BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Oct. 19, 2017–The Government of Belize and the Michael Ashcroft companies which formerly controlled Belize Telemedia Limited before the 2009 nationalization appeared before justices at the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in Port of Spain, Trinidad, this morning, as they argued in a session spanning almost three and a half hours, over how the remaining 50% of the nearly half-a-billion arbitral award is to be split up.
According to information published by the CCJ, “The parties are seeking the Court’s interpretation of the terms of a Settlement Agreement (attached as a Schedule to the Telecommunications Acquisition Settlement Act No. 14 of 2015) made between them on September 11, 2015 for compensation to be paid by the Government of Belize for the compulsory acquisition of shares in Belize Telemedia Ltd. and associated securities and companies.”
Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow had told the nation after crafting the settlement agreement with Ashcroft in the run-up to the 2015 general elections that the portion of the award attributable to the disputed accommodation agreement would be earmarked for projects to benefit Belizeans; however, the devil was in the details of that now controversial agreement.
Appearing before the CCJ this morning, attorney for the Government of Belize, John Carrington, QC, a Trinidadian lawyer of Sabals Law Firm in the British Virgin Islands, in appearing with Belize’s Solicitor General Nigel Hawke, and counsels Agassi Finnegan and Magali Perdomo from the Attorney General’s Ministry, disputed the claims to the funds that are being made by the Ashcroft Alliance.
Representing the Trustees of the BTL Employees Trust and Dunkeld International Investments Ltd., two of the former shareholders, were Eamon Courtenay, SC, and Angeline Welsh.
Courtenay told the justices of the CCJ that their figures had been certified by their auditors and there is nothing in the agreement which gives room for the Government of Belize to demand a reassessment of the numbers.
The CCJ had earlier ruled that the second payment made by the Government of Belize last year was to have all been paid in US dollars, which ended up going entirely to the investors, although the Government contended that a portion should have been payable in Belize dollars for projects in Belize, since the accommodation agreement actually accounted for about 60% of the total award.
With the hefty bill submitted for legal and other expenses amounting to nearly $200 million, almost nothing from the final payment would be earmarked for projects in Belize, if the payment demand is affirmed.
Courtenay told the CCJ today that as a result of 8 years of ‘war’, his clients responded the way they did. He argued that the settlement agreement does not contain a “right to audit” clause or make provisions for the Government to call for a review of the figures.
Justice Adrian Saunders said that in hindsight, there had been no communication between the parties (the Government and the Ashcroft Alliance) to arrive at a process by which an agreed auditor would audit these figures. He said that if both sides had been locked into the process, there would not be a dispute before the court now, “but what has happened has happened, and we just have to see how we go forward from here,” he added.
Saunders said that the Government is asking for the invoices and underlying documents. According to Carrington, the government would employ an expert to review the matter.
Justice David Hayton said that by the Government signing an agreement which did not entail provisions for a proper audit in which they would have a say, it essentially gave up its right to have a say in the audit, because there is no provision for that in the agreement.
Carrington told the CCJ that the former shareholders of BTL never took the money that the Government had set aside for them, because they dispute the payment. The parties also dispute the point at which interest stops accruing: the Government says April, the Ashcroft Alliance says July, Carrington explained.
The CCJ has reserved judgment in the matter.