Headline — 02 September 2017 — by Micah Goodin
Corruption, corruption, corruption!!!

Victim’s lawyer wrote PM Barrow, saying that her signature was forged in Lands Department documents for land that eventually ended up in Andre Vega’s hands

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Aug. 31, 2017–There is more trouble, serious trouble, brewing for former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources Margarito Gaspar “Gapi” Vega, and his son, Andre Vega.
The trouble stems from an accusation of forgery made by Amy Forte, a Belmopan resident who, according to what is purported in certain Lands Department documents, bought a lot on Caye Caulker from Government, and then allegedly sold the land to Andre Vega the following year, but who denies even being aware of such a transaction.

A Minister’s Fiat, No. 175 of 2009, of May 18, 2009, in the name of Amy Forte of 1 Baboon Street, Belmopan, for the sum of $2,500, bears a signature over the title of “Minister.” Gaspar Vega was Minister of Lands from 2008 to 2015.

Forte saw, on the news last week, that according to the documents, she bought the land from Government and then sold it to Andre Vega.

Forte did not take the matter lying down. She hired a lawyer and a fingerprint expert and then wrote Prime Minister Dean Barrow, who is now the Minister of Lands, this week, telling him that her signature on the Lands document was a forgery, and in fact, denying that she was in any way involved in the land scam.

The letter said that “she was only made aware of the issuance of title in her name during the Channel 7 newscast…moreover, Ms. Forte did not pay any purchase price sums to the government…for the property allegedly acquired by her, nor did she transfer any property to Andre Vega.”

It continued, “Ms. Forte has never met Andre Vega and did not receive the sum of thirty thousand dollars or any other sum of money from either Andre Vega or any member of the Vega family.”

“Ms. Forte has caused an investigation to be conducted in the producing of her signature on the deed of conveyance…and has been reliably advised that her signature, as it appeared in the said document, is a FORGERY,” the letter added.

In support of her claim, she tendered the evidence from the fingerprint expert, whose professional opinion was that, based on Forte’s signature which was provided to him, the signature appearing on the document was a forgery.

In the letter, Forte asked Barrow “to cancel the title and conveyance” because her signature had been forged.

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) responded to Forte with a press release on Wednesday.

“Ms. Forte and her attorney have further provided to the Prime Minister a preliminary certificate of a handwriting expert asserting that the signature purporting to be Ms. Forte’s, and which appears on a Deed of Conveyance of the said land to Andre Vega, is not genuine. This is notwithstanding the fact that a JP ‘authenticated’ Ms. Forte’s signature,” said the statement.

It continued, “…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 Belize Police Department has thus been asked by the OPM to conduct an immediate investigation into the matter with a view to bringing criminal charges against any person or persons responsible for forgery.”

“In addition, the Lands Department will move to cancel both Grant no. 175 of 2009 and the Deed of Conveyance to Andre Vega dated 17th February 2010. As well, the Department will cancel the title for 7 acres on Mosquito Caye granted to Andre Vega as compensation for the fact that the land under Grant no. 175 of 2009 was privately owned at the time of the Minister’s purported grant and subsequent transactions. Such compensation cannot stand since the Deed of Conveyance that triggered the compensation was fraudulently executed and legally invalid,” the statement concluded.

Hours after this statement, Estevan Perera, the attorney representing Andre Vega, wrote Sharon Ramclam Young, the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources.

In that letter he stated, “Recent news reports regarding the Caye Caulker property which our client purchased in May of 2009 suggest that there were some issues with the purchase.”

Perera claimed that Andre Vega did not purchase the property himself but through a land agent.

“It is important to note that purchases are often done through land agents which eliminate the need for the vendor and purchaser to meet. Our client received the original 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,” he said.

According to him, since the Deed of Conveyance contained the signature of a Justice of the Peace, Vega did not doubt its authenticity.

“Unfortunately it turned out that the property was not available and as a result the Ministry of Natural Resources agreed to compensate our client by providing him with a substitute property located at Mosquito Caye,” said Perera.

According to him, Vega is prepared to relinquish his rights to the property located at Mosquito Caye to prevent any further problems.

When Amandala asked Perera who was Vega’s land agent, he refused to provide a name, but claimed that the agent was based in Caye Caulker.

