Features — 22 November 2013 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

“I believe that the Lands Department, unfortunately, is another hotbed of corruption.”

– Prime Minister Dean Barrow, Los Angeles, California, speaking to Belizeans there

This is an understatement and sadly, in this country the extent of the corruption has not yet been revealed. There is a reason why the corruption in this Ministry does not see the light of day – I say it is simply because usually for a scandal to break out the informant must come from within. And, it is likely that said informant is not in agreement with the corruption, so they leak information and become whistleblowers.

In the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Lands Department is one of the most powerful places to be because common desk officers have learnt the art of stalling work and suggesting their willingness to expedite it if an incentive is provided. To compound the situation, even the general public, who complain about corruption, visit the office and are themselves all too willing to also suggest their disposition to provide gifts to have their matter facilitated. Or in some instances, some law firms, land agents, or even business entities make sure each Christmas they “look out” for their insiders … trust me, they know who they are.

I am reliably told that those who do not fall in line have their documents processed at snail’s pace and sometimes the files are reported missing. Anyone with some evidence on these please contact me and share what you have.

Then sadly, as if there is not already sufficient bad news, I have received complaints that legal “professionals” have also gotten into the habit of abusing their position of authority and especially their political connection with the government of the day, to have their agents push their clout around and get preferential treatment to the extent of political intervention. The law firm doing this varies according to which party is in power sources say … however, a few survive all seasons depending on the price they are willing to pay and others are just offensive, intimidating and push their weight around. I will see which will complain to me about this statement to determine “who the cap fits.”

Dishonesty or incompetence?

Thus the reason the Prime Minister Dean Barrow on that same occasion in LA also said: “The administration has tried to do something about the officers who through dishonesty rather than incompetency, and partly in some instances it is a combination of both.”

I dare say that it is seldom or never as a result of incompetence, because to work at the Lands Department you must know the process, and there is always some senior/supervisor above you and a series of processes and systems to be followed before any approval can be made. I challenge anyone to show that it is not sheer dishonesty and greed. But the dishonesty and greed does not stop there as it projects to the top, and I dare say it has been trickling down from the top all these years, but no government has seen it fit to clean house.

To aggravate matters, then there are the Ministers and senior officials at the Lands Department who are not willing to act justly. It is not that they always act illegally, but rather that they act unethically, abuse the power of their office and look how to unjustly enrich themselves. For example, they have access to information indicating all lands still under Crown control; those only under lease; and those under title but which for various reasons are sort of “abandoned.” Armed with this information, they plot and decide whose land lease they will cancel and give to their friends and family and lackeys. Also, they are brave enough to take titled land, approve survey to sub-divide, unknown to the owner, and even in some instances approve issuance of documents to facilitate taking away of someone’s land. With no shame they affix their signatures and provide approvals for documents I will describe as falsified. Unfortunately, the law does not adequately address these acts I would have classified as crimes.

Sadly, when speaking with the Belizeans in the Diaspora in LA, PM Barrow blamed it all on the public officers and made no mention of the Ministers of his government and past governments, who have set the example for the public officers and who cannot chastise those public officers because to do so would be also admonishing themselves. You see, too many of the Ministers of government, past and present, along with their CEO’s, Land Commissioners and key office holders can never seek to clean house because the hypocrisy of the situation is that these very same lower-level employees know all too well the misdeeds of their bosses and can easily hold them to ransom with threats to expose them and even show where the skeletons are buried.

While politicians come and go, some of these same officers or key ones remain in office just waiting to see who their next boss will be and knowing that it is the “same old, same old” … just different names and parties… but the same hustle will continue. One can only imagine they become comfortable in their own filth. So who is really to blame? The public officers or their political bosses?

Blame the Public Service Commission?

“The difficulty with these public officers is that constitutionally, they have tenure. So, you can’t get rid of them except you go through a process that sees you bring administrative challenges; there must be a hearing before the Public Service Commission who seem to be very reluctant to fire public officers.” I would say this is the PM’s lame excuse for doing nothing. You see there are two key things to keep in mind.

Firstly, the laws as they are written, do not criminalize many of the acts the Ministers and these officers do, so there is no way to circumvent the Public Service Commission and go straight for a criminal conviction, which then is an automatic basis for firing by the Public Service Commission … Now this is simple employment law … No reluctance entertained. In addition, if the PSC is presented with the evidence and shown that the due process is followed to prove a public officer’s culpability, there is no reason the PSC will not act decisively. But again, if the PM believes the PSC is incompetent, then revamp it, improve it, and make it more relevant and functional to deal with what the PM has called a “hot bed of corruption.” But the same way the PM does not want to appoint the Integrity Commission, he does not want to improve the PSC and give it the power to act justly and expeditiously!

