officers.

Blades said it is his understanding that the investigation is being carried out by the Immigration Director Maria Marin and Minister Godwin Hulse, but that has not been confirmed.

Blades, however, questioned why the investigation has not focused on the Nationality Section of the Immigration Department.

He said it is his understanding that the Nationality Section has to process its work first, before it can reach the Passport Section. It is the completed work of the Nationality Section that is given to the Passport Section to prepare a passport.

Who signed the nationality paper for Kim Won Hong? asked Blades. He said nationality papers can only be signed by very senior officers of the Immigration Department, and that includes the Immigration Director.

“We are of the view that politicians are still interfering with the work of public officers,” Blades said.

Apart from the disappearance of Kim Won Hong’s nationality paper from the department, there are no indications that the government investigation has reached the nationality section.

The improved methods recently put in place to obtain a passport were apparently ignored by Penner, when he signed the passport picture and application for Kim Wong Hong, the South Korean who has been in a Taiwanese prison since August and is the subject of an extradition request from his country.

Kim Won Hong is said to be the mastermind behind a maze of financial crimes involving the embezzling of millions of dollars from a large South Korean firm, SK Shipping Company. Chey Tae-won, an executive of SK Shipping, has been convicted and is serving time in prison for his role in the embezzlement scam.

Hong, however, was attempting to avoid extradition by using his newly acquired Belize passport, for which Penner was allegedly paid U.S. $120, 000, according to news reports.

Hong’s passport, which is dated September 9, was expedited, although he may not have been qualified for Belize nationality papers.

In signing his nationality application, Penner stated that he has known Hong for three years as a friend. But it is doubtful if Hong has ever set foot in Belize.

Kim Won Hong’s new Belizean passport was hand-delivered by a diplomat from a third country, a government source confirmed.

The passport was reportedly taken to Taiwan by a Belize City Councillor, who was a member in a delegation led by Mayor Darrell Bradley.

The letter from the Office of the Prime Minister which announced Penner’s firing from cabinet offered no details about the magnitude of his involvement in the passport scandal.

It only said that  Penner has been “asked to resign” from cabinet on the grounds that he “did not discharge his responsibilities with either the due judgment and balance, or the scrupulous regard for appearances.”

When he was contacted last week, the Cayo Northeast Area Representative, who won his seat by only 17 votes in the General Elections of March 2012, the lowest margin of victory, would only say that he was elected to server his constituency under the United Democratic Party and that he intends to continue serving his constituency to the best of his ability.

Under Penner’s watch, however, there has been multiple scandals at the Immigration Department involving the questionable issuance of Belize nationality papers and passports.

In the run up to the 2012 General Elections, Elvin Penner was feverishly arranging nationality papers for a large number of immigrants in his constituency. His boast on national television was that he paid, out of his own pocket, half the cost of the nationality application one hundred persons in his constituency to obtain their citizenship papers–making them eligible to vote in the elections. He said he paid around $15,000 for the paperwork alone for the 100 persons.

But the Immigration Department survived the pre-election wave of nationality applications without any serious inquiry into its activities.

Less than a year, however, the Immigration Director, Ruth Meighan, who had presided over the pre-election naturalization waves was transferred from the department.

Rumors in public service circles insisted that Meighan was forced out, because she and Penner could not see eye to eye.

Penner, however, has not been the only immigration ministerial casualty. During the first term of the Dean Barrow led UDP government, Carlos Perdomo lost the immigration portfolio, after numerous scandals involving the granting of Belize visas and passports from the Belize embassy in Havana to Asians, who were landing by the plane loads at the Phillip Goldson International Airport.

Following Carlos Perdomo’s tour of duty at immigration, John Saldivar took over the reigns of immigration minister. But Saldivar was relieved of the immigration portfolio in June 2012, when PM Barrow decided to move the Immigration Department out of the Ministry of National Security, leaving Saldivar to focus on the national security alone.

In October 2012, government shut down its Belize City passport office, until new, stringent procedures were put in place for obtaining a Belize passport.

Blades surmised that a forensic audit of the entire Immigration Department is also urgently needed.

He added that the PSU will issue a press statement on the immigration scandal investigation of its members on Friday.

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