BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Feb. 12, 2015–Last Thursday morning, the Supreme Court of Belize declined—just as the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) had done in 2013—to enforce a mega multi-million-dollar award won in foreign arbitration by British billionaire Michael Ashcroft against the Government of Belize, on the grounds that the award could simply not be enforced because it would be contrary to public policy, since the agreements from which the award had emanated had not been approved by Parliament.
Later that evening, at around 3:00 p.m., Ashcroft sought a breakfast meeting via Channel 5 CEO Amalia Mai, with Audrey Matura-Shepherd, a prominent Belizean attorney and activist – a request which Matura-Shepherd said surprised her, given the sour note on which things had ended when she first met with Ashcroft 15 years prior as a senator of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP).
Ashcroft wanted to meet her at the Radisson Fort George Hotel and Marina for breakfast Friday morning and Matura-Shepherd said that after consulting with her two sons, Leo Matura and William Reid, she decided that she would accept Ashcroft’s invitation.
Matura-Shepherd, who has served as president of the Christian Workers Union since December 2013, was elected two weekends ago as the 2nd vice president of the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB).
She said that Ashcroft had told her that he was monitoring the Belize news every day and saw that she was always in the news addressing national issues and sticking to them. Ashcroft indicated that he had no agenda for the meeting, but Audrey told the media at a press conference held on Wednesday, February 11, 2015, that she went with her list of questions; chief among them was the question of whether Ashcroft intended to “litigate Belize to death…”
She told the media that his response was an unequivocal “yes!”
“Those who have been in bed with [Ashcroft] know he will fight you to the bitter end,” Matura-Shepherd said, pointing out that Ashcroft can afford to do this, since his net worth exceeds Belize’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Ashcroft’s last round of litigation did not end favorably for him, though. The day before Matura-Shepherd’s breakfast with Ashcroft, Supreme Court judge Shona Griffith had declined a request from the Belize Bank to enforce a $39 million arbitral award over a disputed agreement with Universal Health Services, now the Belize Healthcare Partners.
In July 2013, the CCJ had turned down a request by the Ashcroft group to enforce an $88 million arbitral award against the Government of Belize over a settlement deed which the former Musa administration had signed with the Ashcroft group in exchange for Ashcroft standing down on litigation over the ownership of Belize Telemedia Limited.
At the time these agreements were being disclosed via the press, Barrow, then the Leader of the Opposition, had said that they would, once they assumed office, resist the payment of any awards, since he maintained the view that the bulk of those agreements were illegal and void, because they were signed in secret without the requisite parliamentary approval.
When the UDP administration came to office in 2008, Barrow introduced controversial constitutional amendments to nationalize Telemedia and later he moved to nationalize a second utility company – the Belize Electricity Limited.
The Barrow administration had made provisions for compensation to be paid to the former owners of Telemedia, but the matter has triggered further litigation, since the settlement proposed by the former shareholders was hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Government is willing to pay.
Today, the legal dispute over the nationalization is pending a decision before the Caribbean Court of Justice, which has been called to decide on whether the Government’s actions in appropriating the utility companies were legal in the first place and whether the companies should be returned to their former owners.
The court could also decide on just compensation to the former shareholders, if it concurs that the nationalizations should continue to hold.
Matura-Shepherd says, though, that the litigation war between Barrow and the Government has already proven to be extremely costly. When we asked her what she thinks is the best road for resolution, she told us that Belize will lose more than financial capital, as it has already lost “reputation.”
She also said that the Government has spent a lot of money in legal fees to politically-connected lawyers over the past 6 years because of the litigation.
Matura-Shepherd concurred that indeed, if the country does not need to pay certain claims made by Ashcroft, then it should not; but the ones that it ought to pay should be settled quickly before they become an unbearable financial burden, which could force the country into austerity measures.
She is proposing that an olive branch could be put out to Ashcroft and furthermore, that the unions can play a critical role.
