Features — 18 October 2013 — by Audrey Matura-Shepherd

“The party will rally around Elvin Penner. We believe that he deserves a second chance. We believe that we ought to help him persuade his constituents not to recall him.”

- Prime Minister Dean Barrow

Those were the words spoken by the Honorable Prime Minister at a press conference on October 4, 2013. To me, at least, it was amazing that after Cabinet and its head believed that Penner acted grievously enough to be removed from Cabinet, they still found it in their heart to throw their loyalty, energy and reputation behind this man. For this corner the writing was on the wall a long time ago when the man, Elvin Penner, with no apology said on January 18, 2012: “I’m trying to work with them [he meant immigrants he wanted votes from]. I’ve always committed myself from day one when I got into politics that anybody who applied for their nationality, and they qualified, I would pay half of the cost.” To me that was the public sign and what has followed is just an escalation of that.

If I had the power I would investigate him from then … because, I maintain that confession of that nature amounted to election bribe contrary to the Representation of the People Act. But his party stood by him, and the Prime Minister even said that what Penner had done was not sufficient to merit criminal charges. Now to me that was a public way of cowering the Police Commissioner into not doing his job and a proper investigation at that. When the file is compiled and properly put together, it is the DPP who determines if there is some shred of evidence to take the matter before a court, not the Commissioner of Police and surely not the Prime Minister.

The Constitution of Belize states:

50.-(1) There shall be a Director of Public Prosecutions whose office shall be a public office.

(2) The Director of Public Prosecutions shall have power in any case in which he considers it desirable so to do-

(a) to institute, and undertake criminal proceedings against any person before any court of law (other than a court-martial) in respect of any offence alleged to have been committed by that person;

(b) to take over and continue any such criminal proceedings that have been instituted or undertaken by any other person or authority; and

(c) to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered any such criminal proceedings instituted or undertaken by himself or any other person or authority.

Unconstitutional Cabinet

“Penner is not only removed from the UDP Cabinet, Penner can never return to the UDP Cabinet. Thus, there is no question of Penner being able to do any further harm to my administration or the governance of that administration.”

Penner as a Minister of State in the first place should never have even been in Cabinet, since only Ministers are Cabinet members and can hold portfolios. To have placed him there means the Prime Minister acted UNCONSTITUTIONALLY – i.e. contrary to the Constitution and ultra vires the Constitution!

Section 44 of the Belize Constitution makes it clear: “44.-(1) There shall be a Cabinet of Ministers [not Minister of State – my emphasis] for Belize which shall consist of the Prime Minister and the other Ministers.

(2) The Cabinet shall be the principal executive instrument of policy with general direction and control of the Government and shall be collectively responsible to the National Assembly for any advice given to the Governor-General by or under the general authority of the Cabinet and for all things done by or under the authority of any Minister in the execution of his office.

Section 45 deals with the appointment of Ministers of State, and their role is clearly defined in the constitution: 45.-(1) The Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, may appoint Ministers of State from among the members of the House of Representatives or of the Senate to assist Ministers in the performance of their duties.

Constitutional power to Minister of State

So it is clear that, to have those Ministers of State in CABINET – is unconstitutional. They can be invited to sit in now and then but cannot be allowed to be involved in the voting and determining the direction of Government, because as per Section 44 they are NOT “collectively responsible to the National Assembly for advice given to the Governor General,” because they are NOT a “Minister” of Cabinet, which is different from a Minister of State.

A look at the Government of Belize website blatantly and proudly under the icon of governance leads you to the page of the members of Cabinet. Apart from Elvin Penner, listed as Cabinet members are: Santiago Castillo, Mark King, Mark Pech, Edmond Castro and Herman Longsworth. They can remain Ministers of State, but not members of Cabinet. But what I found interesting is that when you check the Ministry of Labour, Local Government, Rural Development, NEMO and Immigration and Nationality under Penner’s picture there is one thing that sticks out, read for yourself: “Minister of State in the Ministry of Labour, Local Government, Rural Development and National Emergency Management (emphasis in Immigration).” Did you see the emphasis?

Well, it is that emphasis that in my professional view, he was not supposed to get. He should have never been given such signatory rights.

The call to resign

Now things have changed and from the strong position that Penner deserves a second chance there is a new tune!

“More evidence has surfaced of the involvement of Elvin Penner in other instances of what to us is impropriety. The material presented to Cabinet was and is enough for us to feel that Elvin Penner was involved in additional instances of what I will term “irregularities.” We can in the circumstances no longer continue to support Elvin Penner, meaning; that in our view he cannot any longer continue to represent the people of the Cayo North East constituency as and in the name of the United Democratic Party.”

This is what Creole call “swallowing your own vomit.” But for Penner, he will not go out without a fight. He is betting that he helped enough people in his division get their nationality papers and subsequent voter’s identification cards that they will support him and rally behind him.

Penner states, by text, Wednesday 16th October 2013: “I will not resign unless my people want me to. At this point in time the support I am getting is still overwhelming and it is not going to be any other than my people that can ask me to resign…and I at this point still feel that the people in my area will not allow me to resign. I will continue to serve my people as long as they want me to, to the best of my ability.”

From my perch this is a bold move from a man who clearly must know he has not only done a moral wrong, but an unethical act, under unconstitutional terms, which I still believe are sufficient to merit criminal charges. But Penner is standing up to Dean Oliver Barrow, his Party Leader and the country’s Prime Minister. This too is historic!

Penner’s trump card

I believe, but may be wrong, that Penner has some trump cards he wants to hold close to his chest and one has got to be the names of the other Ministers and senior government officials whom he has been assisting to facilitate the speed-tracking of nationality and passports. Remember, neither Cabinet nor the PM has frowned on the well-used practice of a Minister “putting in a word” to get things moving. Remember what the PM said:

“If a Minister says, ‘I did ask the Immigration Department to bring some speed to the processing of an application for a visa for a friend,’ it is entirely legitimate as Minister. ‘I satisfied myself that the application for the visa was in order.’ I can’t say that that is not to happen, but 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 Ali Baba, you must be one of the 40 thieves.” – October 11, 2013.

Well, I think Ali Baba will soon have to reveal his 40 thieves.

God bless Belize!

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