Chairman of the Social Security Board (SSB), Lois Young, commenced the process today of trying to engage an external auditor to look into allegations that over 20 SSB staff from varying ranks had been involved in what she has described as an apparent “insider trading” scheme, involving a proposed multi-million-dollar, mortgage write-off program initiated by Central Government.
It has been widely reported that the staff members tried to gain an unfair advantage in trying to get their mortgages written off, when they got a wind of information, even before a public announcement was made, that Prime Minister Dean Barrow would move to write off millions in mortgages which fit under the $50,000 ceiling.
SSB has come under a lot of pressure since the reports began circulating via the media, and the SSB board held an emergency meeting on Wednesday afternoon to decide on some immediate steps to address the controversy.
Young would not comment on the details, but confirmed that SSB’s Chief Executive Officer, Merlene Bailey-Martinez, and the internal auditor, Denise Mahler, have been asked to stand down for at least two weeks, while the urgent review takes place. Both Mahler and Martinez, we are told, are on administrative leave with salary and benefits.
The internal auditor, who holds a “special watchdog” position, is listed on SSB’s website as a member/secretary of the Audit Committee, as well as the manager of SSB’s Internal Audit Services.
Bailey-Martinez came into public prominence when she sat as member and then chair of the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) Commission of Inquiry, which probed into allegations of financial impropriety at the Corporation.
Amandala contacted Mrs. Martinez for comment following this development, but she declined, saying that she does not want to prejudice the investigations.
Young told us that, “The [SSB] fund has lost no money and people need to be assured of that. There has been no misappropriation of funds, in any way whatsoever.”
The SSB staff had reportedly gotten loans from commercial banks to reduce their mortgage balance, just enough to qualify for the write-off; however, Young told our newspaper on Monday that the list had been closed since October 2011, and anyone trying to get on the list after that date would, in effect, bump someone else off it.
How many SSB staff members were hoping to be included in the write-off? When we asked Young for a figure, she said that would be ascertained during the review, but there are minimally 21.
Speaking with the media on Wednesday morning, just hours before the emergency SSB board meeting, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Dean Barrow, under whose portfolio the SSB falls, said that two persons on the September 30, 2011, list turned out to be dead and their insurance had taken care of their balances, but apart from those spaces, or spaces left by properties for which the SSB may have subsequently foreclosed, there are no more open spaces. There are reportedly 782 people on the draft list.
We understand that Barrow had already circulated a preliminary list among UDP insiders, and a final list, he said, would be taken to the National Assembly on Friday, when the write-off motion would be tabled.
“Nobody who paid down after I, in fact, concluded the deal or who paid down in contemplation of my concluding the deal will be allowed to get on the list,” he told the media. “If spaces open up in the normal course, SSB would have to ask the government who it wants to slot into those spaces.”
Barrow also said that “…the only way they could get on that list is if SSB wrote off their loans, [because]… government has paid $6.9 million, and that’s where it stands.”
As for the accusations laid against CEO Martinez, Barrow was reluctant to comment.
In a statement issued by the Opposition People’s United Party on Tuesday, the party commented: “Purportedly, the CEO of the Social Security Board (SSB), Mrs. Bailey Martinez has obtained a loan from the SSB staff program which has been reduced in order to benefit from the GOB mortgage write off program. Furthermore, it is alleged that certain ‘select’ members of staff of the SSB have obtained loans at commercial banks and other lending institutions in Belize, to pay down these mortgages, to take their balances below $50,000 in order to benefit as well.
“It is further alleged that these select members of staff of the SSB have been promised that once the balances of $50K (and lesser amounts) are forgiven by GOB, these same staff members will be facilitated with SSB staff loans to pay back the commercial banks; so as to be able to pay at a concessionary rates on any monies still owed.”
We note that any such move would only be valid if endorsed by the SSB’s board of directors, which includes representatives of both workers and employers, who are the contributors to the SSB’s fund.
Commenting on the charge against the SSB CEO on Wednesday, Barrow said: “Well, all I will say is Mrs. Bailey Martinez has confirmed to me that she is not proposing her name for even any kind of consideration in terms of whatever might be the Board’s decision, with respect to persons who did that, so I will leave it there.”
Barrow also said that the CEO, an ex-officio member of the SSB board, has indicated “…she is not in the mix at all in respect to meeting today, with respect to persons who might have paid down.”
“If this program was ever meant to help struggling Belizeans, then what it is alleged is happening at the SSB, could only be described as a travesty,” said the PUP statement.
Barrow said that “…clearly the SSB board will require a tracking list,” as well as records that will track the transactions with respect to all SSB staff member loans that were—as of the date when he was first given the list that said it was valid, up until September 30—not on that list, and the board will require a history of the movement with respect of those loans.
He said that the SSB board will know as a matter of record who paid down and who didn’t pay down.
SSB chairman Young told Amandala, “I feel so terrible about the whole thing.”