Before social media I don’t think news ever travelled so fast, with such quick opportunity to give feedback. Social media is a platform also used to exploit people, bully others, advocate for issues and just connect with friends far and near. It has its good and bad aspects, but one sure benefit is the lightning speed with which news travels.
Almost at the drop of a hat one can be aware of the latest news and likewise give a reaction. Such was the case this week when on the eve of all our celebrations leading up to the commemoration of the 221st anniversary of the Battle of Saint George’s Caye Day, Belizeans learnt about the arrest of the Deputy Director General of the Belize Tax Service —formerly the General Sales Tax (GST) Department.
Verde’s arrest signals corruption
“The FBI announces the arrest of Reynaldo Verde, 46, of the country of Belize, by complaint for his alleged interference with commerce by means of extortion and attempted extortion,” read a statement issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States of America. Amidst the jump up on carnival day, the whispers were heard as people asked if it’s true and if you heard etc. etc.
Then, for avoidance of doubt, the FBI issued their statement on the 9th September, 2019, therefore confirming what some only believed to be a rumour at first. But there are those who still did not catch on, as the hype to bring in the 10th September was more on their mind. Sadly, some of those less concerned with this development are the very ones who live on the margins of society as our tax dollars are squandered. This means that there is less money in our coffers to provide a better system of governance and services to elevate the standard of living of all Belizeans, especially those economically marginalized by the corruption in our system.
The report by the FBI states: “VERDE, who is the Assistant Commissioner for the Department of General Sales Tax for the government of Belize, was arrested without incident by the FBI at Washington Dulles International Airport on Saturday, September 7, 2019.”
Now the government has just had time to seek how to reel from this one, and as such today issued a statement in which it sates: “It is, therefore, not known at this time the nature of the charge or whether it is related to Verde’s employment with the Government of Belize”.
It is rather interesting that the government should seek to make it appear that the extortion is not necessarily related to Verde’s post as the second-in-command at the GST Department, when other than for said post, he holds no leverage over any other; unless the government is seeking to insinuate he is involved in gang activities and by said means is extorting businesses. You see, common sense tells you that for extortion to occur, one must be able to have some leverage over you, thus extortion is common in two types of settings: 1. Where government officials have the leverage to grant or not grant some form of license, permits, access fees, rates or taxes etc.; or 2. Where those in organized crime leverage their ability to bring you harm or destroy your business, if you do not pay them some protection money.
No matter how the government seeks to spin it, the core of the issue is that the arrest of Verde, while on official duties for our country, and while he holds one of the most powerful offices in a department under the portfolio of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Dean Barrow, signals the level of corruption that is being revealed.
Often the public officers at various levels are comfortable being involved in corruption because they seem to feel, like their bosses at the highest level, that they too will get away with it. This is so, also, because often, for the ministers to be able to run their scams and corrupt deeds, they enlist these very same officers, to do or not do certain duties. Public officers at all levels see and know what is going on, and they either remain quiet because they are part of it, or fear being dealt with if they squeal! Thus they are complicit by act or omission, and we are yet to have a public service that will stand on integrity, and this has become even worse as more political interference occurs in the appointments of public officers, as the new trend is that almost all posts come with a recommendation from your area representative. Those who know they got their job, not by merit, but by political a—-kissing, know they do not have a leg to stand on to complain, as their very employment was corrupted, even if they are academically qualified for the job! They are already compromised!
Extortion per US Law
Don’t confuse extortion with blackmail, which is a totally different offence, and one where the average person with no office, or connection to gangs, can blackmail someone else, as often happens when persons with nude or compromising pictures in the hands of the blackmailer, pay off monies to stop the circulation of those pictures.
Per findlaw.com, a US-based legal site, “most states [in the USA] define extortion as the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force or threat of violence, property damage, harm to reputation, or unfavorable government action. While usually viewed as a form of theft/larceny, extortion differs from robbery in that the threat in question does not pose an imminent physical danger to the victim”.
Now for the US to take this case up and have an arrest warrant already waiting for Verde, is no small matter, since there had to be some complaint, some prima facie evidence and some good legal basis to persuade a judge to issue such warrant for his arrest. Therefore, for the Belize government to try and make it seem that it is not connected to Verde’s post as one of the most powerful tax officers in this country, is for them to either be in denial, or just trying to throw us off the scent. In addition, this news is a major black eye for Belize, but a strong message for those government officers and officials abusing the authority of their office and involved in illegal activities.
