Headline — 24 January 2014 — by Kareem Clarke
“He didn’t steal the money!!”

Castro (like Penner) “did nothing illegal …he didn’t steal the money!” PM Barrow

“I find it [the BAA cheques to Castro] utterly and completely distasteful,” but “it is not corruption!” – PM Barrow

On December 20, 2013, the Opposition PUP’s newspaper, The Belize Times, published a story that claimed that several cheques were paid out by the Belize Airports Authority (BAA) either to, or on behalf of, Minister of State in the Ministry of Works and Transport, Hon. Edmond Castro. Since then, the newspaper has published 9 cheques, 3 of them totaling just over 10 thousand dollars, which were made out directly to Castro. Other cheques, issued to bike shops, poultry stores, beverage companies, and funeral homes, amounted to another $15,000. According to The Times, the cheques were given to Castro to pay debts he incurred personally and politically, allegedly in the furtherance of his political work as Belize Rural North area representative.

Since the story broke, Castro has told the media to talk to the BAA for information. When the media attempted to talk to the Airport Authority, however, the Authority refused any comment on the matter.

Today, at the Special Sitting of the House of Representatives, the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Francis Fonseca, raised the issue, declaring that he had up to 60 of the questionable cheques. Fonseca stated: “I have in possession here today, copies of some 60 Belize Airport Authority operating account Belize Bank cheques, which in my view demonstrate a consistent pattern of ongoing misuse and abuse of the Authority’s funds for personal and political purposes by the member for Belize Rural North. There are at least 10 cheques in varying amounts, Mr. Speaker, which are made out to members of the member for Belize Rural North’s family – Cheque # 005067 for $400; Cheque #004750 for $520; Cheque # 005144 for $1,132.

“There are [also] cheques here made out to him [Castro] [such as] Belize Bank Cheque # 004954 in the amount of $900 to Edmond Castro; Cheque # 004957 in the amount of $4,000 to Edmond Castro; Belize Airport Authority Cheque # 004957 in the amount of $5,156.55 [also] made out to Edmond Castro.

“Man, this is absolute nonsense, Mr. Speaker, absolute nonsense, and that is just a sampling, man. I have over sixty cheques here – either made for the member’s personal use for him to cash, or for him to use for political purposes, or to help family members. Let us put these things on the table, and let us get proper answers from those responsible. Stop defending it.”

Fonseca went on to add, “There is a growing perception out there that corruption is eating away at this UDP Government, and the Belizean people have had enough. And so, it is a very important issue, Mr. Speaker, and our Prime Minister, who started out on this very high horse and very high note of not being prepared to even stand a whiff of corruption, now finds himself in the unenviable position of having to be defending everybody who is involved or alleged to be involved in corruption, and it is eating away across the government.”

Although the Hon. Castro was not present to answer to the accusations, his boss, Prime Minister Dean Barrow, responded. Barrow maintained that although the disbursement of the cheques could be perceived as a conflict of interest, it was not corruption. He replied, “This is not corruption. The Airports Authority, in the full exercise of their jurisdiction, obviously assisted the Minister on several different occasions.

“I will tell you right now – I find it utterly and completely distasteful, and I think the Airports Authority and the Minister are both wrong.

“So don’t think I am here making any apology for them, but call it what it is – it is not corruption. He didn’t steal the money from the Airports Authority; he didn’t get the money under false pretenses. He obviously was of the view that the Airports Authority – which is a statutory body associated with the section of the Ministry for which he is responsible – could be asked to assist him and his constituents politically. I don’t say that it is right, but that practice is as ancient as the hills.”

Apart from those statements, Barrow explained that there was nothing else to do to Castro, because he (Castro) “did nothing illegal.”

In November of 2010, Castro was fired from Cabinet by Prime Minister Barrow for his involvement in an alleged land hustle. He eventually reconciled with the PM and was later welcomed back into the UDP fold.

Then, last September Castro was named in a diplomatic incident in which he was accused of making unwanted sexual advances upon a Taiwanese chaperone while on an official visit to that country. Castro denied the charge.

Shortly after, in October he was accused of a very large scale and lucrative visa facilitation scheme by an individual who allegedly paid him $2,000 per visa.

And in late November 2013, documents surfaced showing that Castro was recommending visas for Chinese nationals on a weekly basis, a practice that the Prime Minister said was “not illegal.”

Back in September of 2013, Won Hong Kim, a South Korean national who was imprisoned in Taiwan, managed to get both a Belizean nationality certificate and Belizean passport. It was subsequently revealed that both documents were obtained through fraudulent means, since Kim was behind bars in Taiwan and had never set foot in Belize.

The man who signed both the nationality certificate and the passport recommendation, and indeed pushed the documents through for processing, was former Minister of State with responsibility for Immigration, Hon. Elvin Penner.

For his role in the affair, Penner was relieved from his government responsibilities on September 19, 2013, by the Prime Minister. Exactly four months after, it has become evident that the demoted UDP official still enjoys very high-level protection. Despite at least three alleged investigations, so far it seems that only public officers have been targeted for punishment.

This is particularly because – as with Hon. Castro – Prime Minister Barrow said that Penner “did nothing illegal” and so could not be arraigned on criminal charges.

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