BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan. 26, 2017–In 2013, Prime Minister Dean Barrow held a press conference in which he urged his Cabinet ministers to desist from a “visa hustle” inside the Immigration Department.
Barrow went on the record to say, “If I hear you intervene 10 times and I hear you intervene 20 times, what I am to think? Except that you’re involved in a hustle. If you hang out with Alibaba, you must be one of the 40 thieves.”
The Senator representing the Opposition People’s United Party (PUP), Eamon Courtenay, quizzed former Immigration Director Ruth Meighan at Wednesday’s Senate hearing about the intervention of elected UDP Ministers in the visa application process.
The interchange between Courtenay and Meighan went as follows:
Senator Eamon Courtenay: “Why would a Minister write you with respect to a Chinese individual who obviously the Minister doesn’t know?”
Ruth Meighan: “My impression was that the Minister was writing on behalf of a person that he knows to say that he is supporting somebody from his constituent (sic).”
Courtenay: “What was the purpose of that?”
Meighan: “Just to say that they are recommending the person.”
Courtenay: “You are aware, Ms. Meighan, that in fact, many applications were processed for visas on the strength of a Minister’s letter.”
Meighan: “The applications were processed and approved by my desk even with the Minister’s recommendation based on the information that is presented to me by the officer saying that the person meets the requirement for the visas.”
Courtenay: “You want us to believe that the letters from the Ministers played no role?”
Meighan: “No, I am not saying that. I am saying it’s a recommender and he recommends a person, but I am saying to you that the approval was given based on the recommendation that is presented to me by the [Immigration] officer.”
Meighan maintained that the letters from various Ministers did not influence her decision to approve applications for nationality.
Senator Elena Smith would also press Meighan for answers regarding those Ministers. Here is the dialogue that proceeded between Smith and Meighan:
Smith: “During your tenure as Director, did you keep a record of those Ministers who would send you letters to seek assistance with processing documents for persons that they knew?”
Smith: “And that wasn’t something you thought would be helpful to the department, to the Minister in charge or anything of that sort?”
Smith: “We were told by your deputy at the time, Ms. [Maria] Marin, that she had thought it important to keep a record and she had sent us a listing of those Ministers and she sent, I believe, 2 or 3 sets; one had about 191 names on it and the other had about 200 and something names where she had kept those numbers to show how many times Ministers or drivers or CEOs were going into the office. I’ll just give you an example: We saw where Minister [Elvin] Penner had made 51 requests the first time of the 191; 51 requests, and in the second batch of 248, he made 92 requests, a total of 143. Minister [Edmund] Castro made a total of 80; 35 came from Minister [John] Saldivar and the list goes on.”
Aside from submitting accompanying letters in visa applications, several ministers personally frequented the Immigration Department. However, Meighan told the committee that she did not know their reasons for being there and she didn’t care to find out.
Senator Courtenay further questioned Meighan in the following exchange:
Courtenay: “What about the presence of these Ministers in the department itself. You recall seeing them in there?”
Courtenay: “Who you recall seeing in there?”
Meighan: “At times Minister [Manuel] Heredia, Minister [Edmund] Castro, Minister [Hugo] Patt I think, a few times.”
Courtenay: ‘What were they doing there?”
Meighan: “I don’t know. Other than if they come to me or pass through my office, I wouldn’t know.”
Courtenay: “Ms. Meighan, are you telling us you saw Ministers in your department and you didn’t ask any questions to find out why are those Ministers here?”
Meighan: “If the Minister came to the office to see me, then I see them. If they are there for any other business and they didn’t come to my office, I asked no question about what they are doing there?”
Courtenay: “You are not concerned for Ministers being in your department who are not asking to see you?”
Meighan: “No, I am not. I wasn’t.”
Courtenay: “In hindsight, would you take a different approach?”
Courtenay: “You tell me. Have you read these reports?”
Meighan: “Yes, I did, and I am saying if the Minister is there, like everybody else, they are entitled to visit any of the offices, any of the government offices.”
Courtenay: “All innocent and above-board, as far as you are concerned?”
Meighan: “Well, that is what I would have thought…”
At the end of Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Meighan was asked to review the Auditor General’s recommendation for improvement of the Immigration Department.
After reviewing the recommendations, Meighan is expected to prepare a paper on the recommendations that she does not agree with, and to additionally identify recommendations which she believes could be strengthened.
This paper is to be submitted on or before the last day in February.