Headline — 30 April 2016 — by Rowland A. Parks
Crown loses $291,000 Treasury theft case

BELIZE CITY, Wed. Apr. 27, 2016–Three women walked out of the Supreme Court today free of the indictments for theft and handling stolen goods in respect of $291,022.36 that had gone missing from the government pension fund of the Treasury Department between September 2007 and May 2009.

Monica Escarpeta, 31, a second class clerk at the Treasury Department; her mother, Yvonne Bevans, 60; and Rhea Pennill, 34, were initially arraigned on theft and handling stolen goods charges in July 2009, and in November 2010, after a preliminary inquiry at the Magistrate’s Court.

In a Supreme Court trial which has been going on for over two months now, the government’s case against the three accused women came to a screeching halt when Supreme Court Justice John “Troadio” Gonzalez upheld a no case to answer submission from defense attorney Anthony Sylvestre, Jr., and instructed the 9-member jury to return formal not guilty verdicts this morning.

Escarpeta, a second class clerk at the Treasury Department, was charged with the theft of $291,022.36; Bevans was booked on a charge of handling stolen goods in respect of $12, 472.30 of the missing Treasury Department pension money, and Pennill was also charged with handling stolen goods for $151,967.

The trial began on February 22 and lasted until today, Wednesday, April 27; the members of the jury, who had listened to the evidence that the government presented through its 13 witnesses who testified, were denied the opportunity of deliberating on the evidence because it was ruled that the material presented did not amount to evidence according to the required legal standard that the court could have accepted.

According to the indictment against Escarpeta, the first defendant, the government had alleged, that between September 1, 2007, and May 31, 2009, she dishonestly appropriated the sum of $291,022.36 in cash from the Government of Belize, with intent to permanently deprive the Government of Belize.

In the case against Pennill, the second defendant, who was indicted for the crime of handling stolen goods, the allegations are that between April 24, 2008 and May 24, 2009, she dishonestly received the sum of $151,697 in cash, knowing the same to have been stolen or unlawfully obtained, and that it was the property of the Government of Belize.

Bevans, the third defendant, was indicted for the crime of handling stolen goods, the particulars of the crime being that on September 1, 2007 and December 31, 2007 she received the sum of $12,472.30 in cash, knowing or believing the same to be the property of the Government of Belize and to have been stolen or unlawfully obtained.

According to standard court procedure in the handling of legal arguments at a jury trial, the jury is excused from the courtroom until the legal argument ends, and upon their return, in the case of a no case to answer submission that is accepted by the judge, they are instructed to deliver the formal not guilty verdict.

In his no case submission, Sylvestre told the judge that he was making the submission in relation to all three defendants, and it was made under the first limb enunciated in the ruling of the R v Galbraith case, that there was no evidence of an essential ingredient of the offence, or there was no corroboration where required by law.

Sylvestre then listed the thirteen witnesses who testified for the prosecution. The witnesses included Dorothy Bradley, the former Accountant General; Erlene Betson, Assistant Accountant General; Mark Jones, Senior Auditor at the Auditor Department; Michelle Longsworth, Director of CITO; Emily Guy, Supervisor, Pension and Gratuity Section; and some second class clerks, police officers and other Treasury Department employees.

Sylvestre then systematically began to chisel away at the prosecution’s case, highlighting the inherent weakness in the evidence the key prosecution witnesses presented.

In the evidence presented by Dorothy Bradley, Sylvestre pointed out: “In cross-examination, the witness explained how payment is made to pensioners. Before payment is made, it must be approved, which is done by the Accountant General, Assistant Account General and Senior Finance Officer. She further explained that these are the persons who have access to the online payment system to get approval for final payment.”

“The witness explained further that besides approval for payment, there is another aspect of online payment. There is the downloading of information from the Smart Stream System and uploaded to the respective banks. It is done by the Information Technology Section,” she said.

Erlene Betson admitted that she could not know who prepared the “total sheets” in the Pension section, as “it does not bear the signature of the person who prepared it.”

The witness, Mark Jones, explained that he was called on July 1, 2009 to do an audit and that he was given access to the Smart Stream System and that he had found irregularities, that there were pensioners who were hired to the system (the language of the Government buraucracy in court) who did not have a prior history of working with the Government of Belize.

Jones found the names of two pensioners who were terminated, but were rehired, in the system.

Jones stated that, according to the reports, the user name of the person who ostensibly hired the pensioners was Escarpeta M.A. He, however, did not have “firsthand knowledge of who that user was.”

Emily Guy, the supervisor of the Pension and Gratuity Section, explained that once a person qualified for pension and gratuity, they would prepare what is called a casualty form, which was the responsibility of Corrine Garbutt. At times, however, she, Guy, would prepare the casualty forms. Guy explained to the court that a casualty register in which the information from the casualty forms was recorded had gone missing on July 7, 2009.

Guy said that on the day before, she had used the register and had left it on her desk, but when she returned to work the following day, it was not there.

Anna Bennett, the Accountant General, who at the time of the incident was the Supervisor of the payroll section, explained that she or the pension clerk would sign for the casualty register after it was prepared in the gratuity section.

Bennett also testified that the pension register, which contained the pension number, the name of the newly hired pensioners and the like, went missing on July 29, 2009, from a cupboard where she had put it.

So, essentially, the government’s case against the three accused persons faltered, and in the maze of the system’s checks and balances, the evidence required to secure a conviction was lost amidst the bureaucratic technicalities.

Sylvestre was able to show that although Mark Jones testified that a total of $398,843 was disbursed, his testimony was based on “information the witness recalls from reading a record or report.” “This is inadmissible hearsay evidence without more [evidence],” Sylvestre said.

Sylvestre further submitted, “The document which Mr. Jones spoke to had to be produced as evidence. That is the reason he was asked in cross-examination where the document/information he referred to, is. This document was not admitted into evidence. Therefore, the witness’ evidence of this fact is hearsay and therefore had not been established.”

The judge agreed with Sylvestre’s no case to answer submission on the basis that the prosecution, which was led by Crown Counsels Kilreu Awich and assisted by Rene Montero, Jr., had failed by means of the evidence it presented to establish the vital elements of the offense, so the indictment was discharged from the three accused women.

In Escarpeta’s situation, she had been interdicted from her job at the Treasury Department and thenceforth was only paid half of her salary; therefore, since she has been acquitted of the charges against her, Government now has to fork over the other half of her pay from the time the allegation was made against her in May 2009, almost seven years ago.

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