BELIZE CITY, Tues. Sept. 15, 2015–Following Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow’s announcement yesterday, Monday, that he had negotiated a payment settlement for the Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL) acquisition with the Ashcroft alliance, the House of Representatives met today for a special sitting to introduce and pass, in one sitting, the Telecommunications Acquisition Settlement Bill 2015.
The settlement, which PM Barrow said he personally negotiated with Lord Michael Ashcroft, has three components related to the government’s July 2011 nationalization of BTL, the country’s premier telecommunications provider, over which the Barrow administration has been locked in protracted legal battles for the past six years.
Opposition Leader, Hon. Francis Fonseca, during the debate on the Telecommunications Acquisition Settlement Bill, lashed out at Prime Minister Barrow, for his “wrongheaded” approach to a loan that BTL had secured from British Caribbean Bank and which Barrow had insisted he would not repay, because the government had viewed the loan from the Ashcroft-affiliated bank as illegal.
Fonseca told the House that the government settled the BTL acquisition because the pending decision from the Caribbean Court of Justice would have ruled in the favor of the previous owners. No one will ever know now, however, how the CCJ would have ruled in the complex nationalization case, which also featured a constitutional challenge to the government’s 8th Constitutional amendment.
In the matter of the British Caribbean Bank loan to BTL, Fonseca told the House, “One is, as you know, the settlement in full from the Permanent Court of Arbitration Award; that is the British Caribbean Bank and the Government of Belize, which amounts to some 97 million dollars.”
Fonseca added, “Really, Mr. Speaker, the scandal here is that we are paying sixteen percent interest over six years. Six years, that is 97 million, let’s be clear. The original loan was for 22.5 million US, which is 45 million Belize dollars with interest of sixteen percent over six years that has now amounted to 97 million Belize dollars. It went from 45 million dollars to 97 million Belize dollars, all because of one man’s stubborn pettiness.”
Fonseca said that the third part of the settlement is a blank check and may very well cost more than $300 million, and the legal fees that the government said was in the region of $4 million could be doubled when the final figures of the settlement are worked out.
“We really don’t have a full settlement,” Fonseca told the House. “It’s opened and un-quantified.”
Prime Minister Barrow responded, telling the House that it is exaggerated and erroneous to say that taxpayers will have to pay this settlement.
He then went into the history of the secret deals the Said Musa-led administration entered into regarding BTL.
“Let me make clear that it is convoluted and simply wrong-headed to say that the taxpayers of this country are finding even a penny to pay that BCB loan award,” Barrow told the House. “It comes from the company, Belize Telemedia, and you cannot say, well, because the Government and people own Telemedia, this is somehow to be equated with costing the tax payers of the country. That is ridiculous.”
PM Barrow explained that BTL, although its shares are majority-owned by government, is autonomous and is run as a private company by its board of directors.
“One thing that I must also make clear: I have never said that I will not pay the BCB award; that’s an award that just came down. The award that I said I would not pay is the Accommodation Agreement award, because from the start we refuse to honor the Accommodation Agreement when its existence was finally revealed to us. The previous owners took us to arbitration over our breach, over our refusal to honor the Accommodation Agreement, and they got an award and it is that award that I said I would not pay, and I still maintain that I will not pay it,” Barrow told the House.
Barrow explained that an enforcement order was made in a US court with respect to the Accommodation Agreement, but no one has come to Belize to try to enforce it, because no court in Belize would countenance a flagrantly illegal agreement.
“The last point made by the Leader of the Opposition — I was afraid because I would be castigated by the CCJ, but again, I don’t know how he can say that. I don’t know how he knows how the result would have turned out, so that is the worst kind of baseless speculation, but what is a fact, what is in the record is that the CCJ already castigated him and the member for Fort George. They are the two described by the CCJ as ‘malignant tumors,’” Barrow said.
The three components of the government BTL settlement with the Ashcroft alliance involve Dunkel International Investment Ltd., British Caribbean Bank and the BTL Employees Trust.