BELIZE CITY, Mon. Feb. 15, 2021– The first proceeding scheduled by the newly formed Commission of Inquiry into the sale of government assets took place on Monday, February 15, at the Belize City House of Culture. As previously reported, three persons were called by the commission: former Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow; Financial Secretary, Joseph Waight; and Ruperto Vicente, Head of the Vehicle Care Unit.
Former Prime Minister Dean Barrow was the first to give testimony and to answer the questions put forward by the three members of the commission. During the morning’s proceeding, he took a little over 45 minutes to present to the commission what he knew of the sales, and within that time he described the procedure that was followed when Government vehicles and other public assets were sold. In some instances, he pointed out that particular sales were authorized and executed without his expressed consent, although he had given oral approval of the overall process.
In typical Dean Barrow fashion, the former PM first preempted the questions from the Chairman of the commission by embarking on his own shrewdly woven presentation of what takes place within government ministries, and what procedures are undertaken, when public assets are sold.
“In the normal course, government departments and government ministries would write to the Vehicles Care Unit, indicating that a particular vehicle has crashed or had for one reason or the other become disabled, was not in, for the most part, in running condition, or even if a particular vehicle was in running condition the Ministry or Department would indicate that it would run in fits and starts,” Barrow shared.
He explained that the government ministries or departments would then hand the vehicle over to the Vehicle Care Unit, which would then make a request that it be sold as a form of asset recovery, in those cases where vehicles were considered unserviceable.
“It may have been that in some cases, departments and ministries were a little too eager to treat vehicles as unserviceable and to write them off,” Barrow acknowledged.
Hon. Barrow also mentioned that the Head of the Vehicle Care Unit would sign off on sales after getting the recommendation from the Financial Secretary. He went on to inform the commissioners that he would then enter the process as the last person to approve the sales recommended by the first two officials before those sales were executed. But first, he would, in most instances receive a customs valuation of the high-end vehicles in proper working condition, he said.
He told the commissioners that in some special instances, some public servants and ministers would request to buy the vehicles assigned to them during the period in which they held their particular post, and he revealed that they would also at times request to buy the laptops or work stations that they used during their time of service. He explained that this is a longstanding tradition in the Government, which was inherited and had even been carried out just prior to the start of his party’s term in office in February 2008.
“Part of what was sent to me would be an indication, either implicit or explicit, that they were not going to do any better than the particular offer or offers received. Vicente would, in fact, again either explicitly or implicitly certify that we were selling for the best price that we could obtain in the circumstances,” Hon. Barrow said.
He added, “As far as I can recollect, 95% of vehicles sold by the Government were sold in consequence of the procedure just described.”
Before the November 2020 general elections, the Financial Secretary wrote a letter to the Cabinet Secretary and various heads of Ministries informing them that the sales of the assets would be paused, given the fallout resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
He noted, however, that at the end of their term, former Deputy Prime Minister Hugo Patt requested to buy the vehicle that he had used during his term in office. According to Barrow, he gave oral approval for this sale, given the “special circumstance.” However, Barrow emphasized that he never gave any written, expressed approval, since the customs evaluation was not done in that particular case.
According to Barrow, there were only two other instances in which he decided to break away from their position to retain the assets of the Government, and these exceptions were made in response to purchase requests that were made by Dr. Carla Barnett and the former President of the Court of Appeal, Sir Manuel Sosa.
He said that Dr. Carla Barnett requested to purchase the vehicle she had been using after she made a final decision to not return to public office. He said that she pointed out that she was allowed to purchase her vehicle under the past PUP administration when there had been a change of government. Hon. Barrow also pointed out that former President of the Court of Appeal, Sir Manuel Sosa, had requested to purchase the vehicle that he had used for the past 12 years.
Former Prime Minister Barrow claimed that those were the only two vehicle transactions he specifically and explicitly authorized after the policy to pause the sales of assets was adopted. In the instance of the sale of the vehicle to Hugo Patt, the Prime Minister outlined that he had given no expressed approval.
In his presentation, he also revealed that former Attorney General/Minister of National Security and current Lead Opposition Senator, Michael Peyrefitte was also permitted to buy furniture that was specially designed for his use within the Ministry. The furniture and an iPad were also recommended for sale by the Vehicle Care Unit, he said.
The chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, Andrew Marshalleck S.C., pointed out that these instances indicate that the procedure laid out by the former Prime Minister was not strictly adhered to. He also noted that the Finance and Audit Reform Act lays out mandatory tendering procedures to be used by the Government when considering sale of assets.
Marshalleck added, ‘Section 23 of the Finance and Audit Reform Act says, ‘the Minister may make regulations for giving better effect to the provision of the act and for prescribing anything that needs to be prescribed, and these specifically refer to proper use and standards and principles for use and management of public money and financial assets and liabilities. “
Marshalleck then asked Hon. Barrow, “No regulation was ever prescribed regulating the sale of assets?”
Former Prime Minister Dean Barrow replied, “Not as far I know, Sir. No.”