Recently, there has been great public uproar about the irregularities within the Immigration Department that have been exposed throughout the years, the last being the embarrassing immigration passport scandal involving ex-Minister of State, Hon. Elvin Penner, which erupted over the past month.
Hon. Penner was fired by Prime Minister Dean Barrow after the corruption charge was brought to his attention, and after rallying to Penner’s corner in the weeks immediately after the scandal exploded into the public’s consciousness, PM Barrow had to ask the embattled Cayo North East area representative last week to resign from the UDP or the House of Representatives.
Well, the Immigration Department appears to have company in its corrupt ways – it has been confirmed, by no less a personage than PM Barrow himself, that the Lands Department may be just as corrupt – a belief that has been held by many Belizean citizens because of the unbelievable problems they’ve had in dealing with the department over the years.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow, in a town hall meeting with Belizean residents in Los Angeles, California, yesterday, Sunday, said in response to a Belizean-American woman who was querying an outstanding land issue that involved several persons owning the same piece of land: “I believe that the Lands Department, unfortunately, is another hotbed of corruption. The administration has tried to do something about the officers, who through dishonesty, rather than incompetence, although in some instances it is a combination of both, end up in a situation where…
“I was down in the village of Santa Familia last week, actually, because that village is part of the constituency which the Minister [Elvin Penner] that was fired represents, so I was out there doing some canvassing, and there was this huge problem, exactly the dimensions that the leader described, where one man has worked the land, has crops on it, but others were given papers to that land, papers signed by the Minister, but based upon an assessment done by a lands officer, who put in writing that the land was free and clear.”
But in this case, as in most other cases involving corruption, no blame was assigned to the elected officials, who most people believe are at the heart of the corruption in successive administrations, particularly when it comes to the vexing problem called the Lands Department.
In fact, in the Sunday issue of the Amandala, we lamented in our editorial about the “integrity breakdown” inside Belize’s public service, and opined that in our considered opinion, when it came to corruption, “the politicians of Belizeans had led the way, and our public officers followed suit.”
Not surprisingly, PM Barrow continued with the time-honored tradition of blaming public officers for governmental corruption instead of the sitting politicians:
“When he visited the spot, and it was obvious that there were crops on it, so there’s only one reason why he [the lands officer] falsified the report. So ma’am, I don’t know of your particular circumstances, and I certainly can’t tell you that the generalized problem has been solved, but I think we have made some progress in… I think for the first time, four land officers were actually fired.”
The Prime Minister then spoke of the difficulty of “fixing” corruption in the Lands Department.
“The difficulty is that these people are public officers, and constitutionally, they have tenure, so you can’t get rid of them, except to go through a process that sees you bring administrative charges; there must be a hearing before the Public Services Commission, which seems to be very reluctant to fire public officers, and even when you do that, they go to court and they get lawyers who say ‘Oh, the proceedings were flawed, that the Public Services Commission had not been doing it properly’, but we’ve actually succeeded in firing about four of them, and we’re moving out a number of others, so, going forward, the problem will not be as acute, but where a case has already occurred, it’s a little difficult because ultimately, if somebody got [a] title, when there was a pre-existing ownership, the title would have to be seen as having been issued in error, or as a consequence of fault, and a clerk will set aside that second title and recognize the first title.”
It seems, according to PM Barrow, that the Lands officers have the government over a barrel – there is very little the government, with all its law-making powers, can do in a case of obvious corruption in the department.
“The difficulty is, they 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 holder, the first title holder will sue, so ultimately, the only way in which any decision that the Ministry tries to make can be vindicated, is by way of some sort of a court ruling, and… as I said, to some extent that’s unfortunate; there are legal costs associated with that, but that’s what it is, unfortunately, in terms of cases of, as I said, would have already occurred, so I can’t be more helpful than that.”
The Minister of Lands, Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, who is acting Prime Minister until Barrow returns from his nine-day trip, was unavailable for comment at this time, but we will try to have his comments in the Sunday edition of the Amandala.