Photo: Michael Feinstein, Lead Developer of Port Coral.
An exchange of accusations sparked by a letter penned by former Attorney General, Michael Peyrefitte which claimed that a Definitive Agreement purportedly held by Portico Enterprise Ltd. is fraudulent has rekindled the cruise port war for domination of the Belize District coastline. David Gegg of Portico says, however, that Peyrefitte was privy to the signing of the agreement, and is now pretending to know nothing about it.
by Marco Lopez
BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 2, 2023
Daggers are drawn again between two companies vying for control over the cruise industry in the Belize District. News of a Definitive Agreement granted to Portico Enterprise Ltd. by a UDP administration just one month before the 2020 General Elections has been widely publicized. But a letter written by Michael Peyrefitte that was released by a Feinstein group representative claims that the agreement never made it in front of the then Cabinet’s Sub-Committee on Investment or the full Cabinet. The agreement was signed by former Minister of Economic Development, Erwin Contreras, Portico reportedly claims.
The letter from Peyrefitte goes on to state, “If any such ‘agreement’ exists, then in my view it was improperly executed and holds no weight in law.” The claims made by Peyrefitte seemed to dim the prospects of advancement for Portico, which just last year secured an exclusive agreement with the Royal Caribbean Group, a major cruise line, likely on the grounds of the same Definitive Agreement that Peyrefitte called into question .
Former UDP minister and member of the Investment Committee, Hon. Tracy Panton, also claimed that a memorandum of understanding was signed for Portico’s development project but says she is not aware of a Definitive Agreement.
“Where it came to that particular investment, indeed, we had a Memorandum of Understanding which is the first step in the process for all investors, all serious investors in any major projects in the country. And so, I know for sure that we had a Memorandum of Understanding for that particular project. I am not aware of any Definitive Agreement, which is usually the last stage of really cementing the investment opportunity in the country. You know, the government has to ensure that the investor has the right, has the capital available, that all the permissions have been granted, that sort of thing. When I left, or when we left the government administration, that project was not there yet. Certainly, none was discussed with the Cabinet Subcommittee on Investment and none was discussed with me directly,” Hon. Panton said.
But David Gegg believes the UDP officials are simply feigning amnesia, since he claims that at the time Portico retained Morales Peyrefitte LLP, the law firm in which Michael Peyrefitte was a partner, to represent them in the matter. He claimed that the definitive agreement was drafted by Peyrefitte’s partner, who, according to a letter penned by Gegg to Peyrefitte, “at the time held several discourses with you [Peyrefitte] as Attorney General and member of the Investment Committee regarding the terms of the agreement.”
Gegg’s letter to Peyrefitte goes on to state, “it was you who vetted the agreement and advised him that certain amendments were needed.”
Peyrefitte in a recent interview said those allegations were “lies and absolute rubbish.” He maintained that he never provided any legal advice to Portico. We can confirm that his law partner, David Morales, did represent Portico in the case brought by Stake Bank in the Judicial Review Application (which would be subsequently struck out) following the NEAC’s approval of Portico’s project.
While Peyrefitte may not have been in private practice when he served as Attorney General, from 2017 to 2020, he, if nothing else, was in proximity to the dealings of the law firm in which he is a partner.
The letter from Gegg tells Peyrefitte that on June 1, 2020, Morales Peyrefitte LLP sent an amendment of a Definitive Agreement in an email to both him and former Minister Panton. He could not verify if those two investment committee members reviewed the document but noted that Erwin Contreras, referred to in the letter as “a ranking member of Cabinet” did review the agreement and eventually allegedly signed off on it.
Peyrefitte in an interview recently confirmed that he had received an email but said he paid no attention to it, since Portico had not yet received environmental clearance to undertake the project, and in any case, the files were not to be sent to him directly. He said that if the document was signed by former Minister Contreras, then that was wrong, but claims that he had not seen the document.
Gegg’s letter stated that Contreras had informed them that one further amendment was needed, a clause to indicate the agreement would have no effect without an approved Environmental Compliance Plan from the DOE. He claims this was added, and the PUP government granted the ECP in 2021. Portico’s response letter was annexed with what Minister Panton referred to as “nothing more than an expression of good faith,” which she asserted, according to a local report, is not a Definitive Agreement.
As mentioned, the letter from Peyrefitte could cast a shadow on the validity of the approval of Portico’s operation. They have opted to sue one individual connected to the Feinstein group for defamatory statements.
Stake Bank Enterprise Ltd. joined the conversation on Tuesday of this week with a lengthy press release of its own. They stated that the saga is reflective of the “reckless approach the Government is taking with the cruise industry”, and they echoed Peyrefitte’s letter by accusing Portico of circumventing due process to obtain the definitive agreement – claiming the competing port partnered with a “non-Cabinet Sub Committee” member, Contreras. The release said that it is unheard of for a Definitive Agreement to be executed without Environmental Clearance first being secured.
The Stake Bank release goes on to make a serious claim. It states, “This fraudulent Definitive Agreement is no doubt used to dupe the cruise lines that the government supports Portico Enterprise project when this is furthest from the truth. It is also clear that Portico Enterprise Limited is aware that the Definitive Agreement is highly questionable because there is great reluctance to disclose it.”
The letter called on Portico to disclose the document “because taxpayers’ funds are at stake via the concession contained in such agreement.” Stake Bank is now consulting its own legal team to determine if Portico and Contreras are liable for damages due to misrepresentation and fraud for the signed Definitive Agreement that is reportedly unapproved.
Stake Bank Enterprises Ltd. also has a Definitive Agreement for its Port Coral project which was approved in 2017, again by the UDP administration, and it reminded the public of the Supreme Court proceedings over the current PUP administration’s granting of Environmental Clearance to Portico—a judicial review proceeding that previously was dismissed by the courts.
The recent release states, however, “SBEL is strongly advised that once the substantive case is heard, the Courts of Belize will reverse the Environmental Clearance that was given to Portico Enterprise Limited.”
They, however, accuse some members of the Cabinet of being “hell-bent” on supporting Portico. They called on the government to approve the final draft of the approved Port Policy submitted by The Belize Port Authority three weeks ago. They claim that the policy “makes it clear that only 1 cruise port and 1 cargo port can exist for the Belize District at this time.”
Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño in an interview yesterday said that he believes if the Definitive Agreement was signed by the minister responsible then it is binding, but admits that he has not seen it.
“If the Definitive Agreement was signed by the minister responsible, then obviously it is going to be binding, because obviously it is the Government of Belize that signed, but I will not get into the back and forth between the two entities,” he said.
While the PM was reluctant to weigh in on the squabble between the two private companies, he confirmed that the Attorney General’s ministry will have to look into the matter and advise on the legality of the Definitive Agreement if it is found to be fraudulent.