While we do not know who the land agent is, we can confirm that Ms. Darlene Padron was the Justice of the Peace (JP) to sign the questionable documents.

During Ignacio Gaspar “Gapi” Vega’s tenure as the Minister of Natural Resources, his family, friends and associates acquired hundreds of acres of prime land, for a pittance.

In some cases, the properties were acquired directly from the Government of Belize by the Vegas. In other cases, the properties were acquired by a small group of persons, linked to the Vegas, who then quickly transferred them to the Minister’s relatives at dirt cheap rates.

This was seen in the transfers of properties to the Vegas in Carmelita, Orange Walk District; Spanish Creek, in the Belize District; and Ramsey Caye, also in the Belize District.

When asked for a comment last week on what appeared to be wholesale hustling of land by former Deputy Prime Minister Vega, Prime Minister Dean Barrow responded: “Why would I look at those documents? What it is; is what it is. You are able to document that people, on the face of it, legitimately got land, and that they ended up afterwards selling it to particular persons. I don’t know that there is any actionable illegality there.”

However, this week Barrow ordered a criminal investigation into the forgery that was possibly committed in the transferal of Caye Caulker properties to the Vegas.

Documents from the Lands Department state that Krystel Guzman, Darrel Henry and Amy Forte were sold three parcels of land on Caye Caulker back in 2007.

They then purportedly sold their parcels to Ignacio German Vega, Karen Vega, Eduardo Vega and Andre Vega.

The Vegas were later compensated with land on Mosquito Caye, next to Leonardo Di Caprio’s Blackadore Caye, after it was made clear that the lands they had purchased were privately owned.

The transfers and compensations happened smoothly and below the radar until Amy Forte saw her name in the news.

Through her lawyer’s letter, she denied making such sales to the Vegas, and also denied ever receiving title for land in Caye Caulker.

In a press conference on Wednesday the leader of the People’s United Party (PUP), John Briceño, shared more about the Justice of the Peace who signed the documents, Darlene Padron.

“Interestingly, the fraudulent conveyance bears the signature of Ms. Darlene Padron, a Justice of the Peace who worked at the Ministry of Lands under Vega,” he said. “We know that she is a UDP operative. She has put her name forward to try to represent the UDP both in San Felipe and in Orange Walk South,” Briceño then went on to reveal.

“So then, Darlene Padron, as the Justice of the Peace, signed that she saw that Amy Forte signed the land and then that she, Amy Forte, signed the conveyance to transfer the land to Andre Vega and I can assure you that there have been countless other files that Darlene Padron has signed. We need to investigate all the documents that Darlene Padron, JP signed,” he said.

This recent revelation has caused an outcry from the Public Service Union (PSU), the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU) and the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI).

The PSU issued a statement noting the increased incidents of reported acts of corruption in several Government ministries. It supports the investigation into allegations of fraud at the Ministry of Lands, but asked that, “this investigation be extended to include other questionable land transactions at the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources under the tenure of the former Lands Minister Gaspar Vega.” “The Ministry of Works and the Ministry of Health must also be similarly investigated for alleged acts of corruption”, it said.

For its part, in its statement, the BNTU reminded the Prime Minister and his government that, “last year we demanded and became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Anti-Corruption (UNCAC), and therefore, schemes such as this most recent one must be immediately investigated and addressed with the implementation of structurally tangible measures.”

According to the BNTU, the Public Accounts Committee and the Integrity Commission must now engage in full gear to maintain a check and balance.

Another important body, the BCCI, in its statement, said, “Despite evidence of blatant abuse of office for personal gain, the Prime Minister has commented that he doubts there is any ‘actionable illegality.’”

“With due respect to the office, it is not for any Prime Minister to make that determination. Corruption accusations must be subjected to the same judicial scrutiny to which any other criminal accusation would be subjected. The BCCI therefore calls upon the relevant authorities to investigate the allegations of acquisition of land and improper compensation so exhaustively discussed in the media,” said the BCCI in its statement.

The Police Department has released a report confirming that the Major Crimes Unit will be investigating the allegations of fraud made by Amy Forte to the Prime Minister. According to the Police Press Office, the matter will be investigated promptly and thoroughly, after which a file will be submitted to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for further directives.

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