I personally dealt with a US client in Belize when agents of the GST arrived at the business location on the eve of Christmas Eve, and their tactic at the end of the day was to say that the matter could go away if some monies were passed over. Sadly, said business person was scared of the level of corruption and feared that even if a report was made to the bosses at GST, there would be no relief, since said bosses were suspected to have been in on the deal because of certain matters that transpired. I cannot give details of the matter, but suffice to say that the heavy hand of the government system was called upon to crush said business and the GST officers involved were highly connected politically.
Thus, I can say that I knew first hand that GST officers do seek to extort and have extorted many businesses here in Belize, and the sad reality is that the business owner is often not confident that they can report the matter and expect relief, because to do so usually means that they will find other ways to come after you. Plus, as I learnt from my own dealings, the GST officers are very politically connected, and often are the Minister’s child, sweetheart, relative, supporter, campaigner, and crony or connected through party affiliation and political ties that go beyond our comprehension. True to the core!
However, for the extortion charges to be levied against Verde, it would be reasonable to presume that he had to have done his acts against either a US citizen or a US company doing business in Belize, but registered and/or domiciled in the USA, so they can also have jurisdiction in the matter. Verde holds no power to leverage in the USA, but does hold such power in Belize by virtue of being a high-ranking official in our Government.
It would be interesting to know if the extortion was done via phone calls, or emails or some electronic means that crosses borders. But I am confident that they would not take on any flippant matter and that the complainant had to have had some evidence upon which to levy a complaint that has resulted in an arrest. Interestingly, the government states: “Mr Verde was transiting through the United States on his return to Belize from Brussels, after attending a taxation workshop organized by an international tax organization.” Shamefully, he was arrested while on official business for our country.
It may be recalled that in August, 2016, local news houses reported that NEMO C.E.O. Ruth Meighan was denied entry to the U.S. as she travelled through Houston, Texas. Meighan, a senior official in the Prime Minister’s administration, refused to provide an explanation. All the details are not known, but Meighan is known mostly for her role as a public officer, and was Chief Elections Officer and took over as Director of Immigration in 2010. She was moved over to the Ministry of Finance in 2013, allegedly because she and then Minister of State, Elvin Penner, couldn’t get along. We are now very much aware that she was at the Immigration Department and was a profiled figure in the findings of the the Auditor General’s audit, which revealed that as many as fifty-five thousand passports were approved without biometric checks and at least one passport was from a batch of stolen passports from the period of 2011 and 2013.
Then ironically, the head of the Senate inquiry, Sen. Aldo Salazar, who is yet to release the findings and recommendations of the inquiry, likewise has been detained for questioning by US authorities as he transited through the US from Taiwan to Belize. At the time, Salazar refused to discuss his detention and even denied it was a detention, and said it was only a questioning from Immigration authorities.
But Senate president Lee Mark Chang, in an interview, said Salazar was held back for about an hour to an hour and a half. Just as the dust was settling, the news broke of Salazar’s name being called by the US Federal Trade Commission, (FTC) in relation to the Sanctuary Bay Enterprise scandal, a scheme that has resulted in millions of dollars of loss in monies from US nationals who bought land in the Sittee River Wildlife Sanctuary Reserve.
The tip of the iceberg
I have no doubt that the level of corruption in this country is as stink or even stinker than the stench coming off the New River in Orange Walk presently. If we would really know the level of corruption in this country, like the students at La Inmaculada School, who became ill and nauseated from the stench of the river, we too would equally become ill. If the bare tip of the iceberg of corruption has us so ill, what do you imagine it would be if we could know the extent to which our very ministers of government are involved?
In my opinion, there is no way such an astute and knowledgeable man in politics as the Prime Minister is not aware of the corruption in his government. The question is, why would he not deal with them? What does he have to hide or to worry about?
I answer myself with a reminder that corruption is being made legal in this country. The write-off of the loan of Joshua Perdomo, son of the sitting Cabinet Secretary, is such an example, and ask yourself, who other than the PM heads Cabinet? The write-off of $90M in land taxes is yet another example, and ask yourself again, who other than the PM presented that Bill in the National Assembly and pushed for the vote to write off said monies?
These are only the tips of the iceberg. However, I personally recognize how far corruption can be entrenched and legitimized when the very Dean Barrow violated the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act and then passed the Petro-Caribe Loans Act to legalize that which he had done to break the law. If this is the kind of thinking that prevails at the top, then I can expect anything at the bottom.
It all shows that the system is corrupt, because it is corrupted by the people!