Features — 18 July 2014 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I do not know how many people see the juxtaposition of two developing situations in this country…. But if they don’t, I ask that you hear me out as I illustrate. This way our nation has been dealing with these two issues so alarming, but yet it shows the very injustice in our country where street criminals are deemed a more important target than white-collar criminals who do not even get a slap on the wrist.

Street crimes

I have asked some of the young black men I have had as clients how they manage to even wake up to live in Belize, when they by their demographics are a walking target for police. I told them I cannot imagine getting up and knowing that I have been blacklisted and that at every opportunity police would either harass me, round me up or just randomly stop and search me on the streets… why? Because I am black, young, live in the Southside, dress a certain way and do not have an “office” job and in some instances not even a primary or high school education. By virtue of those factors alone, without doing anything yet, I am a criminal.

I have had several of these very clients beaten up while in police custody. The most recent was hit in the head with a steel pipe and sustained a burst head. Another was locked up for full 48 hours, his wife forced to close down her place of work to allow a search of their home, and then she was fired because her boss had her own prejudices. These are their realities.

Then there is the gun law that sweeps away everybody in the premises where a gun or ammunition is found and even finds those not at home at the time, once their residency is established at said address. This law discriminates, in that it is always the homes of the poor that are raided, and yet it does not discriminate because it casts a very wide net and drags in all, except the big fish… who supply the guns, sit in offices and seats of power and facilitate the gun and drug trade.

The new gun law, which brings in all and sundry, was again at its best this past week when the family of Alrick Smith was not spared prison remand over a gun which clearly, the evidence showed, was not connected to them.

Office crimes

Compare this to the other rampant crimes we face and for which there is no conviction, much less charges of persons who we know have violated and broken the public’s trust. The numbers of such occurrences have become so many that I am concerned that the public tolerance and attitude that “nothing will happen” is setting in. Just to name a few: we have Elvin Penner, who was not investigated by the police until the court issued an order of mandamus compelling the Commissioner to do his work; we have the case of Nelsy Sommerville, who despite being fingered in the misappropriation of funds in Southern Belize, remains on the job, and more recently Melinda Guerra, who an audit shows used the NHI funds to giver herself bonuses and even bought herself a high-tech camera using public funds. In all these instances these persons remain in their offices and are carrying out some public duty. Penner was stripped of his task of signing for documents at the immigration office, but I say that from the start it was illegal and unconstitutional for him to have been allowed to do so.

Then in Nelsy’s case the Auditor General’s Report states: “Although the bank was unable to reprint and provide us with 8 of the 189 suspected forged cheques; the FIU has been able to confirm that 2 of these 8 cheques totaling $3,121.00 were deposited to Mrs. Sommerville’s Scotiabank account…. Therefore the proceeds of 184 suspected forged cheques totaling $358,031.88 have been linked through some cheque payment scheme to Mrs. Nelsy Sommerville.”

The report recommends that the police and DPP be brought in and a criminal investigation be considered, but to my knowledge that has not yet materialized to conclusion.

But then there is Melinda Guerra, who is clearly fingered in an audit by the Auditor General for more than just mistakes and breach of regulations, but for mishandling public funds and even benefiting directly from such funds without proper approval. A few examples are:

1. $1,400.00 paid from the NHI Bank Account for the CHRM’s personal medical expenses, specifically for a colonoscopy test in respect of the CHRM, Melinda Guerra. The cheque payment was authorized by Ms. Guerra and approved by both Ms. Alexy Rosado and Ms. Melinda Guerra.

2. The audit finds that Central Health Regional Manager, Melinda Guerra, appeared to have knowingly submitted, approved and received the proceeds of four (4) reimbursement claims which totaled $3,407.50 for costs she claimed to have incurred in an official capacity. The auditors conclude we did not come across sufficient evidence to satisfy ourselves that such claims were genuine or appropriate.

3. The audit also alleges that Guerra had gotten reimbursement for materials bought for the San Pedro Polyclinic when the clinic never received those items. Guerra said it was a prepayment.

While there has been a recurring theme of lack of accountability, there is a recurrent figure in these Ministry of Health issues, and that is Peter Allen, the CEO who performs like a spin doctor and seems to defend these wrongs in such a sublime manner. One wonders why until his name begins to be called up in the reports, as happened in the Melinda Guerra investigation.

Dr. Peter Allen got guts!

You see many people do not realize that the guidelines, checks and balances and system put in place when dealing with the public funds are to prevent the very allegations cited above, and as such breach of these should not be taken lightly and should actually be dealt with as criminal charges. Those put in charge of these public funds owe us a fiduciary duty and are deemed as trustees of our monies. So when as high-ranking as he, CEO, participates in the breach, there is even more reason for alarm. Allen, who is British by descent, knows in the UK he could not get away with this, but he also knows the Belize system is weak and that the public is tolerant of impropriety.

