Headline — 17 January 2014 — by Adele Ramos

3 immigration officers face firing for “Penner Passport Scandal,” but Hon. Penner remains untouchable!

It’s been 17 weeks since the Penner Passport Scandal broke in September 2013, and today a group of concerned Belizeans called a press conference to decry reports that three immigration officers—who they contend are now sacrificial lambs to be offered instead of former Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration, Elvin Penner—are facing termination, while the Minister who held the reins over the passport portfolio has still not faced any major repercussions apart from his ouster from Cabinet.

“If the average citizen was caught up in that scenario, they would have long been thrown in jail…,” said Geovannie Brackett, president of the Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA).

Brackett told the media today that it is “appalling” that, “the big fish gets to walk, but the little fishes now will feel the brunt of it…”

COLA’s Rufus X said that Government is now sacrificing three for one, and if this pattern persists, Belize is doomed!

“If those three public officers are terminated, we will go to the streets and we call on the Public Service Union [PSU] to find the testicular fortitude to defend your members. Those are not members of COLA, but we are going to defend them. Where is the NTUCB [National Trade Union Congress of Belize] in this regard? How many public officers, how many members of the union should be disrespected before we hit the streets?” Brackett questioned.

Today, this newspaper tried multiple times to get comment from the PSU, but our calls to the president, Marvin Blades, went unanswered.

When we spoke with the president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize, Dylan Reneau, he said that he had no comment, and noted that the case of the workers would be decided by the Public Services Commission, and they would have representation either by the PSU or a private attorney – whichever they choose.

Last September, the Immigration Department suspended the three officers—Omar Phillips and Erwin Robinson, who were data entry clerks, and Sharon Neal, their supervisor—over allegations of impropriety in relation to the Penner Passport Scandal.

Today, Immigration Minister Godwin Hulse confirmed to Amandala that the Immigration Department has recommended that the three employees be terminated.

Hulse said that at the Ministry they have no knowledge of the Commission having met and making a decision on the termination of the workers. He said that it does not matter what the Director of Immigration says; it is the Public Services Commission which will decide whether the workers ought to be terminated or not.

It has been reported that Director of Immigration, Maria Marin, has recommended the termination of the three persons from the public service. Reneau told us that they are currently on suspension, but a decision by the Public Services Commission would still not be final.

Reneau told us that the accused persons would be given an audience with the Public Services Commission, and they would be allowed to appear with either the union or a private attorney. After deliberating on the evidence, they would either be called to face the charges or they would be released from those charges, if exonerated. The workers would also be able to appeal to the Belize Advisory Council, if the Commission makes a ruling against them.

Hulse told Amandala that the Ministry’s investigations found that the three officers had violated the regulations, and they have presented the evidence to the Commission for their deliberation.

Rufus X said, though, that if those public officers were corrupt, it is because they were instructed to behave in such a manner, and Belizeans have to let politicians know they have to be responsible to those whom they are elected to serve.

“We have the power; they are not our rulers and gods. They are our servants,” he insisted.

In answer to public concerns that a heavy hammer is coming down on the immigration officers, while Penner has been put on early paid retirement, Hulse told us that the two processes are “not even connected…”

Hulse, who told us that he has taken a licking for turning in Penner to Barrow, said that since September/October, the Penner case was turned over to the police. He said that it is up to the police to submit the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The same files police have been given for the Penner investigations were handed over to the Public Services Commission, Hulse said.
Brackett said that he was shocked to find out that since the recall attempt made by the Opposition People’s United Party failed, Penner is now “untouchable.”

According to the law, there can only be one recall attempt, and since that has failed Mr. Penner remains in parliament and receives all the perks, Brackett pointed out.

The COLA president called the Penner Passport Scandal “the biggest scandal since the UDP came into office in 2008,” and the scandal which has captured media attention for the longest duration.

Jihad McLaren of the roots group known as “Commoners” said that they are calling for a shutdown and clean-up of the country. He said that it is time for a national strike.

They knocked down the Maya site – nothing happened. They stole the SIF money – nothing happened! The rosewood business – nothing happened! The KHMH, with those babies – nothing happened!

“Now you will tell me, the most disgraceful thing that ever happened in this country – a Minister of government is accused of selling off our nationality, that’s the biggest betrayal you can find in any system, and you, you – we’re going to sit right here and have this man sit in our face, and say it’s all right now… and the UDP keeps their power?” he remarked.

Rufus X said that there is no need to burn tires in protest. The teachers, nurses or police just need to step away from their jobs for a couple of days and the government would step down and apologize to the people for being criminals, he said.

Minister Hulse today emphasized that since finding out about the improprieties in his Ministry, there have been wide-sweeping changes implemented—”landmark moves,” he said—including stiffer penalties, such as a fine of $50,000 coupled with a mandatory prison term of as many as 15 years.

He said that the legislative and structural changes are being put into effect, pursuant to changes recently made to the laws covering passports, immigration and nationality.

He also told us that for the first time in the country’s history, anyone who applies for and obtains Belizean nationality would have his or her name published in the Gazette, resulting in full disclosure of who is seeking to become a Belizean citizen.

“Nobody henceforth will become a Belizean if they are not in the Gazette,” Hulse said.

The changes, he said, would come into effect when the next batch of nationality applicants receive their papers – no sooner than a month from now.

Hulse also informed us about a new addition to his Ministry: that person is former Auditor General Edmund Zuniga, who was retired from office but who is now being taken on as the Deputy CEO for Immigration.

“Over the years, there has been tremendous amount of ‘hanky panky’… and aiding and abetting the process,” showing a lack of nationalism among those who have participated in such schemes, Hulse said.

He asserted, though, that somebody should say they are doing a good job for the serious advances that are being made in the Ministry of Immigration.

In his New Year’s Day message, Prime Minister Dean Barrow announced the reinstatement of the Integrity Commission, which has been dormant since the last team was appointed back in 2009. It remains to be seen whether such a resurrected Commission would initiate a probe into the Penner matter under the Prevention of Corruption in Public Life Act.

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