BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Jan 16, 2020– Cabinet ministers in the Dean Barrow-led United Democratic Party are once more the subject of national scrutiny, because of allegations contained in a United States federal court document.
The document is alleging that “a Government official from Belize” was receiving US$25,000 per month from a US businessman who is facing a life- in-prison sentence if he is convicted for his role in a fraud scheme that diverted $511 million from the U.S. government.
The document did not specifically refer to that official as “a Government minister,” but at a press conference held by Prime Minister Dean Barrow yesterday, he told the media that he asked his Cabinet ministers if any one of them had taken the bribe, and they said no.
Yesterday, at the hastily-called press conference, Prime Minister Dean Barrow sat alone at the head table as he spoke slowly and deliberately, trying, once again, to defend the integrity of his Cabinet ministers in the face of damning accusations in the US court document.
Barrow said that his ministers told him at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that no one present took money from the accused US fraudster, Lev Asan Dermen, who is also known as Levon Termendzhyan, the name he used when he was granted Belizean nationality in September, 2013.
This time around, the allegation of corruption concerns moneys purportedly given to two Government officials by Dermen, an American businessman who was granted Belizean nationality under questionable circumstances, and who is facing trial for his role in depriving the United States government of $511 million in a massive bio-fuel scam.
In 2018, Dermen, a Los Angeles-based businessman, was indicted in the state of Utah along with four members of a polygamous family with the surname “Kingston”, who owned a bio-fuel plant, Washakie Renewable Energy, which was used in the massive forgery for which four members of the family made a plea deal with prosecutors and are awaiting sentencing.
That case would have been tried and Belizeans would have paid little attention to it, but allegations began to surface in social media, at first, that Belizean officials were given money by Dermen, who is a co-defendant in the case.
Jacob Kingston, the CEO of Washakie Renewable Energy, is likely to testify when the trial resumes on January 27, that he personally gave money to Dermen for the Belize official, at his, Dermen’s, request.
This is how that information is set out in the new evidence that the prosecutor intends to introduce when the trial continues: “(Jacob) Kingston will also testify that a government official from Belize was routinely paid $25,000 in cash a month by Dermen, and that when Dermen could not make the payments himself, he would ask Kingston to make the payments on his behalf. On at least one occasion, in or about February 2014, at Dermen’s request, Kingston arranged for cash payments to the Belizean official through an associate. In addition, in or about June 2013, Kingston electronically sent funds to a different Belizean government official at Dermen’s request.”
That is the gist of the allegation concerning two of PM Barrow’s Cabinet ministers that prompted him to call yesterday’s press conference, during which he went into damage control mode.
The Prime Minister told the nation yesterday what his Cabinet ministers who were present for Tuesday’s meeting, said when asked if they had taken money from Dermen.
“I required each Cabinet member to say whether he or she could have any reason to believe that he or she would be the person, or that they would be the persons to which the material is referred. Let me put it another way: ‘did anyone in this room [talking about the Cabinet room yesterday] receive $25,000 US dollars a month over a period of time from this Mr. Lev or Mr. Kingston or some third person that at one time Mr. Kingston said was used as an intermediary?’” said Barrow.
The answer from all those ministers, he said, was “no.”
The other question, said Barrow, was “Did anyone in this room receive funds from Mr. Lev by way of an electronic transfer?”
And the answer was also “no,” said Barrow, who added, “That is where, for the moment, the matter must rest.”
Barrow added, “The evidence in this trial will be forthcoming, and what I am here to also tell you is this: if it turns out that indeed there is evidence to show that a member or 2 members of my Cabinet received funds from Mr. Lev, there will be hell to pay.”
The leader of the Belize government, in almost the same breath, uttered what sounded like an advance defense that would limit the guilt of any Cabinet minister who took money from Dermen.
This is how PM Barrow styled it: “Might be that the minister could make a hell of a case saying, ‘where is the proof that this was other than a campaign contribution from someone that I knew who supported me?’ There are no laws in Belize that regulate campaign finance contributions, but I wouldn’t need to get into that sort of an argument with the minister, would I? Because even if that could be shown to be true, you lied to me and you lied to the Cabinet in saying that you did not receive any money. That in itself is a basis for me to say, ‘Sir/madam, you cannot stay in any Cabinet that I lead.’ I don’t think I can make my position any clearer.”
Channel 7’s Jules Vasquez went to the World Cup game that was held in the United Arab Emirates, and told PM Barrow that from his vantage point, Minister John Saldivar was being transported in Dermen’s private jet.
The PM admitted that Dermen is known by many UDP persons.
In a question to the Prime Minister, one reporter suggested that the matter is casting a cloud over his administration.
Barrow responded saying, “Look, the allegations contained in that statement lodged before the court by the prosecutor, indeed, is extremely concerning. That is why I am here, and that is why I am seeking to reassure you and the public that once those allegations mature and once evidence would be led to anybody who in fact is shown to have accepted monies from this gentleman, they will be dealt with.”
It has been widely reported that Dermen wanted a Belize diplomatic posting. PM Barrow, however, denied that Dermen wanted a diplomatic post.
