PM Barrow blames Immigration employees for Penner scandal; PUP gives him until Monday to resign
Won Hong Kim’s files, fingerprints disappear from Passport office
Evan “Mose” Hyde, of Krem Radio’s WUB morning show wants Penner to be investigated; the Opposition PUP badly want his neck; the media is hot on his smoking trail; and many citizens want to see him hauled before a court.
Yes, former Minister of State in the Ministry of Immigration, with emphasis on Border Protection and Immigration, Hon. Elvin Penner, whose seat is in the Cayo North East constituency, and who had responsibility for the Department of Immigration, is a wanted man, despite being desperately defended by Prime Minister Dean Barrow.
Tonight, credible reports were that, probably because of the enormous stress, Penner has been hospitalized in a Belize City hospital, reportedly the Medical Associates.
Directly after the story broke on September 19 that he was involved in a scandalous passport scam in the Immigration Department, Prime Minister Dean Barrow kicked Penner out of Cabinet. It was not revealed what the conversation between the PM and Penner was about, but in the end, Penner’s indiscretion could lead to big trouble for the ruling UDP.
Penner is accused of facilitating a passport and citizenship request by Won Hong Kim, a South Korean man who was in a Taiwanese prison awaiting extradition on charges of embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The saga began when Elvin Penner was forced to resign from cabinet exactly two weeks ago because he signed the passport application and the picture for someone, who, by all indications, had not entered Belize, much less gained permanent residency.
“Citizen Kim”, as he is popularly known, has allegedly never set foot in Belize. However, that did not stop him from receiving his passport and Belizean citizenship in a Taiwanese jail, and a Belize City Councilor has been implicated in the embarrassing scam.
The Justice of the Peace who signed the application is a former UDP municipal elected representative, former Cayo Mayor Alfonso “Ponchis” Cruz, and the person who the media and Belize City Mayor Darrell Bradley badly want to talk to is Belize City Deputy Mayor Eric Chang. Chang was scheduled to return to Belize from Taiwan today.
First and foremost, he was supposed to have met with Mayor Bradley to discuss allegations rife in the media, of his alleged involvement in the embarrassing passport scandal. Of note is that Chang and Penner are the first Asian and Mennonite, respectively, to hold political office in the history of Belize.
According to Prime Minister Dean Barrow, however, there is no real evidence to support the assertion that the Belize City Deputy Mayor acted as the bearer of the documents, and he referred to the reports as “utterly anecdotal”.
Nonetheless, the media flocked the Philip S.W. Goldson Airport this morning in anticipation of Chang’s arrival. He was expected to arrive on an American Airlines flight at 10:25 a.m. from Miami. Chang, however, was a no-show, for whatever the reason. Amandala attempted to get in contact with Belize City Mayor Darrell Bradley to inquire about the whereabouts of his Deputy,
There have been many strange twists in the story as the scandal continues to unfold with many appalling recent developments. Additional information to the media via an e-mail that was sent last Friday to 7 News by Hon. Elvin Penner raised many more unanswered questions as to whether the former Minister of State could possibly be criminally charged, since there was enough evidence to suggest that a crime was committed in the issuance of the passport to “Won Hong Kim”, who became a Belizean citizen in one day, on September 9, under highly questionable circumstances.
In that particular e-mail, Penner sought to defend his actions and tell his side of the story. He said, “…an [Asian] person, whom I have known through business trips, even before I entered politics, came to me (emphasis ours) for a signature so he could get a passport. He also mentioned that he needed it urgently, since he was about to go on a trip and was more than willing to pay the regular one-day service fee. The picture on the nationality document he presented to me, the Korean passport that he had with him and the passport-size pictures that I also signed did not raise any suspicion, since they were all of the same person, the person whom I knew as Mr. Kim.”
The substantive Minister of Immigration, Hon. Godwin Hulse, confirmed that in fact no picture was indeed taken, and the copies of Won Hong Kim’s fingerprints are also missing from the application files. Hulse noted that it appears that no swearing ceremony was held in this peculiar case either, since the hard copy of the passport application is nowhere to be found.
Further inconsistencies have presented themselves because of the fact that Penner has already established, in his email, that he accompanied the person he knew as “Mr. Kim” to the Immigration Department to process the passport.
However, the three pictures of Won Hong Kim which appear on all documentation are a positive match with the latest international media images of the imprisoned South Korean national in a Taiwanese prison.
“Won Hong Kim”, therefore, was not, as Penner claimed, accompanied by him to the Immigration Department.
Despite all these facts, which members of the public believe are enough to lead to the conclusion that there probably was criminal wrongdoing at the Immigration Department, the Prime Minister, Hon. Dean Barrow, persistently insists that Penner’s actions do not warrant a criminal investigation.
In fact, Barrow said that the employees of the Immigration Department who facilitated the process are the ones who must be made to face the consequences.
The three Immigration officers who have been reprimanded for their alleged involvement – Sharon Neal, Omar Philips and Erwin Robinson – have all been placed on a 10-day suspension while an administrative investigation is supposedly taking place, but Belizeans are calling for a criminal investigation.
Penner met with the Prime Minister at Barrow’s Belize City office yesterday, Wednesday, but declined to comment to the media as to whether he would resign as Cayo North East area representative. His only response was, “As I said before, I will continue to serve my people.”
One person who is not waiting for Penner’s decision is Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Francis Fonseca, who wrote to the ousted Minister of State yesterday, demanding his resignation. In his letter, titled “Resign or Be Recalled”, Fonseca wrote that he has been authorized by the National Executive of the People’s United Party to advise Penner that if he fails to resign by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, October 7, the PUP along with electors of that division will initiate Penner’s “Recall as the divisional representative for the Cayo North East Electoral Division in accordance with the Recall of Elected Representatives Act, No. 20 of 2010.”
Fonseca stated in the letter that the Opposition has carried out extensive consultations in the division in the last 10 days, and it is abundantly clear to them that Penner has lost the trust and confidence of those whom he was elected to represent.
He told Penner that “we therefore have a duty and an obligation to demand your resignation, and failing that, to pursue your recall.”
Penner, the embattled area representative, it must be recalled, won his seat by a slim margin of 17 votes in the March 2012 general elections.
During the Senate meeting, also held yesterday, PUP Senator Lisa Shoman called on the Senate to institute and to conduct a special enquiry and investigation into this latest Immigration scandal of apparently epic proportions.
Vision Inspired by the People (VIP) this evening sent out a press release which jumped the gun, so to speak – the party is “interviewing potential candidates of good standing,” for Penner’s division, and “specifically calls for potential women candidates to partake in the recall election to represent Cayo North East.”
Late this evening, Amandala received reports which alleged that Elvin Penner had voluntarily resigned as Cayo North East area representative. KREM News sent him a text message to confirm the rumors, and his wife, Rocio Penner, responded by texting, “Let it be known that my husband has no intentions of resigning. Not now, not ever! He continues strong on his quest to serve his Cayo North East constituency and his allegiance to the UDP party.”
If the PUP ends up attempting to recall Penner, they will first have to get 30 percent of the electors to trigger the Recall Referendum, at which they would then need at least 65 percent of the electors to participate to make it valid.
At the March 2012 general elections, Cayo North East had 5,548 electors. So at least 3,606 voters would have to participate in the actual recall referendum, and a simple majority of that figure would decide Penner’s fate.
If Penner is recalled, then that would trigger a bye-election, in which he could not stand as a candidate.