Headline — 11 October 2013
“For God’s sake, stop it!”

In the press conference about the “Penner Passport Scandal,” PM Barrow admitted that he had heard reports that some of his Ministers were involved in a visa scam – but had no proof!

Barrow said what Penner did was “damned wrong”; he is “absolutely ashamed” of him; “he can never return to the UDP Cabinet”… but the PM has
“an interest in preserving the government of the UDP.”

Prime Minister Dean Barrow has confirmed in a very ‘informative’ press conference held at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel this afternoon, which included Immigration Minister Godwin Hulse; the Director of Immigration, Mrs. Maria Marin; and the CEO in the Ministry of Immigration, Mrs. Candelaria Saldivar-Morter, that he too has heard reports that a number of Cabinet Ministers are involved in corruption, to wit, the selling of visas to foreign nationals, mainly from Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

The Prime Minister told the press that he has spoken to them repeatedly about the allegations. He had no proof, but told them “if you are doing it, for God’s sake, stop it! Stop it!!”

The information came almost in an aside to a press conference held to address what has become known as the “Penner Passport Scandal.” Penner, former Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration and Nationality, has been fingered in an extremely embarrassing scandal in which a Belizean passport, in the name of a South Korean national Won Hong Kim, was obtained, and actually was on its way to be delivered to Kim who was sitting in a Taiwan jail and had never set foot in Belize.

The documents were signed by Minister of State Elvin Penner, who had won his seat by a mere 17 votes, amid much controversy concerning the procurement of immigration documents for members of his constituency who originated from other Central American countries around us.

PM Barrow apologized profusely to the nation for the scandal, and said that what Penner did was “damned wrong,” and he, Barrow, was “absolutely ashamed” of him and that Penner “could never return to the UDP Cabinet.”

However, these sentiments did not stop PM Barrow from throwing the weight of his party behind the disgraced Penner, who was summarily fired by the Prime Minister when the corruption was first uncovered, and is under heavy fire by the Opposition PUP to vacate his Cayo North East constituency.

According to Barrow, this is bigger than Penner. We are going to Cayo North East because we have an interest in presevering the government of the United Democratic Party, he said. Barrow said that the UDP have done a very good job bringing development to Belize. What is left unsaid is that if Penner is somehow recalled and the UDP lose the Cayo North East seat, their hold in parliament would be reduced to a very uncomfortable 16-15 margin.

In response to the PUP effort, ranking ministers Hon. Gaspar Vega, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources; Hon. Boots Martinez, Minister of Human Development; and Hon. Michael Finnegan, Minister of Housing, are in Penner’s Cayo North East constituency to campaign on his behalf in the face of strong pressure from the Opposition PUP to have Penner recalled because of his role in the worst passport scandal to hit Barrow’s administration in its two terms.

Penner, for his part, is reported to have been apologizing for his disastrous behavior to his constituents and asking them to forgive him, a refrain echoed by his former Cabinet colleagues.

The press conference began with Minister Hulse profusely apologizing for the corruption within the department. He then announced a slew of improvements to laws governing the passport and nationality sections of the Immigration Department, with proposed penalties jumping from the $500 limit to $50,000 and 5 to 15 years jail time.

It was clear that Hulse was serious about giving the existing laws much-needed muscle and teeth, but the follow-up questions were not about his bold endeavor. The media wanted to know about Penner himself, and the terribly embarrassing (and potentially dangerous, to the Barrow administration) passport and immigration scandal.

PM Barrow told the media that he had remarked to his Cabinet colleagues that “If there is one thing that will sink this government, it is an immigration scandal.” That may be the reason why there is now proposed a comprehensive restructuring of the Immigration and Nationality Departments.

According to Hulse, proposals have been put in place at the Immigration and Nationality departments to ensure that future scandals of this magnitude do not happen. Hulse mentioned that they implemented the proposals to “arrest the situation” and restore confidence in the departments, and this will be carried out by a “rigorous” restructuring committee. The “scrutinizing” committee will be put into action to conduct a complete overhaul of the system, and their intention, as Hulse said, will be to “flesh out” the criteria under which the Minister of Immigration can issue passports. As a part of this venture, the ‘Form C’ nationality application document will now be revised to eliminate the possibility of fraudulence. This revision will now require a fingerprint of the applicant, in addition to the signatures of the Minister (of Immigration), the officer in charge, and the Director of Immigration. Also, a signed oath of allegiance will be attached, and the seal will be amended to adhere to the certificate.

Apart from these measures, Hulse promised that the law which governs the Nationality processes will also be changed. That law, known as the Nationality Act – specifically Section (16) – will be modified so that applicants can only get a Nationality certificate if the oath of allegiance has been taken. That is to ensure that the applicant personally goes to the Nationality Department to take the oath, making it impossible to receive Belizean nationality without the oath being taken.

In terms of the Immigration Department, “stringent” measures have also been put in place to control the process of receiving a Belizean passport. This was because Minister Hulse admitted that there was no way to verify that a person is actually who he/she claims to be. As a result, the administrators have attached five additional steps in order to obtain a Belizean passport. One of those additional steps entails that the Immigration personnel at the front desk verify that the person who made the application, is in fact the same person who is pictured on the application documents.

The Nationality Act will also be strengthened so that offenders can now be charged up to $50,000 and face 5 to 15 years imprisonment.

As part of the new rules, Immigration officers, like Customs officers, will now be required to submit a report of their assets and liabilities on a yearly basis.

The Immigration officers have also been saddled with identification numbers on their uniforms for proper identification. The Immigration Minister said that this practice was recommended because there have always been complaints of fraudulent activities in the past, but no one has had the courage to come forward and identify the person/s involved. The ID numbers were created so that the Immigration officers could otherwise be identified.

Hulse and his team have also decided to create a Visa Vetting Committee, which will consist of the Chief Executive Officers of the Ministries of Immigration, Human Development and National Security and the Director of Immigration. The personnel from the Ministry of Human Development will be there to examine for cases of human trafficking.

All these measures are intended to “secure the integrity and dignity of the Belizean passport”, according to Minister Hulse.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow then addressed the gathering. After providing his initial apology for the embarrassing debacle, he went on to say that the scandal “demonstrates the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people” and acknowledged that no system that is put in place can be “fail-safe.” Barrow commented that he could not have had a better Minister of Immigration, and said that with the “restart”, they will be able to do much better to prevent the sale of passports within the Immigration department.

In explaining his regret once more, Barrow stated that he is extremely sorry that this has happened under the UDP administration and even sorrier that one of his ministers was at the center of the fiasco. He said that the new legislation will put the country back on a “path of sanity” and that they (government) will always be open to suggestions to do better.

With all the apologies and explanations, many questions regarding the passport scandal are still unanswered. CEO Saldivar-Morter made the point that the Hon. Penner is out of her jurisdiction, and the Prime Minister has said that any accusations of criminal behavior by him will have to come from either the FIU, or the police.

PM Barrow said publicly today that when he fired Penner, that was Penner’s “proper” punishment – to “never be a member of the UDP Cabinet again.”

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