Regarding the question of a diplomatic posting, PM Barrow declared: “Mr. Lev, Mr. Levon, whatever his name is, at no point approached the government for a diplomatic appointment. He did approach the government expressing an interest in an honorary consulship, and none of you better not tell me that that’s a difference without a distinction; an honorary consul, the very title means that you are and can never be considered a diplomat.”
US court records, however, indicated that Dermen’s operation stretched from the US East to West Coast, and in Central America, all the way across the ocean to Turkey. That would be plausible enough for him to aspire to getting some diplomatic clearance, given that diplomats are not routinely searched.
The PM said that no one in his government would have dared approach him to make Dermen a diplomat for Belize. Dermen’s name, however, was proposed for an honorary consul post, but it did not go through because the United States objected, the PM admitted.
When it comes to Dermen getting Belizean nationality, the Prime Minister, although he is aware that Dermen’s name was flagged by the Auditor General, did not express any concern about how he got the Belizean nationality certificate.
During the question and answer session, we asked the PM if an investigation should be launched on that aspect alone.
The PM replied that that is what the Senate Select Committee investigation into the Immigration Department was supposed to be about.
We pointed out to the PM, however, that there is still no Senate report.
During the more than one-hour press conference, PM Barrow did not make any specific commitment that he would exhaust all avenues to find out the truth about what transpired between one or two members of his Cabinet, and Dermen.
PM Barrow, who is scheduled to go into retirement shortly after next month’s UDP national convention, at which time a leader to succeed him will be elected, said that he wants to retire, but this matter might make him stay a little longer.
Indeed it might, because the allegations hit a sensitive spot with Belizeans – here we go again, another UDP scandal on top of all the UDP scandals we have had from this administration.
No names were called in the US court papers, but Hon. John Saldivar, area representative for Belmopan, took the offensive yesterday, through a press release in which he stated his position, saying that “For the record, I met American businessman Lev Dermen in 2013 and last saw him sometime in early 2015. Mr. Dermen was known to many in Belize as a wealthy businessman. I interacted with Mr. Dermen on several occasions and did so publicly, including, as is already public knowledge, at the Gold Cup in 2013.
“However, I categorically reject any suggestion of my involvement in any act of fraud or bribery with Mr. Dermen. At no time have I used my office for any such vile quid pro quo activities, as the political propagandists suggest … I am a man of integrity.”
Saldivar also mentioned that “to certain elements within my own party, I say that it is regrettable that the campaign for the leadership of my Party has caused some to sink to this level of maliciousness and falsehood.”
Saldivar ended his release by saying, “My attorney … is instructed to initiate legal action against anyone who has published, or continues to publish … these malicious falsehoods about me.”
No other member of Mr. Barrow’s Cabinet has made any statement about the US court papers’ allegations.
Today, Thursday, Amandala spoke with Opposition party leader John Briceño (Orange Walk Central area rep) and the PUP’s Hon. Kareem Musa (Caribbean Shores area rep) about the Prime Minister’s press conference.
We asked the PUP leader to comment on the fact that given the serious nature of the allegations, the Prime Minister did not give the nation any assurance that he would use the vast resources that are at his disposal as the leader of the country to get to the bottom of the allegations against his ministers. Instead, he said that he is waiting for evidence from a trial in the U.S.
“There are two things I would like to say,” Hon. Briceño began, “If he is serious, why does he have to wait? I believe he knows who the ministers are. Most people certainly know who one of them is, so he knows and is still not doing anything.”
“Secondly, I think the PM is trying to buy time, because this case can go on for months and months, and the leadership convention could be over and there could be an election, the general elections could be called,” Hon. Briceño explained.
“Quite likely, and you could ask anybody, they are going to be voted out. But the person he seems to be supporting could be Party Leader”, Briceño declared.
We asked Hon. Briceno, since it appears that the Belizean nationality that was given to Darmen was irregular, whether there should be an investigation into that.
Hon. Briceño replied, “Of course, they need to do an investigation, not only about him, but several people. We in the PUP are not going to let this go, and the media and the Belizean people are not going to let this go. There is one thing that the Prime Minister can do, and that is call the elections. They are finished.”
We asked Hon. Kareem Musa what he thought of the Prime Minister’s press conference, seeing that he attempted to “lawyer” his way through the issues facing two of his Cabinet ministers.
“We have seen this song-and-dance by the Prime Minister before, where he wants to waltz with the Belizean people, but the Belizean people no longer want to waltz with him,” Hon. Musa said, adding that “he has lost all credibility over the last 12 years, as being a Prime Minister who fights corruption.”
Hon. Musa added, “Let us look at the Elvin Penner scandal. It is now 2020 and there is still no file from the Commissioner of Police, no answer from the DPP. When it comes to Elvin Penner, there is a charge under the criminal code. It is an indictable offence that can be laid, that has not been laid; this offense has no time limit.”
Hon. Musa went on to say that the Prime Minister had his own kangaroo court on Tuesday, asking his Cabinet ministers whether they received funds. “They are the most unbelievable people who have no credibility; how can you expect a truthful answer from them?” Musa remarked.
“At the end of the day, the Prime Minister knows how the world works. He could contact the US Chargé d’affairs and find out who are the two names mentioned in that affidavit. It is as easy as ABC, contacting the State Department, as the Prime Minister, because this is an issue of national importance, but he has not done so,” Hon. Musa said with finality.
Feature photo: PM Dean Barrow