The disgraced former Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration was granted bail of $2,000
One hundred and eighty-nine days after Prime Minister Dean Barrow fired Minister of State Elvin Penner on September 19, 2013, for his issuance of a Belize passport and nationality paper for an unqualified South Korean criminal, Won Hong Kim, the Cayo North East area representative was arraigned this morning in the Belmopan Magistrate’s Court on two criminal charges filed in a private lawsuit by the grassroots activist organization Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA).
The COLA case against Penner comes after months of at least three government investigations that have yielded no results.
Although it appeared that immigration laws had been broken, the Hon. Godwin Hulse, Minister of Immigration, told the nation that their internal investigations dealt only with public officers of the department, and Penner was not going to be questioned because he did not fall under the rules of the public service.
There have been an Auditor General investigation, an internal Ministry of Immigration investigation and an investigation by the Financial Intelligence Unit, all of which produced nothing.
Media representatives began gathering around the courthouse from as early as 8:30 this morning to await the arrival of Penner, who had failed to show up earlier this week for the 2014/2015 budget debate at the House of Representatives, fuelling speculation that he may be out of the country.
But around 9:00 a.m., a small convoy of vehicles arrived in front of the court building carrying supporters from Penner’s constituency. They began disembarking, and took up positions to shield Penner from the media’s cameras, as he and his wife made their way upstairs into the Magistrate’s Court, where his arraignment was going to take place before Magistrate Aretha Ford.
Inside the courtroom, Penner took his seat inside the prisoner’s dock. Attorney Kareem Musa, who is prosecuting the case on COLA’s behalf, asked for a copy of the court book listing the two charges. When Magistrate Ford was ready to begin reading the charges to Penner, she asked him to stand.
The first charge, under the Passport Act, was for “vouching the fitness.” Magistrate Ford read: “For that you Elvin Penner, on or about the 3rd day of September 2013, at Belmopan in the Cayo Judicial District, signed a recommendation for a passport to be issued to Won Hong Kim without having actual knowledge of the applicant, verifying the declaration of the said applicant or vouching the fitness of such applicant to receive a passport, contrary to Section 3 (1) (h) of the Passport Act, Chapter 164 of the Laws of Belize, Revised Edition 2003.”
“How do you plead?” Ford asked him.
“Not guilty,” Penner answered.
The Magistrate read the second charge of “Making a statement which he knows to be false in a material particular.”
“For that you, Elvin Penner, committed the crime of ‘making a statement which he knew to be false in a material particular’ in a nationality certificate for the purpose of procuring a passport to South Korean Won Hong Kim,” continued Ford.
The Magistrate went on to state, “For that you, Elvin Penner, on or about the 3rd day of September 2013, at Belmopan in the Cayo Judicial District, signed a Belize Nationality Certificate for a South Korean national Won Hong Kim for the purpose of procuring the issue of a passport to the said Won Hong Kim, which you knew to be false in a material particular, in that the said Won Hong Kim did not and does not have the status of a citizen of Belize, contrary to Section 22 of the Belize Nationality Act Chapter 161 of the Laws of Belize.”
Penner again pleaded not guilty.
The Magistrate asked if there was any objection to the granting of bail to Penner. Penner’s attorney, Senior Counsel Ellis Arnold, rose and said, “I don’t think my learned friend would object to bail.”
Prosecutor Musa affirmed that he had no objection to bail, and Magistrate Ford set the bail amount to $2,000, plus one surety of the same amount.
The hearing was adjourned to May 29, at which time disclosure of the evidence will also be provided to both sides.
But this week, as the so-called Penner passport scandal was about to enter a new phase with the private lawsuit filed by the COLA president Geovanni Brackett and a representative of a group known as “Commoners,” Nedal Jihad McLaren, the Government of Prime Minister Dean O. Barrow served notice of appeal of a writ of mandamus to attorney Edwin Flowers, Senior Counsel, who represented Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Francis Fonseca, who had succeeded in obtaining a writ of mandamus from Chief Justice Kenneth Benjamin against Commissioner of Police Allen Whylie.
Whylie, the Opposition and many citizens and other organizations believe, had refused to carry out his duty to investigate Penner in respect of the passport scandal involving Won Hong Kim.
In an interview on Wednesday, attorney Flowers told Amandala that Commissioner Whylie is still bound by the decision of the Chief Justice to continue with his investigation. The filing of the government appeal against that decision does not affect it, unless an order is given by the court to stay the mandamus judgment.
Following Thursday morning’s arraignment, COLA president Brackett told reporters that “even the worst criminals have supporters.”
Brackett was responding to a question about the support Penner has from members of his constituency, who travelled with him to Belmopan.
“That does not intimidate us. Today is a historical day, because a grassroots organization had to step in and have Penner charged,” Brackett said.
He said the issuing of the writ of mandamus and the coming on board of Director of Public Prosecutions Cheryl-Lynn Vidal has helped to strengthen COLA’s case against Penner.
“But we are not contented with the behavior of the Commissioner of Police in the direction that he has carried out the investigation of this matter,” Bracket said.
Attorney Musa said that COLA had done a great job, because they have brought a former minister of government to be criminally charged, and he was offered bail, just as any other normal Belizean would have been.
Musa added, “There are many ministers of government who think that they are abnormal. They need to face the courts as well.”
Referring to the charges against Penner, Musa said, “This is what Belizeans have been clamoring for.”
Amandala asked Musa how important is the missing Won Hong Kim file to the Penner case. He said the file is absolutely important to the case.
Musa said the ministers think they are doing something good by covering up Penner’s misdeed. There has to be a paper trail of who took that file out of the Immigration Department, he said.
Musa said that the case is a huge undertaking for COLA because Penner is a sitting area representative. But the DPP is thinking about the more serious offences under Section 178 of the Criminal Code, Musa pointed out.
The two offences for which Penner was arraigned are the same two offences that the Opposition was pursuing in the writ of mandamus application, said Musa, adding “that is why I did not object to bail for Penner.”
The COLA prosecutor said that the government’s appeal will have no effect on the present case and it would be “political suicide for the government to apply for a stay of execution of the mandamus order.”
McLaren said that this is one big cover-up. “It’s corruption from all the way at the Cabinet level, to the police. Today is a sad day,” he said.
DPP Vidal has indicated that under the provision of Section 178 of the Criminal Code, the allegations against Penner are not statute-barred, and charges, if they are brought against him, would be on indictment. This means that they would have to be heard in the Supreme Court.
But for the time being, the DPP is still awaiting the outcome of directives that she has given to the police, for her to determine if she will lay charges against Penner.