Features — 20 September 2013 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

I want to remain optimistic that there are enough Belizeans of right thinking mind who want to see a Belize that will progress for the greater good of as many people as possible. I want to think that amongst my fellow Belizeans there are people who do not only want to see themselves live a decent quality of life, but want to see others experience the same, and thus will help to make that possible. I want to think that in our midst we have our own Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Mandela, people who are agents of change and who stand up for principles and others. Yes, the adversity they will face in Belize will not be as severe as what the above leaders faced, thus one would think that all the more reason it should be easier to rise up and be part of a revolution of change to uplift this country.

But am I thinking too much, dreaming too much, expecting too much, hoping for too much? I am sure there are like-minded people in Belize, and that I am not unique, maybe more vocal, but not special. I want to think that within each of us there is a fire burning for justice, equity, fairness, and a passion for change, a zest for life and a will to be part of a new era that will move Belize from the grasp of corruption, greed, selfishness, vanity, and outright immoral and unethical behavior. It cannot be that only I want to stamp out these evils…. It cannot be that our people and country are morally and spiritually bankrupt. I refuse to accept that the majority of us have given up. I challenge my readers to resolve to make one small change in their home and neighbourhood … to be proactive to “be the change they want to see.” (Ghandi)

SIF – a devastating blow

I think that within the last week the nation has received a massive blow with the news of the corruption at the Social Investment Fund (SIF). It is a blow of monumental proportions because one has to appreciate that one thing the “corrupt” PUP that the UDP so vilify, never managed to touch and bring into disrepute was the Social Investment Fund. Phew!!! The PUP seem to have had a sense of respect for SIF or they had not figured out how to misappropriate the money, or maybe we just never found out. But I am fairly confident that if the PUP had done any such thing, this UDP administration would have cherished exposing it. But maybe, just maybe the PUP did not take the chance because they were mindful that the key international funding agencies that pump money into it are Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), European Union (EU), and World Bank (WB), and thus it is important for our integrity with these lending agencies to remain intact.

The UDP have not held back their condemnation of the PUP money schemes, secret agreements, sweetheart deals, and questionable management of our monies, so of course what we would expect from any UDP administration is for them to be beyond reproach. The nation is in shock to learn that what the PUP did not manage to even taint, the UDP has actually managed to mar, thus bringing into disrepute the last “institution,” a bastion of hope, that we were confident would remain untouchable and above the fray.

The government-appointed board at SIF, according to its website, comprises representatives from the following Ministries and Organizations:

1. The Ministry of Economic Development
2. The Ministry of Education
3. The Ministry of Health
4. The Ministry of Human Resources
5. The NGO Community (ANDA, CVSS, BACONGO)
6. The Private Sector Organizations
7. The Women’s Commission, and
8. The Youth Commission
9. The Executive Director is a non-voting member of the Board

Clueless over corruption?

The Board is majority government officers, so one would think that there is no way that allegations which have surfaced since 2010 would not have reached the ears of the Minister(s) in tune with the reality on the ground. If the Executive Director, Daniel Cano (forced to resign this week), failed to apprise the Board, how come the Contractor General, Godwin Arzu, could be claiming that since February 2013 he has been investigating the allegation? Yet neither the Board nor the Minister under whose authority the staff of SIF comes, knew that their employees were being interrogated by no other than the Contractor General???? How come?

It is neither sensible nor plausible to think that at the highest level, the level of the Minister, Santiago Castillo, the rumblings of these allegations were unknown. How come he never got wind at least by June, July, or August that all was not well at this well-funded, prolific institution? When Jules Vasquez put it to him this is how it played out:

Jules Vasquez: “Sir, at what point did you become aware of these allegations of extortion and corruption at SIF and what did you do when you became aware of it?”

Hon. Santino Castillo – Minister of State with Responsibility for Economic Development: “That is funny, Jules, because I was out the country and just came back in on Saturday the 14th and I read it online. I read Channel 5 and 7’s report on it online and I immediately emailed the CEO Ms. Yvonne Hyde of the Ministry and she updated me immediately on what was happening. I arrived on Saturday and was kept fully abreast and then we move to immediate action to have the board have an emergency meeting yesterday with recommendations from the Contractor General who was at the meeting on how to move forward.”

Jules Vasquez: “Sir, there had to be some type fundamental breakdown in communication because this was reported to the Contractor General in February. You have been at the highest level of a private business – you know that any allegation like this surfaces with the sort of evidence that Mr. Smart brought forward – it’s actionable and you have to act immediately otherwise you will continue to hemorrhage public funds.”

Hon. Santino Castillo: “”Right. What I can tell you about that, Jules, in fact one of the things that Mr. Cano did and one of the reasons he was asked for his resignation is because he did not choose to bring forth the information to either myself or the CEO.”