The newly elected president of the NTUCB, Marvin Mora, had promised on his ascension to that post that the NTUCB would become a “powerhouse,” and Matura-Shepherd, who filled Mora’s previous position on the NTUCB’s executive, says that it is that powerhouse which can at least begin the conversation that could contribute to a less costly resolution of the litigation wars which Ashcroft has waged against the Government of Belize.
She told the press that, “…the reason I brought in the union [into the discussion with Ashcroft] was because of the ability and the talent I know it has within its ranks to be able to even start that conversation. So the conversation has to start. Remember for me, it’s just an idea.”
Matura-Shepherd said that in no way was she committing the unions to doing anything. She also said that she had pitched the idea to Ashcroft to make a presentation to the unions and he seemed open to that.
She told the media that whereas 15 years ago her meeting with Ashcroft was “not a favorable meeting,” because what he had proposed in exchange for monies was, in her view, “obscene,” at the breakfast meeting, Ashcroft did not make any “indecent” proposals to her.
“I thank Mister Ashcroft that he was man enough to call me and man enough to make not one indecent proposal to me. He never proposed money; he never proposed a job – nothing [to make me] feel indebted. Did he pay for the breakfast? Yes! And if that is a problem, I can find out the bill and forward him the value of the breakfast…” she told the media.
News of the breakfast meeting between Ashcroft and Matura-Shepherd spread rapidly on Friday morning, after a snapshot of her, Reid (her son) and Ashcroft was sent to Wave Radio/TV and then shared on social media, fueling the speculation that Matura-Shepherd had gone off on her own to cut a deal with Ashcroft.
Matura-Shepherd said that she saw when Barrow’s wife, Kim Simplis-Barrow, who was at another table at the Radisson and who, she said, had apparently relegated herself to the role of photographer, took the picture of them, and she told Ashcroft that he should not be surprised if the media showed up before they were done with breakfast.
There was also speculation that due to her political aspirations, Matura-Shepherd may have met him as a potential campaign financier, since Ashcroft has pumped millions into Belize’s political campaigns over the years.
However, Matura-Shepherd said that those donations have come at a great cost and it is the Belizean people who get trampled and pay the price.
She added, though, that Ashcroft could have only gotten away with what he has done because our political leaders took the money Ashcroft offered “and used the money and that’s how they won elections and that’s for both parties.”
She said that Simplis-Barrow’s bachelorette party was held aboard Ashcroft’s yacht and Barrow’s law firm still represents one of Ashcroft’s companies – the Belize Bank. Matura-Shepherd went on to say that based on what Ashcroft told her it appears that he feels used by the UDP.
She told the media, “As much as Mr. Ashcroft is the villain, at some point, you’ve got to sit with that villain and work that out. And someone has to do it. Somebody has to bell that cat!”
Last night, Matura-Shepherd had an extensive exchange with her NTUCB colleagues in a special general council meeting, and Mora told us today that the matter is an internal issue for the NTUCB. He said that Matura-Shepherd is a person who wears many hats, and probably the most important hat, given the size of responsibility, is that of the NTUCB, so they had to discuss the issue last night and they discussed it at length with her.
Mora said that Matura-Shepherd was “very open and willing to answer all questions and to explain in detail what transpired…”
He said that it was reiterated that the NTUCB executive members have to be careful how they proceed not only with people of high interest to the people of nation, but with any consultation “before we go winging it.”
On the suggestion pitched by Audrey that the NTUCB could be vital in brokering a compromise settlement with Ashcroft, Mora said that the NTUCB, “in terms of its autonomy, does not bend to suit anybody, and if it is that we need to have some dialogue with Ashcroft, Dean Barrow [the Prime Minister] or Francis Fonseca [the Leader of the Opposition], it has to be discussed with the general council and it will always be in an open and transparent manner.”
Mora said that the door is not closed, since many workers, including members of their affiliate unions such as the Belize Communications Workers Union, work for companies involved in the ongoing litigation and Ashcroft has influence over the welfare of many Belizean workers.
The NTUCB has an active membership of between 8,000 and 10,000 members, but it also plays a critical advocacy role for the wider working population.