Here is what is his involvement and that of his Minister in the use of funds for purposes other than for which it is marked. The Audit reports revealed that a payment was made to American Airlines for airline tickets from Belize to Chicago for the Minister and CEO Ministry of Health – $2,765.53. Here are the concerns about that expenditure from the Auditors:

1. “We noted cheque payment made to American Airlines for the cost of airline tickets for the Minister of Health, Honorable Pablo Marin and the CEO, Dr. Peter Allen from Belize to Chicago departing on 4th August 2012. There was no supporting documentation or authority for the payment of airfare. The cheque was approved by Ms. Alexy Rosado and Ms. Melinda Guerra. Exhibit 41-A refers.”

2. “We are aware that foreign travel is to be approved by the Ministry of Finance and the payment of airfare should be centralized through that Ministry. Financial Order #439 (b) also states that where expenses are anticipated in excess of five hundred dollars $500.00, they become chargeable to the conference expenses subhead and shall have the prior approval of the Ministry of Finance before any arrangement involving their incurrence is made.”

3. “Ms. Rosado explained that this was a request from the CEO, Ministry of Health. The CEO had informed her that they were going to Chicago to deal with the receipt of a donated ambulance. Ms. Rosado stated that the ambulance would not be for the Matron Roberts Polyclinic.”

So to me it comes as no surprise when May 27, 2014 CEO Allen has this to say in defense of Guerra:

“The allegations, as far as I understand them, are not of the nature of funds being missing, but perhaps more of not quite following regulations as they should have been followed – that’s just my understanding. With Miss Guerra, she was actually suspended for a while, but she is an extremely senior officer, and the allegations were made rather a long time ago. We do need the expertise and the functions of that senior officer. She’s a regional manager, and so, we are comfortable with her being in her position where she is. We strongly believe that she is innocent until proven otherwise, and I have no reason to believe that she will be proven anything other than a good life-long public officer, who may have made a couple of mistakes.”

I think the only mistake is to keep him as CEO and the media needs to stop going soft on him. They should investigate his background, his qualifications and past, and most of all stop asking him stupid questions… the man is a master of not ever giving the whole truth or a straight answer.

Why no police investigation?

His hands appear to be in the cookie jar, so why ask him about the cookies? He got guts to even say:

Mike Rudon – Channel 5 News: “In terms of the Central Health Region, can you give us an update on the status on Melinda Guerra? The last we had heard she was to be moved to take over the Western Region as the manager. Is that still in the works?”

Dr. Peter Allen – CEO Ministry of Health: “Well you know, I’m not entirely sure because transfers, of course again, do not come under the purview of the Ministry of Health but under the purview of the Ministry of the Public Service, so you best address that question to the Ministry of Public Service. Our recommendations remain the same.”

Mike Rudon – Channel 5 News: “And those recommendations are?”

Dr. Peter Allen – CEO Ministry of Health: “That there would be some rotation of staff including managers around the country.”

Daniel Ortiz: “But then the issue arises, why rotate Ms. Melina Guerra out of the Central Health Region to the Western Health Region, when there is this cloud of irregularity which still hasn’t been resolved?”

Dr. Peter Allen – CEO Ministry of Health: “Well again, that will be an issue for the Ministry of the Public Service and the Public Service Commission to decide upon. We are not aware that the Public Service Commission has set a date for the scheduled hearings, and we await as well as all of you.”

No, Peter Allen, that should be a matter for the police. It seems that another mandamus will be required for the police to be called in to investigate this one too!

Lack of justice!

Compare this scenario with that of the Alrick Smith family and you cannot help to see the lack of justice in our country. Imagine so much thorough investigation by the auditor, yet no arrest. So much evidence, yet the police are not called in. Such outcry from us out here, yet no charges and these culprits keep their job, get paid with taxpayers’ dollars, and get their defense stated by no other than the CEO. So if that is how slow justice will be with white collar crime, why can’t we ask our police before they pull in an entire family and remand them and deprive them of their freedom without an iota as evidence, unlike these women where there is evidence…, why not apply the same standards and investigate before laying charges?
But unlike the profiles of the “street” criminal I described, do note here that the accused are mostly women, not black, educated, not living on the Southside, holding a high-level office job; are handling public funds, and are well connected with the CEO or some Minister or personality. So no GSU will ever storm their home and drag them off without an “over-thorough” investigation first, or even after an investigation – they fear no charges.

If my people cannot see the disparity and the injustice, it’s because they want to be blind. Imagine, the Smiths had six of their family members – men and women – spend days in prison, have not received an apology and were not given the benefit of a proper and thorough investigation first. They were deemed dangerous and criminal because it’s a “street” crime… But I say the most criminal and dangerous ones are the ones robbing our public treasury while smiling with us and hiding behind some education or degree. They do not ensure the monies are used to uplift the country, but uplift themselves.

They are more dangerous than an armed man, who is a target, because their crimes are committed every day, undetected and deadly to our nation… more blood is on their hands!

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