CEO Tamai said that such a petition could only be made once for a division for the term of office; however, charges may be brought for “forged” signatures on the petition
Chief Elections Officer Josephine Tamai said at a press conference held at the Belize Biltmore Plaza this morning that the Elections and Boundaries Department is compiling a file to be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), who would advise on whether charges should be brought under Section 9 of the Recall of Elected Representatives Act, which makes it an offense to forge a signature on a petition or to willfully sign the petition more than once.
Tamai was reporting on the findings by her Department, and was joined by a team of senior public officers from other Government departments, who had in December 2013 reviewed the 2,002 signatures on a petition submitted by the People’s United Party (PUP) to recall Cayo North East area representative Elvin Penner.
Of note is that Penner, who was sacked last September from Cabinet after Prime Minister Dean Barrow said he had been involved in improprieties in the issuance of a Belizean passport to an Asian, has not faced any legal sanctions. Penner has resisted public calls from Barrow and the UDP to resign from the ruling party. Since that call was issued in October, Penner has said he will not resign, and there has been no visible pressure from his party to get him to do so.
Meanwhile, the ruling party has also opposed calls from the unions, private sector, churches and Opposition in the Senate for a special inquiry into the passport scandal, which has since expanded to include allegations of a visa hustling ring in which other ministerial officials have been fingered.
As previously mentioned, to date, no criminal charges have been brought against Penner, and there has been no official disclosure on the status of an investigation by the Financial Intelligence Unit on Penner.
Questions over the status of the Penner investigation arose against the backdrop of declarations made today by the Chief Elections Officer, that criminal proceedings may be in train in relation to the Penner recall initiative.
Tamai said that the penalty under law for forgery or making multiple petition entries is a fine not exceeding $1,000, or a prison term not exceeding 1 year, or both fine and imprisonment upon summary conviction of the person or persons accused.
However, she later disclosed another subsection of that provision which says that it is also an offense to use threats or intimidation, coercion or other corrupt means to interfere or attempt to interfere with the right of any eligible voter to sign or not to sign a recall petition of his own free will.
It is also an offense to promise gifts and treats, or compensation to someone to sign or to not sign a petition.
Asked whether the instance where a person had told the Elections and Boundaries Department that she had not signed the petition, although a signature purporting to be hers appeared on it, would be considered a case of forgery, Tamai said that it would be up to the DPP to advise.
She also declined comment on whether the campaign by the ruling United Democratic Party, to get people not to sign the recall petition, would be considered a violation under Section 9 of the Act. She said that she would “leave that to the legal persons…”
The media had also reported during the petition process that Prime Minister Barrow, the UDP leader, had visited the constituency and at a public rally, told voters that they had “millions, and millions” of dollars in the coffers to spend on upgrading the area.
According to Tamai, Genoveva Marin, forensic analyst, was called in to assist with signature verification, which she ordinarily does in line of her duty as a part of both civil and criminal investigations.
Tamai told the media that there were 61 entries that had either thumb impressions or “X” as a signature, and investigations were done to verify whether those persons had signed.
She reported that at the time that the recall petition was submitted, the Cayo North East constituency had 5,815 registered voters, and under law, 30% of those must sign a petition for it to be valid. That 30% amounts to 1,744; however, after the verification exercise, the PUP fell short by 79 signatures.
That happened to be equivalent to the amount of duplicate signatures Tamai said were found in the batch. Additionally, there were 4 triplicate signatures.
Of note is that all those multiple signatures were rejected, rather than being counted just once – although Tamai’s deputy, Francisco Zuniga, established while giving the press a PowerPoint presentation detailing the results, that those signatures, although entered multiple times, did match those on the official record.
Tamai said that they were rejected because they were in violation of the law.
She told the press that 337 signatures from among the 2,002 petitioners presented were rejected, so that the accepted signatures only amounted to 28.6% of registered electors.
When we asked Tamai why further verification was not done on the 52 mismatched signatures—seeing that in the course of the Oceana offshore drilling referendum petition, the possibility had been highlighted that the 6,000-plus petition signatures that were rejected were duly signed by voters who had variations in signature styles, Tamai said that they rely first on their in-house documents, but if for some reason they perceive that the documentation is not enough, they proceed with further investigations. She said that it is impossible for them to go out and verify every single signature.
On Monday, we had asked Tamai whether the PUP would be able to rectify the deficiencies in the petition and resubmit it for consideration. At the time, she declined comment, but today, she pointed to section 3 subsection 5 of the Recall Act, which says that no petition shall be presented more than once for a division in any parliamentary term.
That same section also says that a recall vote cannot be sought within the first 18 months and within the last year of a parliamentarian’s term of office.
Senior Fisheries Officer George Myvette, who was one of the public officers who assisted with the verification exercise, told the press at this morning’s briefing that he believed that there had been integrity in the process.