Three immigration officers are currently skating “on thin ice” pending the submission of findings of the Public Service Commission (PSC). The commission’s enquiry is a response to the latest passport scandal involving former Minister of State in the Immigration Ministry, Hon. Elvin Penner, the area representative for Cayo Northeast.
Penner, who served as Minister of State for Immigration and Border Protection in the current UDP administration, was requested to tender his resignation from Cabinet by Prime Minister Dean Barrow following some very grim accusations that arose sometime last week.
The Office of the Prime Minister sent out a preliminary press release last week Thursday, stating that Penner “did not discharge his responsibilities with either the due judgment and balance, or the scrupulous regard for appearances, which the Prime Minister demands of all his Ministers.”
As vague as this explanation for Penner’s removal from the cabinet might have been, the Government pledged to provide further information about the questionable activity that had taken place within the Immigration Department.
Late yesterday evening, another press release was issued, this time by the Ministry of Labour, Local Government, and Immigration, headed by Hon. Senator Godwin Hulse. This time, the release simply affirmed that “the Ministry is satisfied that there has been a serious breach of the regulations and rules governing the issuance of this passport, and that officers, whether through negligence or acquiescence, did allow a fraud to be perpetrated on the system.”
Three immigration officers from the Passport section of the Immigration Department are facing suspension: two data entry clerks, Omar Phillips and Erwin Robinson; and the head of that section, Sharon-Neal Flowers.
Except for Neal, who holds a senior level post, the other two persons are junior staffers. They remain in office pending a hearing. The Ministry stated that it is preparing files to be handed over to the Public Service Commission and has recommended the immediate suspension of the three officers.
The release ends saying, “the Ministry is committed to upholding the integrity of the passport issuance system and has instituted additional safeguard measures to dissuade any further attempt to compromise the system and once again invoke the public’s indulgence with these strengthened measures.”
The passport in question was allegedly to be issued to a South Korean prisoner jailed in Taiwan, Kim Won-Hong, who is scheduled to be deported to Thailand. The former Minister of State, Penner, was allegedly involved in facilitating a deal to give this individual a Belizean passport that would allow him to come to Belize instead.
But before the deal could be finalized, Amandala understands, the International Criminal Police Organization – INTERPOL – stepped in and disrupted the operation. Prime Minister Dean Barrow called both the Minister of Immigration, the Hon. Godwin Hulse, and his Junior Minister, Hon. Penner, into an emergency meeting last Wednesday night.
By Thursday morning, news broke that Penner had been relieved of his post as Junior Minister.
The fraudulent passport was generated with what could only be described as ‘lightning speed’, in one day, on September 9, for the South Korean inmate, and, as it turns out, his application and picture were actually signed and verified by Penner.
The situation is certainly unheard of – a South Korean prisoner in a Taiwanese jail receiving a Belizean passport to avoid extradition to Thailand – all by the virtue of a government minister’s involvement.
Kim Won-Hong is also wanted in South Korea for embezzling millions of dollars from a huge South Korean firm called SK Shipping Company.
We are obligated to make note that since Penner’s firing, there has been no word on any other punitive measures he could face as a result of his actions in illegally securing a Belizean passport for a South Korean national. Also no one from the Immigration and Nationality section has been suspended, and those with knowledge of the process are saying that the file for Kim Won Hong had to originate in the Nationality Section.
To put an even greater twist to the story, strangely, that file reportedly has disappeared into thin air. The only information that is known at this time is that the application signed by former Minister of State Elvin Penner is still on record at the Passport section.
Currently, there are more questions than answers, as this appears to be proof of the level of corruption which seems to be “part of the air” in many key government departments.