BELMOPAN, Cayo District, Wed. Apr. 26, 2017–After a brief hiatus, the Senate Select Committee resumed its probe into the Auditor General’s Special Audit into the Passport, Visa and Nationality Departments for the period 2011-2013.
The audit had documented that in the late months of 2012, a total of eight visa stickers were removed from the Immigration Department’s Western border by an Immigration officer and given to a man identified as a visa agent and known at the time only as “Mr. Middleton.”
Middleton reportedly took those visas and sold them to the Belize City Council Financial Controller, Patrick Tillet, and former Belize City Deputy Mayor, Eric Chang. However, those visas were unusable and the duo attempted to recover their money from Middleton, but were unable to do so.
Tillett and Chang were previously ordered to appear in front of the committee, but had declined, and only showed up after they were both issued summons. Chang denied any involvement, while Tillett confirmed that he was paid $5,000 to process some visas for a number of Chinese nationals. Shockingly, of the $5,000 he said he received, he claimed to have paid Middleton $3,000.
Interestingly, he was unable to assist the committee with a name, address and number for Middleton. The committee was unable to find Middleton until senior Immigration officer, Inez Cassanova, appeared to testify. She revealed that he was Orange Walk resident Barton Middleton. The Auditor General’s report had alleged that he was her common-law husband, but Cassanova strongly denied that allegation. Instead she claimed that she had only known him because he was the brother of one of her colleagues.
When Middleton appeared in front of the committee, however, he appeared to be suffering from a severe case of amnesia. He repeatedly blurted out, “I do not recall,” “maybe,” and “I don’t know.” He told the committee that he had had surgery to the back of his head while in Corozal, which may have affected him. However, when he was asked what medication he had been taking for his recovery, he stated that he had been taking only hypertension medication.
Additionally, Middleton claimed that he was reluctant to comment because he was fearful for his life, and with that statement, the committee did not proceed with any further questions until he was called back today for further interrogation.
At the start of today’s Senate hearing, Middleton invoked his “constitutional rights” and declined further comment. It was the shortest appearance ever made before the committee, clocking less than 6 minutes.
Here is a portion of the exchange that took place during those 6 minutes:
Senator Eamon Courtenay: “I had an opportunity to review the transcript of your evidence for the Senate Select Committee and I have to tell you that I found ninety-nine percent of it to be incredible. Is there anything that you might have said on the last occasion that you wish to change?”
Barton Middleton: “What I have to say is, today I will exercise my constitutional rights, and I don’t have anything else to say to this committee.”
Courtenay: “Mr. Middleton, when you say you exercise your constitutional right and have nothing else to say, why is that?”
Middleton: “I don’t have to explain, Sir. I don’t have anything else to say; that is my constitutional right. I don’t have to give a reason. I don’t have anything else to say.”
Courtenay: “Well, I was about to thank you, but I won’t.”
Senator Aldo Salazar: “Thank you. I wish to highlight something. You are within your right based on the provisions of the Constitution to refuse to say anything, especially in a situation where what you may say may incriminate you, but based on your last performance here before us, we find it necessary to make it very clear to everybody, to the persons, especially, who have been before us and to you, without having to cast any aspersions which those persons and yourself may have already cast on yourselves.
“We need to make it clear that these proceedings are to be taken very seriously. This is the upper house of our National Assembly; we are a pillar of our democracy and we expect that persons should carry themselves in accordance. With that in mind, with the fact that we require proper decorum, we require the truth because there are serious repercussions, and I think that people … have not been taking it as seriously as they should, because they are not aware that they’re liable to serious penalties and I wish to highlight that apart from what I mentioned on the last occasion, persons appearing before us who commit perjury are liable on indictment to ten years in prison.
“Apart from that, in accordance with our legislative assembly powers and privileges, any person who does a number of things, including giving false evidence, or misconducts [himself or herself] as a witness, is also liable to up to two years in prison.
“ Primarily, because of what this committee feels has been viewed by some witnesses, to treat this procedure as if it is some sort of comedy, we have determined that whenever we have felt and feel that persons may have perjured themselves, or may have conducted themselves in a manner which violates the sanctity of these proceedings and which may be viewed by a court as an offense under the legislative powers and privileges or under the criminal code — we have decided that we will hand over all information and evidence that we have to the office of Director Of Public Prosecutions, so that she may determine whether any charges will be brought against anybody who has appeared before us prior to today’s date.
“I take this opportunity, with the consent of my colleagues, to issue a very stern warning to anybody else who feel that these proceedings are to be flaunted and are not to be afforded the respect and dignity that they deserve, that we will, where we deem fit, take actions to ensure that the relevant authorities are given the opportunity to look for any breaches of our laws and to enforce the laws of Belize.
“Having said that, thank you for coming today; it is your right not to say anything further…”
And with that, Salazar dismissed Middleton.