But that CEO is Yvonne Hyde, who is also the Chairperson of the SIF Board …surely she must have known employees were being questioned. So, the nation should believe that for eight months the Contractor General is scrutinizing certain people and contracts and activities at SIF and the big bosses don’t know? Outrageous! If the Board is clueless about what was happening then maybe the shakeup has to include changing the Board, which, according to the SIF website, is “ responsible for assuring adherence to the guiding principles and policies of the institution.” And one of those guiding principles must be no corruption, self-dealing, insider trading, bribing, and the list goes on. If the Board is sleeping at the wheel, there is something fundamentally flawed with how the SIF is being managed!

What else is unknown?

Interestingly, the situation on the ground now begs the question, what else the SIF Board and Minister do not know? Do they know that by their own employees’ report by May 2013 some 43% of the monies under the Dangriga Rehabilitation Project had already been dispersed even though at that time 43% of the work at the site had not yet been completed? By SIF’s own minutes of meetings and records, this anomaly occurred while the Project Manager was SIF’s very own Ernest Raymond, Sr. and SIF’s own Engineer, Lionel Jimenez. Interestingly, the physical work on the site only reached a 43% level after sub-contractor/investor, Lyndon Bailey and contractor/financier, Emy Ramirez, pumped their money into the project and worked to bring it to that level with the expectation of payment. It would seem that now that the physical work and money expended balanced off, these two have served their purpose and now are being set aside and are denied payment … and SIF wants to be Pontius Pilate and wash its hands off. Thus, the call for a full investigation into this particular SIF project is critical. I am sure it will not be the last we will be hearing about this matter. Belizeans must demand it and not fall asleep at the wheel!

However, the shock on the ground that one of the last “pro-people” institutions of some credible reputation has now been brought into such disgrace and disrepute is of epic proportion. It’s like a tsunami hit us – it was sudden, powerful and devastating. Ironically, the mission of SIF is “to equitably and adequately respond to the human development needs of the poor and vulnerable population in Belize in order to enable every citizen to fully develop, flourish and function in his or her maximum potential.”

So if it is intended to help the poor and vulnerable population, this scandal is a slap in the face of those people. No matter how the Minister wants to defend it, a close look at the cheques of the alleged pay-offs shows that the first was issued in December 2009, several in 2010 and the whistleblower alleges that throughout his time working on SIF projects, which was since 2009 to the present, four SIF employees have been “shaking him down.” That was initially, until he alleged that even the Executive Director wanted his “cut.” For those not familiar with Belizean lingo, he is claiming he has been extorted.

Payments were rolling

But amazingly, after he made these complaints in February 2013 to the Contractor General, he was receiving substantial payments. As a matter of fact by SIF’s records, when Project Manager, Thurton and Associates, walked off the project in October 2012, that is when Smart’s payments increased tremendously and frequently, with him getting even more than one payment for one month on some occasions. While Thurton was on the job the payment to Smart was a paltry total of $62,440.00, apart from a mobilization fee of $137,734.95, which is secured by a bank. Interestingly, once Thurton, as Project Manager, left the project, K&G’s payments ballooned to a total of $534,277.20 in eight months.

Maybe more amazing is the fact that with all that the SIF employees knew that was happening behind the scenes, the payments continued until May 2013 and then by June SIF tells Smart they are willing to allow him to continue the project if he gets additional financial backing. Low and behold by July 18, 2013 the contract is extended and it is signed on behalf of SIF by the highest office holder, the Chairperson Yvonne Hyde and the Executive Director, Daniel Cano. That is an incredible decision considering the behind the scenes goings on of disbursement not matching works flagged by one Mr. Francisco, and investigation of extortion by SIF employees, or the fact that the same SIF that is paying is also certifying payments, and being project manager. It appears to those with common sense that K&G was given the axe the very week the Contractor General’s report was forwarded because Bailey and Ramirez were relentless with their complaints of non-payment. It is an amazing situation to chronicle by the facts in black and white from SIF’s very own records and minutes and correspondence.

The entire nation, the poor and vulnerable, the unions, the NGO’s and the international funding agencies should be demanding a comprehensive investigation of all SIF projects, from the tendering process to the disbursement of funds. As I see it payments were rolling as the investigation was in full gear. Now it seems the money available is not enough to even complete the project … but soon the building experts will be able to tell. Let’s hope no one on the Board is implicated!

The poor are used again?

The irony of these institutions such as SIF is that they are always set up to help the “poor” or “needy”, but the reality on the ground is that key persons, such as administrators, consultants and contractors, to name a few, get the money and ensure they remain out of the poverty bracket, while the poor don’t get any richer, remain vulnerable and exploited, yet are happy if basic necessities such as potable water reach their villages, even if it is not going into their home.

In the Dangriga situation, people of all economic levels would have benefitted from a better market to go shop at; it would have uplifted the aesthetics of the town and provided a more sanitary environment for all. The vendors, who are usually farmers or hardworking low to middle income citizens of all races and mostly women, would have welcomed a better location to sell from, even when it may mean higher rental fees for stalls. Now, as Mayor Gilbert Swazo has openly said, the massive delay is placing a strain on the finances of the Town Council, which also invested in the projects as the client.

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