Nonetheless, not one Government of Belize, whether comprised of PUP or UDP politicians, has been willing to do the right thing and change the laws to make their impropriety and lack of diligence a criminal offence … simply because it has always served their interest … Land is one way to patronize their faithful and at the same time hustle some extra cash. What are the weaknesses in the system and how they believe it can be solved? The expertise is right there in the UDP camp among people who know the system, have worked the system and understand the system, if the PM was truly serious about ending corruption.

Secondly, the key to ending the avenues for corruption at Lands Department is for government to use its constitutional power to change the law and create criminal offenses for the very basic acts that help to create the culture of corruption. For example, all the self-dealing should be illegal with serious criminal penalties of imprisonment … NO FINES! For example, how can a minister justify that above all other Belizeans, his family has first preference to land? Yes, they are entitled to land like any Belizean, but the abuse of office to serve them first above ordinary, normal Belizeans should in itself be a crime, with a penalty of imprisonment, not a slap on the wrist.

Who will change the law?

Remember the incident with the caye off Placencia sold to a close inner circle? Imagine, public pressure forced them to give it back as public lands, for a reserve, but to date we don’t know the market price which they paid to politician’s people to buy it back, when it should never have been sold in the first place! The PUP had done some similar schemes and I would never have believed the UDP condemned it then, because they came into office and never changed the system … it is suiting their purpose now and they will pillage all they can with the hope that when they get out of office, they have enough to survive on and sell until their next term … and in Opposition they will condemn the present system, but will not change it while in office … And the cycle continues. But just like the PM has passed laws to change our constitution, nationalize BTL and BEL, do trials without jury, address loose systems at Immigration Department, etc., etc. so too, if he really is serious about helping clean house, he can revamp the Lands Department, change the laws to legitimize and sanction checks and balances and run a tight ship. But no one is serious about these checks and balances … sad, but true!

“Where a case has already occurred, it’s a little difficult because, ultimately if somebody got title when there was a preexisting ownership, the title would have to be seen as having been issued in error or as a consequence of fraud, and the court will set aside the second title and recognize the first one. The difficulty is, you have to go to court, and that is costly, but in a situation like that, the Ministry can’t really solve the problem because, if the Ministry comes down in favor of the previous land owner after having issued a second title, the second title holder will sue the government and if the Ministry comes down in favor of the second title, the first title holder will sue. So, ultimately, the only way that the Ministry tries to make can be vindicated is by the way of some sort of a court ruling”. This is the explanation to the poor unsuspecting Diaspora, who often are the victims of this very double issuing of title.

Now this sounds bad, and it must be that if such illegality had occurred then someone must pay. A careful analysis of the situation would mean that to begin with, the Lands Department should have NEVER issued a second title … think about it, people … How could the very officials at the Lands Department who MUST recommend, approve and sign off on the title, not do their very own due diligence to know that there is already a rightful owner? That has got to be sheer corruption. Then why should the innocent original landowner suffer the loss??? No way! The law MUST be amended to ensure that the government, its Ministers and, officials and public officers are held criminally responsible any time such fraud occurs … I bet if this was the law they would be far less reluctant to pretend they are incompetent. Then, the law should also be, that the so-called “innocent third-party” has a duty to publish intent to get title and give advance warning for at least six months before title is issued and to allow the original owner to get wind and thus avoid the turmoil now existing. Instead, overnight second titles are being issued.

Charge them criminally!

It has got to be that the ultimate recommenders must swear an affidavit or and on oath certify that they have done all proper research and that based on evidence before them, are convinced that the recommendation and approval are proper. So when otherwise is proven, they can be criminally charged. The problem is that for decades these improprieties have been occurring but no one has ever been arrested and charged. Someone has got to be held both criminally and civilly liable for that second title issued in “error,” using the PM’s words!

I am sure that if my suggestions were taken, the only court ruling that would be needed is GUILTY. The law has got to be amended in such a way that no matter what transpired and with whom, no second title can defeat the first title. This is important because what these scammers have been doing is issuing second titles then claim ignorance. Meanwhile monies have passed, the original owner is frustrated, must get an attorney to fight the matter and get into undue expense because of a government official’s “error”. Now if that is not an injustice!

For those poor people who owned prime land, with title, but who are so poor, unaware and sometimes illiterate, that they often lose their prime property and have no financial recourse to recover it or even get compensation, I have come to know some really heartbreaking stories of land swindles and the victims who go to their grave without having it resolved.

I believe it is time we take on this hotbed of corruption and all those who are the bedfellows and throw serious ice water on it. The leaders at Lands Department either need to be removed if they are within the system sleeping in the hotbed of corruption, are entangled with the bedfellows on the hotbed or are really incompetent. Then the right checks and balances need to be instituted so we make sure that if a breach occurs, the end result of the investigation will be a CRIMINAL CONVICTION. All those in favor, say “aye!”

God bless Belize!

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